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Some customers ask for an egg in the middle of their Rocket pizza at 800 Degrees Three Fires.

Topping usual toppings

Non-traditional offerings seen at local pizzerias

Matt Rogers, executive chef and general manager of 800 Degrees Three Fires and 800 Degrees Wood Fired Pizzas, cuts a Pomodoro pizza.
Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
A pizza bakes in one of the ovens that 800 Degrees Three Fires, 5215 Illinois Road, No. 101, is named for.
The Rocket pizza gets arugula added as the finishing touch. The pizza includes prosciutto and fontina cheese.

The days of pepperoni being everyone’s favorite pizza topping aren’t exactly gone, but the popularity of non-traditional toppings has skyrocketed over recent years.

Marco’s Pizza offers feta cheese. Domino’s offers Philly steak, spinach, feta, parmesan, Asiago and provolone. At locally owned pizzerias, B. Antonio’s offers macaroni and cheese and 800 Degrees goes green with arugula.

When the B. Antonio’s opened seven years ago, customers started to ask for a larger variety of toppings on the first day, owner Ben Nighswander says.

“Other than dough, sauce and cheese, (our pizzas are) nowhere near what they were when we first got started,” he says.

A recent menu change has introduced eyebrow-raising concoctions such as Mac and Cheese (made with cheese sauce, penne pasta, three cheeses and bread crumbs), Pulled Pork (made with barbecue sauce, pulled pork, onion, and two cheeses) and Philly Cheesesteak (ranch, roast beef, mushrooms, onions, green peppers and mozzarella). Sure, the pizzas are not as popular as that old standby, pepperoni, but they’re catching up to B. Antonio’s best-seller.

Part of the reason, Nighswander says, is that people are starting to expect premium ingredients. When his 2- and 4-year-olds get a Panera Bread kids meal, it’s not just turkey on a piece of bread.

“It’s a pretty interesting sandwich they get for a 2-year-old,” he says.

That translates into maybe being a little more adventurous with one’s pizza pies.

Sure, people start out apprehensive, but first-timers who have never had, say, the Pizza Bianca, which includes banana pepper rings (as well as olive oil, oregano, garlic salt and mozzarella), try it because a friend swears by it. They find out it’s delicious, and they pass on the message – thus, the cycle continues.

Though naturally, there are people who tell Nighswander, “You know, that looks really good, but there’s no way I would ever try something like that.”

Matt Rogers, executive chef and general manager of the two 800 Degrees locations in Fort Wayne, says the trend of non-traditional pizza toppings comes from the West Coast. He cites chef Wolfgang Puck and his smoked salmon pizza as one of the first non-traditional pizzas in the United States. According to Wolfgang Puck’s website, Pizza with Smoked Salmon and Caviar quickly became Spago’s signature dish when the restaurant opened in 1982. Instead of a traditional tomato sauce, it features a dill cream.

The trend came to the Midwest around 2004, Rogers says, when he saw different kinds of pizzas popping up in Chicago.

The most popular pizza at 800 Degrees is the 800 Degrees, which is a spicy sausage pizza, but there are some unusual pairings that are popular on the menu. The Rocket, for example, includes prosciutto, garlic and arugula, so when the pizza is served, it looks like someone misplaced the salad.

“You do have people who just don’t get it,” he says. “People say, ‘Ooo, why is there lettuce on top of pizza?’ People who have had it (and like it), they don’t stray from it.”

Folks will even ask the restaurant to add an egg to the pizza – the raw egg is cracked right in the center of the pie, Rogers says, before it is put in the oven.

It all begs the question: What is a pizza anymore? Has the definition changed?

When you think of a pizza, Nighswander says, you think of the Italian guy in New York that’s tossing his pizza dough, or you think of the Chicago pizza, a deep-dish pie that requires a fork and a knife.

“But it’s changing,” he says. “Pizzerias across the country are coming up with new ideas.”