Throughout my years on this planet, I’ve yet to run into someone who says they don’t like pizza, and if I did I would definitely wonder a few things about them. Like one: What type of traumatic life experience did they encounter that made their brain consider pizza not good?
And two: What is it about pizza they don’t like? Is it the sauce--which, when correctly made contains both sweet and savory flavors that work off each other like ballroom dancers--or is it the cheese that serves as the chief ingredient and sets the whole tone of what the pie will taste like?
And you can’t forget about the crust. Being light years away from regular bread in terms of texture and taste, it serves as the perfect meeting place for the rest of the ingredients to gather and present themselves to your palette.
Now everyone has their favorite pizza place and 95 percent of the time it’s not a chain. Let’s face it, the best pizza in the U.S. comes from those family-owned restaurants where recipes were passed down since the invention of cooking.
Many of these places are low on décor and extremely high on taste and couldn’t care less about delivering your pizza in 30 minutes or less. In fact, some of the better pizza places don’t deliver at all. For these kinds of establishments the slices are so good they practically dare you not to travel the necessary distance to be in pizza pie heaven.
Convenience trumps taste
But sometimes we bypass the artisan pizza maker for the franchise pizza maker.
Maybe it’s because we saw a TV ad that offers a bunch of pizzas for $10, which seems to be the norm nowadays, and we just couldn’t resist the bargain. Or maybe we have small children and the flavors of the fancier pizzas are still beyond their young palettes, so they want something more fast-food tasting.
Or possibly you go the franchise route because getting fast delivery is important to you. Because if there’s one thing a lot of chains are able to do, it’s getting your pizza out of the oven and through your door in a quick fashion.
But which franchise chain has the best pizza despite the conveyor belt method many of them use to make it?
To get some answers to this plaguing question, I compared slices from the three major U.S. pizza chains that most residents order from when they don’t order from their local mom and pop place. Of course there are others, but the big three pizza chains in this country are Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Papa Johns.
Now in order to properly determine which was the best, it was imperative for me to first establish the criteria, as opposed to which slice I thought was simply the best. Because any type of comparison or ranking system is only as good as the benchmarks you set for it.
So for this taste test, the rules were quite simple. Which slice tasted the least slapped together in terms of not having a freezer or stale taste to it? Also, which pie had a sauce that tasted like actual tomatoes and not something that was only called sauce because of its color and thickness?
Furthermore, which slice contained the tastiest cheese that didn’t taste like a mound of salt or something that was just thawed out and sprinkled on your pie before it was cooked? And lastly which pie had the best separation of flavors? Because the sauce, cheese and crust should represent their own areas of tastes that perfectly come together upon the first bite, chew and swallow.
And because I only wanted to taste the pizza itself without any extras, I stuck with three cheese pies that were free of toppings so I could really taste the cheese, sauce and crust by themselves. I also went with regular styled crust for all three pizzas, which some chains call hand tossed.
First up, Papa Johns
Personally I never had a preference towards any pizza chain, because living in New York City for so many years and having access to so many wonderful pizza places, I never wanted to order from a chain. So basically, I didn’t have an opinion about any of the three restaurants before I tested them.
I noticed right away that the Papa John’s slice was better than I expected. I’ve eaten from this restaurant before, but it was a long time ago, and this time the flavor of the cheese was the first thing that stood out to me.
The cheese wasn’t over-the-top-tasty or anything, but it did taste like actual cheese and not the cardboard box that surrounded it, which is sometimes the case with franchise chain pizza.
In addition, the sauce wasn’t anything spectacular but it was decent. I would compare the sauce to a moderately priced marinara that you would purchase in a jar at the supermarket.
However there wasn’t a tangy or rich tomato flavor to the sauce and its taste didn’t jump out at me or really convince me that a lot of thought was put into making it.
The crust? It was substantial but not too heavy, and out of the three pizzas I tested, the texture of the bread was closest to New York style pizza, which tends to be more chewy than soft.
The overall separation of flavors was also pretty good, as the slice didn’t taste like a rubbery clump of salty bread. It was overpowered by the cheese a little bit, so the restaurant could have done a better job with balancing out all of the ingredients.
Domino at bat
Next it was Domino’s turn to win over the pizza snob living inside of me.
Over the past couple of years Domino’s has gone on an advertising blitz to show not only how much its pizza has improved, but also how notoriously bad it used to be.
I must say, the improvements were spot on, and right away I noticed how seasoned the pizza tasted. It was almost like I already sprinkled my garlic powder and parmesan cheese on the slice.
It’s obvious that the company wanted to make a bold change to the old flavors of the pizza by giving it a parmesan flavored crust and a slightly peppery taste that balanced well with the saltiness of the cheese.
The sauce was a little more tangy and noticeable than Papa John’s sauce--which to me was ironic, because a few years ago Papa John’s would have creamed Domino’s in the area of zest and fresher taste.
Although the size of Domino’s crust was more or less the same as Papa John’s and Pizza Hut, it didn’t taste as dense and didn’t overpower the slice like many crusts do. Also, there was somewhat of airiness to the crust, which would allow one to eat more slices and not be weighed down by the heaviness of the bread.
I was able to taste the sauce pretty well too, which is the entire point of sauce.
Since the marinara provides the sole bit of moisture to the dry slice, it needs to contain bold flavors and serve as the neutralizer between the stiffness of the crust and the saltiness of the cheese. The Domino’s sauce was good and although it didn’t taste absolutely fresh, it did add to the slice more than it took away from it.
Pizza Hut's crust
Last to saunter into the batter’s box was Pizza Hut, which slices seem to be all about crust, crust and more crust.
It seems like the chain makes the crust the main feature since it's the most flavorable part of the slice. The bread seems to be baked in butter or some sort of butter flavor because that’s the main thing you taste when biting into a Pizza Hut slice.
As for the cheese, it didn’t have too much of a taste and seemed to be included for texture purposes rather than flavor, and there was just too much of it on the slice for my liking.
Obviously people like different proportions of sauce and cheese on their slice, and I know it was only a cheese pizza with no toppings, but the cheese on a pizza should still be melted into the pie, and not sit on top of it like it’s doing some sort of hovering trick.
The thick and tasteless dairy only took away from an already bland sauce and overly buttery crust.
So which pizza took the prize?
Domino’s by far, which is kind of an upset, because the company would have been last a few years ago. But thanks to the company's noticeable improvements it really gave the pizza a much needed boost in taste.
Also, Domino’s had the best tasting and freshest sauce, although we all know it’s far from fresh.
It also had the tastiest cheese that was evenly distributed throughout the pie, and Domino’s had the best crust too, which was the only three of the crusts that was actually flavored and seemingly brushed or seasoned with some sort of parmesan and garlic flavor.
Price-wise, Domino’s was most expensive at about $16 for a large pie, and it’s the only restaurant that didn’t offer a special coupon or promotion for pick-up or delivery service.
But all and all, none of the pizzas were horrible, because as they say, even bad pizza is still kind of good, and none of the three chains I tested would come even close to mom and pop places that have mastered the art of making a delicious pie.
But when you’re looking for quick delivery or for some reason you just spontaneously want chain pizza over anything else, Domino’s seems to be the way to go.
Of course very few things are as subjective as a person’s pizza preferences, but the fact that Domino’s seems to be the only chain that’s says its pizza needed improvements says something about the company.
The other two chains haven’t taken that approach, which could mean they both think their pizzas are perfect, which they are definitely not.