By Mike Thayer
Pizza - Perhaps the greatest food invention ever and I don't know about you, but I don't know anybody that does NOT like pizza.....
So who makes the best of the cheap frozen variety? How will your preferred brand stack up?
I like pepperoni, it's my go-to for a pizza topping and my favorite pizza combo is a thin crust, pepperoni, mushroom, onion, with extra cheese. You won't find that combo in grocery stores, so with that in mind, part of this review/evaluation of pizzas is the ability to doctor it, as in add your favorite ingredients. Lord knows the bargain basement brands don't exactly get crazy with copious amounts of meat and cheese. A lot of folks 'doctor' pizzas before placement in the oven and I'm here to assist with that. No, that doesn't mean I'm a pizza nurse... Don't go there.....
In conducting this frozen pizza challenge, all pizzas were baked per package instruction, direct on the oven rack. All pizzas were doctored with my favorite add-on ingredients, the aforementioned mushrooms, onion and extra mozzarella cheese. Cooking time was added as needed due to the add-ons, short of burning the outer crust. And before getting into the rankings from worst to best, let me give a brief definition of pepperoni.... Good pepperoni is made with pork as the primary ingredient, sometimes a pork/beef combo, but NEVER is chicken part of a GOOD pepperoni recipe. Cheap pepperoni is always greasier because lower quality cuts of meat, a.k.a., scraps are used and the fat content is much higher than a quality pepperoni, hence that greasiness. Most importantly, the taste is different in the cheaper pepperoni recipes that include chicken, such pepperoni just flat out isn't as tasty. Most of the cheaper stuff lacks the spice, it's on the bland side.
I evaluated 11 frozen pizza brands during the course of this challenge. Pricing was in the bargain range, all pizzas purchased were under $6. Also considered in evaluating these pizza makers was pizza weight, baking time, the ability of the crust to handle added ingredients and most importantly, TASTE! Here they are, listed from worst to best....
A pizza that gives frozen pizza a bad name
Number 11 - Tombstone: This was one of the first pizzas evaluated and without question THE worst! This is NOT a good pizza. The portion of pepperoni is close to the picture on the packaging but it's cheap pepperoni, greasier than a good pepperoni. After baking, there was an excess of greasy pooling in the middle of the pizza. The cheese was OK in portion but you could really tell the difference between that and the quality extra mozzarella I put on. The sauce amounted to spicy ketchup. The crust, and here is where Tombstone really fails, is cardboard - the very thing that gives frozen pizza a bad name. It's bland and does NOT hold up to adding extra ingredients, 'doctoring' the pizza. You sometimes have a bake a 'doctored' pizza longer than package instructions due to that added bulk, but because this crust is SO cardboard, an extra four minutes of baking time meant outer edge over-baked, middle underside of the crust under-baked. Picking up individual slices resulted in the droops. The Tombstone Pepperoni Pizza cost $3.99 and weighed in at 20.6 ounces. It was definitely friendly on the wallet and the size was good, but when it came to the taste buds..... Not so much. When you see a 3 Tombstone pizzas for $10 deal, don't grab any.
Totino's out of the package, sparse on fake pepperoni
Number 10 - Totino's: This is a fine pizza..... For a kid...... Most kids don't have a sophisticated pallet and the bland ingredients in this pizza is a kid crowd 'pleaser' for that reason (I'm assuming). The little cubes of pepperoni (not real pepperoni by the way, not even close) I appreciated as a kid doesn't measure up on adult taste buds. And why little cubes anyway? The sauce is just water and tomato paste which the company calls 'tomato puree' on the ingredient label. There's NO zest to that sauce.... And about the cheese... It's also imitation, the main ingredients being palm oil and potato starch. It's gummy. The crust is where Totino's saves a little grace... It's not cardboard, it's actually a bit flaky and by design. Unlike other bargain brand pizza makers, the Totino's process aerates the dough (hence the holes in the underside). It's not an overly flavorful crust, but at least it's got a bit of flakiness to it. This crust held up to my added ingredient doctoring, I only had to add two extra minutes to the recommended baking time. The crust edges were not over baked and the middle underside was baked through. The Totino's Party Pizza was friendly on the wallet costing just $1.12, but you get what you pay for, small pizzas - 10.2 ounces - that don't have a lot of flavor and gummy cheese. The saving grace, at least it wasn't like eating spicy ketchup on cardboard (Tombstone).
