Rather like grunge, fanny packs and Sharon Stone, Pizza Hut’s popularity appears to have peaked in 1995, the year it gifted the world stuffed-crust pies. At the time, the move was dubbed a revolution by the Hut, which is a pretty bold claim when all you’ve done is put cheese inside a pizza crust’s outer ring, but the move proved transformative. It was not the only successful 1995 invention to initially provoke confusion and skepticism. Amazon, eBay, Windows 95 and the Palm Pilot all begged questions like why do we need this? But only stuffed-crust pizza left us asking no seriously, why?
And while Big Pizza profited mightily during the pandemic — its chains turning huge profits by offering rock-bottom prices for, let’s face it, rock-bottom pizzas — a red-roofed, perpetual sadness seems to have descended upon the Hut. Much of what used to distinguish it is now long gone — the faux-Tiffany lamps, fanciful checkerboard vinyl tablecloths, faded carpet over-vacuumed by teenagers, lunch buffets in pre-sneeze-guard America's innocence. Meanwhile, competitors have taken aim at its proudest achievement, deepening the Pizza Rut. Last December, Papa John’s began offering its own stuffed crust. Last month, Little Caesar’s did the same.
None of the three stuffs the entire crust, of course, but rather the part Italians call the cornicione. Here in the U.S., it is known variously as 1) what you grab when pulling a slice from a pie, 2) what keeps you from having to use utensils , and 3) what keeps slices cool enough to handle when endeavoring to burn the roof of your mouth beyond recognition. It’s also made pizza considerably less messy, successfully preventing grease and sauce stains centuries before the invention of Scotchgard and Tide pens. I couldn’t help nodding along as a Little Caesar’s spokesperson called the cornicione "the most underappreciated part of the pizza."
Hence the company’s ExtraMostBestest stuffed-crust pizza ($10), which uses something resembling a three-foot, circular squirt of bathtub caulk that is instead lo-mo mozzarella mixed with bits of pepperoni. Or so I’ve heard. The Little Caesar’s pie I ordered arrived stuffed with cheese alone, unless there was pepperoni I could not detect, which is altogether likely, given how tasteless I found the forlorn discs scattered across my pizza’s surface. Indeed, it was the NewLeastTastiest pie I’ve had in some time.
Papa John’s scored better with its Epic Stuffed Crust ($12), which, true to the name, boasts a tube of cheese encased in dough whose surface tension approximates a road-ready bicycle tire. A fair amount of leopard spotting could be observed on the crust as well, the charred areas going a long way toward giving a PJ’s pie the appearance of, well, real pizza. Also, the pepperoni actually tasted like something.
My critical survey ended with a pilgrimage to the Hut. Their pioneering pie ($13.99) distinguished itself mainly by a post-baked crust painted with oil, giving it a luster/gleam/dust-free shine. The pie was cheesy but not too, and pepperoni peppered with flavor hints here and there.
Big Pizza, it must be said, remains one of fast food nation’s bargains, an important consideration in these inflationary times. Such pies, it must also be said, are inferior to most anything you’ll find at a good Island pizzeria. Do the chains themselves recognize this? That would explain, if nothing else, the increasing focus on menu items regular pizzerias can’t or won’t bother with, and the bet that a little cheese stuffing will be enough to lure pizza lovers away from their local haunts. What crust, right?