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Slicing Up the Best Pizza Values

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How to Save on PizzaAs the scion of Italian parents, I'd like to think that I know just about everything there is to know about pizza. I even have ancestors on my dad's side from sunny Naples, the Glorious Birthplace of Pizza Pie. But as the scion of Italian parents -- you know, the kind who think that the louder you yell, the more right you are -- I'm also opinionated about pizza. Make that over-opinionated, like the way Packers fans are about Bears fans, or how Ann Coulter feels about ponytailed guys in sandals with liberal leanings.

For starters, pan pizza to me isn't the real thing. (Nothing invented by a non-Italian Texan, no matter how nice a guy he was, could qualify.) And for that matter, finding a good slice of authentic, thin-crust pizza in Chicago is like hunting down a manager who can take the Cubs to the World Series.
But if there's a hole in my pizza-loving soul, a deficit in my knowledge more sad than watching the last slice disappear from a to-go box, it's this: Where can you find the best value pizza-wise?

You see, as a molto fame Italiano I think with my stomach, so I've never taken much time to think about the "value" of pizza. Put the right toppings on that baby, and I might just empty my wallet to fill my tummy.

Ah, but he who finds a way to save lives to eat another day, right? And so, hoping to make some fine distinctions between delivery, frozen and homemade pizza -- and sink my teeth into a winner that tastes great and leaves my bank account stuffed, too -- it's time embark on another episode Savings Experiment.

THAWING OUT THE FROZEN PIZZA CONTENDERS
I know I'm not the only who loves his cheese and crust, but I was shocked to learn that Americans spend almost $40 billion a year on pizza ($39.8 billion, give or take a few anchovies). That adds up to dozens of brands just in the supermarket freezer section, which sell at the rate of $2.5 billion annually. To break it down in terms of flavor and value, the folks at the Good Housekeeping Research Institute tested 14 brands of frozen pizza; six veggie and eight pepperoni. Here are some highlights from their baking and note taking.

First, the veggies:

Third place: DiGiorno Crispy Flatbread Pizza Mushroom Medley ($6.89, 13 oz., serves 3). The mushroom lovers in the test group loved this pizza's mix of cracker crust and fresh mushroom taste

Second place: American Flatbread Sun-dried Tomato and Mushroom Pizza ($12, 16.2 oz., serves three). Boasts a light, crunchy crust and a good blend of spices.

And the winner? Whole Foods' 365 Mediterranean Pizza ($5, 13.5 oz., serves three). The combination of feta cheese, spinach and kalamata olives drew raves from tasters, who praised the "perfect balance of sauce and toppings" and "great veggie combo."

As for the loser, it was Frontera Roasted Vegetable Monterey Jack and Poblano Pizza ($7, 12.5 oz., serves 3). Despite its crisp crust and spicy taste, the lack of veggies did not thrill the Good Housekeeping taste-testers.

Now, for the pepperoni lovers:

Freschetta Brick Oven Pepperoni Pizza ($6.80, 21.75 oz., serves four). Can you really taste the four cheeses? The testers said they could, and that the "rich tomato flavor" enhanced the "pizzeria taste." No wonder it tied for first place with our next brand.

Red Baron Fire Baked Pepperoni Pizza ($5.60, 19.86 oz., serves four). Described as "spicy," "smoky" and "peppery," this pie wowed the panel, who also saluted its "puffy crust," "crisp bottom" and abundance of cheese. This isn't pizza, folks, it's love.

Microwave pizzas simply didn't fare as well in the judging. The South Beach Living Pepperoni Pizza ($3.50, 6.3 oz, serves one) might as well seek exile in South Antarctica, given its bland cheese, non-descript pepperoni and mushy crust. It's not even that healthy, either, at 350 calories and 4.5 g of saturated fat per serving.

According to consumerobsession.com, the top 10 frozen pizzas sales-wise are:
1) DiGiorno
2) Red Baron
3) Tombstone
4) Freschetta
5) Private Label
6) Totino's Pizza Party
7) California Pizza Kitchen
8) Tony's
9) Stouffer's
10) Jack's


DOES FROZEN PIZZA DELIVER LIKE DELIVERY?
DiGiorno, Red Baron and Freschetta all fared well in the Good Housekeeping taste test, which may explain in part why all three brands rank high in sales. But is the best frozen pizza able to stand up to, say, a solid, but not superlative, pizzeria pie?

It's hard to beat a piping-hot pizza from your local establishment. A serious pizzeria has ovens specially equipped to do the job right, perhaps even wood-burning or coal-fired stoves (the latter a distinguishing characteristic of Lombardi's in New York, the nation's oldest pizzeria). Here, let your taste buds be your guide: Paying a bit more for a delivered or take-out pizza makes sense if the results make your mouth water. In my experience, chain pizzerias such as Pizza Hut, Little Caesars and Papa John's aren't going to do nearly as good a job as a trusted local joint -- but since it's a matter of taste, let your appetite and cravings guide you here. Most of all, make sure you get you're paying extra for: a pizza experience you simply can't have by popping a frozen slab in the oven.

A good in-between alternative: the fresh take-and-bake pizzas at Costco, which come in margherita, Hawaiian and pepperoni. At 16 inches, they're a bit bulky to fit in the fridge, but they're not frozen and cook up well if you use a pizza stone. These pies may not be hand-tossed by moustachioed chefs, but they still allow you to find a nice middle ground between the frozen-food section and pizzeria experience.

