Home Plate

March 5, 2012

Home Plate

Local Specialties Have Place on Menu Next to Pizza

Pizza gets about 20 requests a day at its Bismarck and Mandan, North Dakota, restaurants for a pie topped with sauerkraut, usually combined with Italian sausage or Canadian bacon. It’s an item that probably wouldn’t sell as well in a location lacking the strong German-American culinary heritage of the Midwest.

Yet pizzerias in other areas of the country where diners have distinctive palates are finding their own ways to incorporate a little local flavor into their menus. Offering a special ingredient or dish that’s a favorite with the home crowd — and tempting to curious tourists — can help your restaurant stand apart from its competition.

“Offering those regional preferences within your menu gives your audience a reason to use your restaurant versus a chain restaurant that may not understand the consumer as well,” says Darren Tristano, executive vice president of the Chicago-based food industry research firm Technomic, Inc.Tristano says independent pizzerias can usually experiment more successfully than chains with ideas like regional cuisine.

One reason is that they can adapt more quickly to the feedback they get from customers about their preferences.

A pizza with pepperoni, onions and green peppers sounds traditional enough, but on the New Mexican, a signature pie at Backroad Pizza in Santa Fe, the peppers are not the usual sweet variety, but a hot green chili indigenous to the state.

The New Mexican is the biggest seller at Backroad Pizza, making up roughly 35 percent of total orders, says the restaurant’s owner, Piper Kapin. “It’s definitely a mainstay for locals,” she says. “You can also build your own pizzas here, and locals always throw green chilies on everything.”

Saints football players number among the fans of the barbecue shrimp po‘ boy sandwich at New Orleans’ Slice Pizzeria, says co-owner Warren Chapoton. The restaurant also serves a shrimp and andouille pizza, marrying Gulf shrimp from a local supplier and andouille sausage from a local producer with a sprinkling of corn and caramelized onions. The addition of corn is a tribute to a Native American-inspired Cajun dish called corn maque choux, Chapoton says.

Slice periodically runs specials –– such as spring dishes featuring crawfish when the mudbugs are in season — that it promotes on chalkboards outside its two locations on St. Charles Avenue and Magazine Street. It’s an approach Tristano says many pizzerias use to try a local twist before committing it to their regular menus.

“They don’t keep them on the menu, per se, all the time, but they are available either on a weekly or monthly basis, rotating the menu, or just in a specialty gourmet section,” Tristano says.

When you discover that a particular item or flavor is a big hit, you can experiment with more ways to serve it up. That’s what Backroad Pizza did when it expanded the role of its green chilies from pizza topping to sandwich seasoning. About five years ago, the restaurant added an open-faced chicken sub with a green chili aioli to a menu that already offered meatball and hot Italian subs. “I knew that green chili would sell, and it’s great with chicken,” Kapin says.

The white clam pizza at Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana, which has several Connecticut locations, was first inspired by another popular dish at the restaurant.

“The clam pie had its origins out of the fact that we had already on our menu raw clams on the half shell, which were offered as an appetizer,” says Francis Rosselli, one of the seven grandchildren of founders Frank and Philomena Pepe who now jointly own and operate the business. “It was a very common food back in the 1930s and ’40s.”

Pepe’s stopped serving raw clams in the early 1970s amid concerns about their safety, Rosselli says. When weather conditions make the fresh clam supply scarce, the restaurant offers shrimp as an alternate topping.

“The clams are shucked daily in our locations,” Rosselli says. “The shrimp have a little bit longer shelf life, maybe two or three days.”

A local delicacy can turn into a national phenomenon with an endorsement from an influential media outlet or food critic. Rosselli credits the Roadfood reviews of food writers Jane and Michael Stern with the popularity of his clam pizza, and the New Mexican has given Backroad Pizza a taste of fame, too. “We were on (the Food Network program) ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives’ a couple of years ago, and that was the pizza that Guy Fieri went crazy for,” Kapin says.

Once you know your customers crave a taste of home, you might consider taking your deviation from traditional Italian pizzeria fare even further. A&B Pizza serves a German-style sandwich called a fleishkuecle, made from ground pork, ground beef and spices wrapped in dough and deep fried. Owner Curt Barth says the restaurant sells a couple hundred fleishkuecles a week.

“We don’t really advertise it or market it,” Barth says. “It’s just been on our menu, and we’ve been around so long that everyone — at least the locals — pretty much knows about it. We do have visitors from out of state who see the menu and wonder what it is.

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