Great Value (Walmart) Pizza - Out of the box
Number 9 - Great Value: It's not a great value. In a quick look/see of the box, the mozzarella is made with whole milk, that was a good sign, but everything about this pizza is bland and the crust is cardboard. The fake pepperoni had no zest, the sauce didn't carry any classic garlic, onion or oregano notes, the cheese wasn't bad but that crust was an epic fail. It had no flavor and it failed to hold up to the added ingredients. With two extra minutes applied to the normal baking time due to my added ingredients, the outer edge was over baked and the middle underside was under done. Had I left the pizza in longer, the outer crust would have burned. Great Value can't handle doctoring and boy does this pizza need the help! This pizza is NOT a repeat buy. Everything about the pizza as boxed, is bland. This pizza cost me just $2.78, which is on the lower end end of the bargain pizza price scale and it weighed in at 16.35 ounces.
Overpriced pizza and THE worst crust!
Number 8 - DiGiorno: This is the #1 frozen pizza maker on the sales chart. My DiGiorno Original Thin Crust Pepperoni cost me $5.49 and weighed in at 22.1 ounces. That price is on the higher end of 'bargain' pizzas but it's also one of the larger pizzas of the bargain brands. The first thing I notice is that DiGiorno uses the same not real pepperoni as the cheaper brands that includes chicken as an ingredient. It's listed plainly on the outside of the box. Strike one. So how was the pizza? The crust is a giant cracker, yes, the kind of crust that gives frozen pizza a bad name. Strike Two. The crust was almost too hard to bite into, had no flavor whatsoever and while it did hold up to the adding of extra ingredients - four extra minutes of baking time - it was indeed the stereotypical cardboard frozen pizza crust. For $5.49, I expected far better. About the only saving grace on this pizza was the cheese (and my added ingredients), a generous portion of real cheese. The sauce was unremarkable, Strike Three. Considering DiGiorno is on the higher end of pricing in the bargain brand range, you have to wonder how they got to be #1 in sales. It wasn't because of their thin crust pizza. THE worst crust. Kudos to their marketing department and perhaps their "Rising Crust" versions of pizza, but the original thin crust is NOT a repeat buy.
Number 7 - California Pizza Kitchen: I've never had one of these before and at the first look see they actually use REAL pepperoni! Bonus points! For a pizza priced in the bargain range - under $6, this is not normal. I purchased my California Pizza Kitchen pizza for $5.49 and it weighed in at 13.6 ounces, UNDER the typical weight range of 16 - 20 ounces for a bargain priced pizza. Must be the California thing, right? So how was it? Very good, but not great. Without question, California Pizza Kitchen uses quality ingredients, real pepperoni, real cheese, the pizza has a sauce with some kick and a crust that does justice to the layers of flavor plus my added ingredients. I only had to add two minutes to the baking time and that crust still came out perfect, light and flaky with every bite from outer edge to the middle point.... But here's what is wrong with the California Pizza Kitchen approach. They strayed from a classic pepperoni taste. With all those excellent fresh ingredients they have on hand, they could have made an OUTSTANDING classic pepperoni pizza. But they went, well, California with it..... That's a mistake in my book, they could trounce on competitors going classic...... But I digress.... Back to the point, I don't want an overabundance of smoked Gouda cheese mixed with my mozzarella, I don't want an overkill of basil in the sauce. The pepperoni was excellent, the crust was top notch, the sauce had some kick, but the Gouda and basil was flat out too much! Do I buy this pizza again? No. Despite the quality ingredients, I don't like the California Pizza Kitchen approach.
Does this crust hold up to 'doctoring?'
Number 6 - Red Baron: This a go-to brand for a lot of folks, second only to DiGiorno in sales. My Red Baron Pepperoni on a 'Thin & Crispy' Crust cost $3.49 for a pizza weighing in at 15.77 ounces. That comes in under the typical size/weight range, traditional frozen pizza heft is usually between 16 and 20 ounces. Must be the thin crust, right? So how was the pizza? This is a good but not great pizza. The pepperoni, not authentic pepperoni... Red Baron uses pepperoni using beef, pork and chicken (chicken?), but that's not unexpected in a pizza that costs under $5. The cheese contains real cheese and the sauce is actually pretty decent. You can taste the onion, garlic and other spices. The crust, at first glance, didn't look like it was going to hold up to the added ingredient doctoring, but it did. I had to add four minutes to the baking time, but it didn't come out with overdone outer edges or an underdone middle underside. It looked underdone, but it wasn't and it didn't taste like cardboard. Overall, not a bad pizza bite. The Red Baron Thin & Crispy Crust Pepperoni Pizza was friendly on the wallet and not bad on the taste buds. For under $5, not a bad pizza, but doctoring is a must.
