Beyond Pepperoni: Non-Traditional Pizza Toppings to Spice Up Your Pies
Break free from the shackles of pizza tradition and try these flatbreads with toppings that’ll spin you around like a hand-tossed pizza crust.
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I used to be a pizza fundamentalist. Where I grew up, the pizzas we ate didn’t come in a lot of exotic varieties. Sausage or plain cheese were the default orders. California Pizza Kitchen was a subject of scorn — bbq chicken pizza! How bizarre! Our world was rigidly ordered and bound by classic pizza tradition.
As I got older, I started to question my inherited prejudice against “creative” pizza toppings. I visited a wood-fired pizzeria in Southern Italy that served me a pie topped with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella ... and french fries. French fries! On pizza! In Italy? I was aghast. But then I took a bite … and another. With each additional morsel I was more and more persuaded. French fries on a pizza? It just made sense.
Once that door cracked open, I began to reject all of my received “wisdom” about what belongs on pizza and what doesn’t. Now, I’m a full-fledged pizza iconoclast. I’ve put things on homemade pizza that would make your head spin. I’d like to encourage you to expand your pizza horizons. To that end, here’s a roundup of recipes for some of the best pizza toppings — and there’s not one pepperoni pie in the mix. Once you start to experiment, if you’re like me, you’ll never go back to plain cheese.
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And pizza answers.
Do I have to make my own dough?
You can! It’s easy! But you don’t have to be a master kneader to enjoy wild toppings on homemade pizzas. These recipes will work on any pizza base — from par-baked shells to balls of packaged raw dough from the grocery store. Heck, you can even use a flour tortilla. The point here is to explore the road not taken and try out pizza toppings that might not make sense at first.
What do you mean non-traditional?
Your point is well taken — one person’s weird pizza idea is another’s longtime favorite pizza topping. The recipes in this roundup are all departures from the regular roundup of American-style pizzeria favorites. No sausage or mushrooms here. Most of these recipes don’t even have mozzarella cheese.
How do I know which pizza toppings will go well together?
Well, you might not! My rule of thumb is that if it goes together well in any other context, it’ll go together well on top of a pizza.
How much topping should I put on my pizza?
It’s easy to over-top a pizza. In my opinion, less is more when it comes to pizza toppings so err on the side of restraint.
Minimalist toppings for pizza
They say “less is more” — restraint certainly isn’t my first impulse when it comes to pizza toppings, but these elegant recipes for pizza with nothing (or almost nothing) will make a pizza-Marie Kondo out of anyone.
At Rome’s famous Campo De’ Fiori bakery, they make a version of pizza that is the apotheosis of minimal toppings. Long slabs of airy flatbread are topped with olive oil and coarse salt and baked off in a wood-fired oven. Is it even pizza if there’s nothing on top? Who cares? Pizza with nothing is delicious.
The pizza purists in Italy have a consortium of sorts — the association of Vera Pizza Napoletana — which defines and defends the “true” method of making authentic Neapolitan pizza. And they say that the Marinara pizza is one of only a precious few toppings recipes that fits their exacting bill. And what a pizza it is — revolutionary in its simplicity — just tomatoes, garlic, oregano, oil, and salt. No basil leaves or cheese allowed! In a world where the kitchen sink is the norm, this scantily dressed pizza is a knockout.
The pizza maniacs behind the Ooni ovens offer a surprisingly simple and delicious recipe for a pizza-style riff on the classic pasta dish Cacio e Pepe. Most surprising of all is the first ingredient that goes on the pie before you slide it in the oven: a few ice cubes. The melting cubes tenderize the pizza crust and create a pasta-water-like starchiness that combines with grated pecorino and fresh cracked pepper in a miraculous pizza alchemy.
The margherita pizza is the other officially sanctioned pizza topping combo recognized by the Associazione VPN and it’s a doozy. Pizza maestro Franco Pepe of Pepe in Grani takes pizza dogma and flips it upside down with his Margherita Sbagliata (literally “Margherita done wrong”). Mozzarella cheese is the base, and then cold tomato sauce and pureed basil leaves are piped on top. You wouldn’t think that reversing the order of ingredients would make such a big difference, but this pizza is a revelation.
Veggie pizza toppings beyond peppers and onions
Peppers on pizza may be axiomatic, but there’s no reason you can’t branch out further into the world of vegetables.
At first glance, you might not think that mashed-up chickpeas are a natural fit as a pizza topping, since hummus is usually eaten cold. But baking hummus concentrates its garlicky lemon essence and adds textural interest with crusty edges. Add black olives, sun-dried tomatoes, and red onions and you’ve got a winner.
