Domino's Mea Culpa and America's Pizza Passions

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Daniel Acker / Bloomberg / Getty

An employee prepares customer orders inside a Domino's Pizza franchise on 89th Street in New York.

Pizza eaters — which is to say, the entire U.S. population — were recently treated to a strangely satisfying spectacle when Domino's admitted, once and for all, that they actually made really crappy pizza. To atone for their sins, they announced, they redesigned their pies "from the crust up." The not-to-be-missed mea culpa video features ashen-faced executives responding like Soviet show-trial prisoners to customer complaints, which run along the lines of "totally void of flavor," "tastes like cardboard" and "the worst excuse for pizza I ever had."

"When you first hear it, it's shocking," says one hurt-looking corporate chef.

But is it really shocking? Even Domino's spokesman Tim McIntyre admits that the company was never primarily concerned with flavor. "Our core strength for 50 years is delivery convenience," he told me. And it's not as if a subpar product was doing that much damage to its business; the chain is still firmly entrenched as the No. 2 pizza source in the world (behind Pizza Hut). The fact is that the Domino's reboot isn't that great. I just had one. It's slightly softer and greasier now, in an enjoyable way. Whatever. The point is not the taste itself but the fact that Domino's actually cares what its pizzas taste like.

Domino's won't say why exactly they took this dramatic step, but I suspect that the company realized they needed to pre-empt rivals scrambling to supplant them as America's worst-case dinner option. "The competition is incredibly fierce," McIntyre says. "We saw that consumers' tastes changed, that they do evolve, that there's more competition."

Have they ever. In truly pizza-crazed cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago, fanatical artisans vie with one another to see who can be most slavishly faithful to the principles of Vera Pizza Napoletana, the final word in pizza purity. But even in less food-obsessed American cities, various brick-oven restaurants compete for the approval of a fickle, pizza-geek public that looks closely at everything from the sourcing of the fior de latte to the presence of "tip sag" issues with the crust. A recent post at Slice, the king of pizza blogs, states, "The crust at Patsy's is so thin that light passes through it. It is soft, the cornicione has an airy inner core. But it was not blistered in the least on my most recent visit.") Even frozen pizza is trying to be better. Pizzeria Romana, with its San Marzano DOP tomatoes and lovingly fermented dough, is better than conventional delivery pie. The famous line about pizza — that, like sex, even when it's bad it's still pretty good — is now as manifestly untrue about pizza as it is about sex.

This is a radical shift in the fast-food world, where change is usually very slow to come. Fast-food hamburgers by and large are the same tasteless gray pucks now as they were during the Ford Administration; they just have better commercials and more toppings. Hot dogs are still exactly the same as they were during the Korean War. Nor has gnarly, underseasoned and overcrusted fried chicken improved much. But pizza is growing and breathing; it seems to have a special place in America. Maybe it's because pizza's the most domesticated of all our dishes, meant to be eaten at home. (Domino's, Papa John's and the other delivery outfits don't even have tables in their stores.)

Historically, the fact that pizza was cheap and convenient frequently overshadowed how bad it was. But in the same way that you can't ever look at a Quarter Pounder quite the same way after you've eaten a Shake Shack burger in New York, or Taco Bell after you've had the real thing in East L.A., even brief exposure to good pizza ruins you for the likes of Domino's or Pizza Hut. There's a night-and-day technical difference between the crisp but pliable, barely yielding quality of fresh pizza crust, especially with the telltale little scorch marks that come from passing through a real oven, and the Wonder-bread-like dough of its assembly-line rivals. As someone who grew up in Atlantic City, N.J., no pizza mecca, I still love the traditional "low-moisture" (i.e., greasy) mozzarella we all remember, the kind that forms an appetizingly orange compound as it merges with the sauce. I couldn't care less what toppings the city fathers of Naples think are canonical. But after eating good pizza — acidic sauce, unwaxy cheese, unwaffly dough — I just can't go back.

Companies like Domino's have usually defended themselves against criticism by dismissing it as localized and élitist, the self-serving yelps of New Yorkers and New Havenites who think they alone can make good pizza. But take a look at Alan Richman's recent roundup of the top pizzas in America in GQ. New York and Chicago are represented, but so are Detroit, Phoenix, Boston, Providence, R.I., and Port Chester, N.Y. — hardly bastions of food-snob chauvinism.

The truth is that it's just too easy to make good pizza to not even try. You don't need a special wood or coal oven; you don't need buffalo mozzarella; you don't even need fresh produce. You need flour and salt and good canned tomatoes, and Grande mozzarella from Wisconsin. Put those four things together, and you have the makings of a pizza that will please anyone. Domino's still doesn't get that — their new pie is a Franken-pizza of different cheeses, garlic-, salt- and butter-drenched crust and pepper-spiked sauce. But the fact that they bothered to make it at all shows that, in pizza as in politics, Americans have a persistent urge for progress, even of the crudest kind.

Ozersky is a James Beard Award–winning food writer and the author of The Hamburger: A History. You can listen to his weekly show at the Heritage Radio Network and read his column on home cooking at Rachael Ray's website. He is currently at work on a biography of Colonel Sanders.