Kirkland (Costco) Pepperoni Pizza
Number 5 - Kirkland: If you're not familiar with Kirkland, it's the house brand for Costco. I included them in this challenge because check out this price..... I picked up a box of four pepperoni pizzas for just $11.99, or $3 per pizza at 19.2 ounces each. That's about as bargain priced as you can get. If you need to feed a mob of people, here you go.... So how was the pizza? It was a good start to the pizza challenge, the first pizza sampled. The portion of pepperoni - and it's a good pepperoni - after a bit of adjustment (shifting during shipping) was as generous as pictured on the box, no false marketing there. The cheese was also in good portion and melted nicely. The sauce was a bit on the sweet side but not bad in combination with the other ingredients. The crust, while a tad bland (could have used some garlic butter), held up to the addition of other ingredients. Sometimes when doctoring a frozen pizza, the crust doesn't hold up. Not uncommon with the bargain brands, the crust edges will over-bake in the time allotted while the middle comes out under-baked. Not so with this pizza. It handled the addition of mushrooms, onion and extra cheese no problem. I baked the pizza directly on the oven rack, per the box instructions, no extra baking time required. The Kirkland Thin Crust Pepperoni Pizza was definitely friendly on the wallet and nice on the taste buds.
This pizza exceeded expectations
Number 4 - Jack's: Jack's has been a maker of frozen pizza since 1960. In a quick review of the ingredients listed on the box, my expectations are - "eh." Pepperoni made from pork, chicken, and beef, a.k.a., not real pepperoni. The cheese, while supporting Wisconsin Dairy Farmers, uses skim milk to make the mozzarella which means good, but not great. The sauce, well, details below.... I purchased my Jack's Original Thin Crust Pepperoni Pizza for $3.34 and it weighed in at 15.4 ounces, just under the normal weight range of bargain brand pizzas of 16 ounces and up. So how was it? I have to admit, based on the reading of the packaging, my expectations were not very high going into this review. I expected the typical cardboard crust, the spicy ketchup flavored sauce and just an overall bland pizza bite experience but this pizza, is actually, pleasantly good. The pepperoni portion is decent and even though not authentic pepperoni had good flavor and wasn't too greasy. The sauce was nice, not too sweet and the cheese was of good portion and melted nicely. The crust, as I stated, was not cardboard. I did have to bake the pizza an extra two minutes with the added ingredients in mind, the edges were baked perfectly, the middle underside was however a bit soft. But had I baked the pie another two minutes or so, I think the outer crust would have been over baked. Overall, this was a pretty nicely balanced pizza and for $3.34, Jack's is a repeat buy. The crust could probably handle some light doctoring, but not heavy as I like to do.... onions, mushrooms and a lot more cheese.... Perhaps just a little more cheese is all, next time....
This pizza is best "As Is"
Number 3 - Newman's Own: I reviewed Newman's Own on Day Eight of the challenge and this is another frozen pizza brand I've never tried before. I loved his movies, but will I like his pizza? In a quick review of the ingredients listed on the box, my expectations are high. Real pepperoni and whole milk mozzarella stand out, this has the makings of an excellent classic pepperoni pizza! I purchased my Newman's Own Thin and Crispy Pepperoni Pizza on sale for just $4.99 and it weighs in at 15.1 ounces. Normally the price of this pizza is beyond the bargain pizza price range, around $7. So how was it? Very good, worthy of a repeat buy in fact, with a caveat. Newman's Own uses quality ingredients and you can tell that is the focus in the crafting of this pizza. Real pepperoni, real cheese and the sauce is on point..... You can pick up all the notes of garlic, onion and spices. The portions are nice, everything is well balanced but there's one thing that holds this pizza back. The crust. It's a multi-grain crust and it really didn't hold up as well as I had hoped to the adding of additional ingredients. I had to add four minutes to the normal baking time and that left the crust a bit too hard on the edges, with the middle underside a bit underdone. I had to pull the pizza out of the oven when I did to prevent burning. Otherwise, this was a very nice classic pepperoni pizza. You get high quality ingredients with this pizza, but the crust doesn't hold up to added ingredients. It's a repeat buy, even at full price IF you don't doctor it. In fact, I would argue that this particular pizza is best enjoyed, as is. The upside is, the ingredients are that good. The downside to that though, is you don't get to truly enjoy pizza as YOU like it.