The arrival of fresh fava beans at the market is an annual herald of spring. I usually scoop up a few pounds and follow Alice Waters’ lead in making a simple dip from the shelled, blanched legumes. If you’ve got any left over, it makes a dynamite pizza topping and pairs beautifully with pecorino or goat cheese.
Speaking of spring vegetables, Smitten Kitchen’s interpretation of Jim “No-Knead” Lahey’s asparagus pizza recipe is a terrific use of everybody’s favorite stalk. A tangle of asparagus shavings gets crispy with char on top of a pizza pie and mingles with scallion and mozzarella. I sometimes add a little balsamic vinegar or fresh basil.
I’m a sucker for oven-roasted brassicas like cauliflower, broccoli, and cabbage. Cabbage pizza is the natural next step. If you’re already firing up the oven to roast veggies, why not put a pizza underneath ‘em?
Unusual pizza toppings made from leftovers
I’ve used up countless Tupperwares of leftovers by tossing them on some pizza dough. Here’s a section full of recipes that will do double duty — first as a meal on their own and then as a pizza topping the next day.
Ever had fried shrimp from a Chicago seafood shack? A dinner guest at pizza night brought a bag of leftover fried shrimp from Hagen’s Fish Market that had been languishing in the fridge since the previous night. I cut them into chunks and paired them with a sriracha-laced tomato sauce, a shower of scallion greens, some capers, a few dabs of homemade fermented hot sauce and a judicious sprinkling of parmigiano-reggiano.
Roasted pork belly is a showstopper for dinner and a star on a pizza. When pizza night arrived and I found myself with leftover roast pork from my local Chinese carryout, I paired it with chunks of leftover roasted potatoes, and a generous slather of chili-crisp atop a foundation of ricotta.
A meat lover's pizza for the ages! If you cook down your pot roast gravy, it’s an admirable substitute for tomato sauce as a base layer for a pie — shreds of braised meat and hunks of carrot and potato make for a delectable, non-traditional topping for a leftover pizza.
Unique fermented pizza toppings
Ready to take your pizza toppings to the next level? Olives and banana peppers make intuitive sense as pizza condiments — why not forge ahead into the broader world of fermented foods? These recipes take advantage of the complexity and depth that pickles can bring to pizza night.
If you are an aficionado of spicy foods, don’t miss out on this inspired combination of pizza toppings. Bracing hot kimchi is a natural companion to sweet corn and salt bacon — you couldn’t ask for a more balanced riot of flavors on your pie.
Cultures collide in the most delicious way when you put Polish sausage and pickled cabbage on a pizza. If it’d taste good in a bun, it’ll taste good on a pizza — and it does!
Seafood pizza topping ideas
We’ve been conditioned to be leery of any fish but an anchovy on a pizza — and some people won’t even go for that. Put fish on pizza! You won’t regret it.
It was revolutionary when Wolfgang Puck first California-fied pizza at Spago Beverly Hills, but his inspiration stands the test of time — silky smoked salmon, tangy crème fraîche, and caviar are layered on to a pie that’s been baked naked for optimal crunch.
I made my first pilgrimage to Frank Pepe’s coal-fired pizza mecca in New Haven when I was in my early twenties and I’ve been pining after his clam and garlic pie ever since. Fresh-shucked cherrystones with garlic and parmigiano make for an implausibly delicious pie.
Are you on the tin-fish date night train? Combine it with pizza night with this powerhouse recipe. Briny feta stands up to the strong flavors of canned sardines and thin-sliced lemons.
They did what!? Weird pizza toppings
If you think Hawaiian pizza is controversial, wait’ll you get a load of these wild pizza ideas.
Mac and Cheezza! The more you think about it, the more it makes sense — carbs and cheese on carbs with cheese. Try it! You’ll like it!
I couldn’t write this article without including a recipe that nods to the pizza “con patatine fritte” that first opened my eyes to the possibilities that await when you discard tradition and follow the trail of deliciousness wherever it may lead.
My local paper tells me that the LA County Fair is featuring a pizza topped with dill pickles and Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. Thumbs up! Would eat!
I like to eat fresh lemons, peel and all. This recipe pairs thin wheels of whole lemons with nutty Italian piave cheese, but really any pie will benefit from tart lemon slices slightly caramelized in the heat of the oven. Try with caramelized onions or goat cheese or black olives!
As a confirmed jam-aholic, I’ve got a cabinet full of homemade preserves. When pizza night rolls around, a sweet and savory pie topped with jam and blue cheese can make for a refreshing change of pace.
More Italian food fantasies
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