BAKING YOUR OWN: PIZZA AT HOME
But suppose you want to make your own pizza at home? Is it complicated? Come on: At its most basic, pizza is dough, cheese and sauce. Actually, you don't even have to worry about the dough; Boboli pizza shells have satisfying heft and take care of the hardest part of making a quick-and-dirty pizza in your kitchen. Or, buy a batch of supermarket dough for about $4.50; combine that with a $3 jar of pasta sauce and a $3.50 package of shredded cheese, and you;re all set. By the way, don't don't don't skimp on the sauce. Ragu or Prego won't stack up to a higher-quality brand such as Classico (which, by the way, comes in so many varieties that you can use them to augment your toppings). Better yet, treat yourself to a jar of premium pasta sauce -- which, while it may cost more, will yield an even better pie. Sneaky modification: Ask for a to-go cup of sauce from your favorite Italian restaurant next time you eat out. You'll likely get it gratis, and can save the spoils for that next pizza cookoff.

Of course, you can also get culinary by adding intriguing toppings or making your own dough and sauce. We'll get into that in a moment. But first, we thought we'd put our money where our mouths are (stuffed soon with pizza, we hope) and share some tips for DIY pizza success.

First, we found this video at our sister site Kitchen Daily for how to make pizza dough. Next, a recipe for making pizza dough at home. Though it takes patience to stretch and knead the dough to fill a pan, the beauty of making pizza dough is that you don't need any special equipment.

The dough:
1 1/4 oz. envelope of active dry yeast, (or 2 1/4 Tsp)
1 1/2 cups warm water (110°F - 115°F)
4 cups of bread flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp. sugar
Extra flour
Extra olive oil

The process:
Pour the warm water in a large mixing bowl, then add the sugar and dissolve it. Next, dissolve the yeast by stirring continuously after addition. Allow the mixture to settle down for 10 minutes, or extra so that the yeast becomes active.

Now add the yeast and olive oil, when the appearance of the mixture becomes foamy and cloudy at the surface. Dissolve it continuous stirring. Then add 3 cups of flour to the mixture one-by-one and whisk in until dissolved completely. Make sure the mixture is completely smooth. Use your hands to combine the dough until all of the dry flour has moistened into a mass.

When the flour has absorbed all of the moisture and congealed into a firm mass, remove it from the bowl to a floured tabletop to knead it. Fold it in half again and push it into itself, again and again for perhaps 10 to 12 minutes or so, or about 200 cycles. It is very important that the dough is very well kneaded.

After kneading is complete, when dough transforms into a silky, smoothly-textured ball, coat the dough ball with a thin layer of olive oil. After that place it in the bottom of a large mixing bowl that has also been coated on the inside with olive oil.

Pizza dough's great, but what's dough without sauce?

The sauce:
3 tbsp. butter
16 oz. can of tomato puree
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 tsp. salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. black pepper
3 large yellow onions, minced
1 tsp. whole oregano
2 quarts. canned whole Italian tomatoes
1 tsp. whole basil

Melt the butter with olive oil in an oven or large skillet. Slowly but completely sauté the garlic and onion. Then add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, oregano, basil and puree. Boil it. Cover the mixture and let it bubble for two hours. In between, stir it occasionally. Crush the tomatoes with the masher. Continue the process till the sauce reaches the consistency of a soup.
Set the sauce aside to cool before applying it to your pizza dough, or, or refrigerate it for use in the future. Ladle about 7 to 8 oz. of pizza sauce into the middle, bottom of the dough shell. Spread the sauce evenly over the surface of the dough sheet. Spoon the sauce out to the edge of the dough sheet.

Some final words on making pizza in your kitchen: Get your oven nice and hot, fully preheated to 350 degrees. The sad fact is that our kitchen ovens can't do the same job as top-flight gear in pro pizza kitchens. But if you buy a pizza stone, the firebrick composition of the cooking slab can recreate some of that crispy texture and gentle charring to recreate that authentic pizzeria experience. Some folks will pay up to $100 or more for fancy pizza stone, but the Old Stone model offered at amazon.com should do the job just fine for under $40. Think of it: For the price of two large, loaded takeout pies, you can be living large as a pizza chef to be reckoned with.

A SLICE FOR YOU, A SLICE FOR ME: PIZZA SAVINGS SECRETS IN REVIEW
With this Savings Experiment, I'm not going to declare a tie so much as declare that the option you choose -- frozen, takeout or homemade -- will be influenced by these key factors:
  • With delivery, a medium pizza will cost about $11, $1.50 or so for toppings, not to mention tip. Average delivery time is about 30 minutes, and you're guaranteed a fresh pie. Frozen pizzas are faster and a few bucks cheaper, but you simply won't get that fresh delivery pizza taste.
  • Going the homemade route lets you build a pizza exactly the way you like it. Using prepared ingredients will save you some money, though putting everything together can take some time.
  • Nothing quite matches that pizza parlor taste, but frozen pizzas have an edge in convenience and cost. For a little extra fun and creativity, making your own pizza is worth a try. And if for some reason you get tired of eating delivered pizza, you can always try other takeout options.

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