Only one doctored pizza tested, tasted better...
Number 2 - Tony's: A maker of frozen pizza since 1960, this frozen pizza icon getting started in of all places, Salina, Kansas. In a quick review of the fine print on the box, my expectations are this won't be a bad pizza because the parent company is the Schwan Food Company, also the makers of Red Baron and Freschetta, both of which scored well in this challenge. This pizza cost me just $2.67, which is on the lower end of the bargain pizza price scale and it weighed in at 18.56 ounces. That's the middle range of bargain pizza weights, a range between 16 and 20 ounces. So how was it? For just $2.67 and a few added ingredients, this pizza rocks! The pepperoni, although not authentic, had nice flavor and wasn't too greasy (typical of cheap pepperoni, excessively greasy). The sauce had all the classic notes of a good pizza sauce, it wasn't just spicy ketchup which can be typical of bargain brand frozen pizzas, (see Tombstone, Totino's, Great Value). And the cheese, even though is a part skim milk mozzarella (skim milk sucks, jus' say'n) melted nicely and had good texture and flavor. The crust, usually the deal breaker with these bargain priced frozen pizzas was spot on. It held up to my added ingredients, staying light and flaky despite an extra two minutes of baking time to accommodate the extra heft of added ingredients. The outside edge wasn't over baked and the middle underside was a nice, flaky bite. YUM! Tony's can handle all the doctoring you want to throw at it! Tony's gives you the best bang, for the pizza buck. Tony's is definitely a repeat buy!
You NEED to try this pizza!
And the frozen pizza brand dubbed Number 1 in this challenge is....... Freschetta: A relative newcomer to the frozen pizza game, I purchased my Freschetta Pepperoni on a Brick Oven Crust Pizza for $5.49 and the pie weighed in at 22.7 ounces, on the high end of bargain brand pizza weight. I've never eaten a Freschetta pizza before. So how was it? Freschetta rocks! First and foremost, the crust was perfect, crispy on the outside and tender on the inside just like the box promo claims and it handled the additional ingredients I piled on. I did have to add 2 more minutes to the baking time but no matter, the crust was perfect. Freschetta uses real cheese and I can overlook the fake pepperoni. Even though it includes chicken as an ingredient, it was tasty. And never mind the disorientation of the meat as a result of shipping, the portion was as advertised on the box. The sauce was a perfect balance to all the other ingredients, very flavorful, hitting all the classic pizza sauce notes. This was one excellent pizza bite! Yes, YUM! Freschetta pizza is definitely a repeat buy! The Freschetta Brick Oven Crust Pepperoni Pizza was without hesitation, the best pizza tasted in this challenge. The only knock I've got is the lack of authentic pepperoni, but to be fair it was good tasting pepperoni nonetheless. Freschetta got four out of five Bachelor on the Cheap stars in its rating, please be advised no pizza brand scored a five. The real cheese, the savory sauce, the excellent crust makes this pizza a repeat buy and no doctoring is required! With authentic pepperoni, it would be a 5 star pizza.
So there you have it, a review of the BARGAIN brand frozen pizzas, from worst, to best.
In wrapping this up, just a few things..... Kudos to the pizza companies that include cardboard discs in their packaging. No, it's not exclusive to clear plastic wrapped pizzas. Sure, while it does help protect the pizza during shipping, the motivation behind the disc is putting the pizza in and taking the pizza out, of the oven. Not everybody has a pizza paddle. Yes, really, the disc serves as a pizza paddle because baking a pizza directly on the oven rack truly is the best way to do a pizza. Cookie sheets suck, doing a dis-service to the crust and pizza pans (the ones with the holes in them) don't quite get the job done. And here's another pizza 'doctoring' tip: Brush the outer crust of your pizza with melted garlic butter before serving. It's another dose of YUM!
Spend Wisely My Friends.....