The definitive guide to frozen pizza



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The supermarket's frozen-pizza section, which takes up damn near an entire side of a freezer aisle, keeps evolving. New brands push in among the familiar (though most are owned by a handful of multinational corporations - Nestlé manufactures Jack's, Tombstone, DiGiorno and, weirdly, California Pizza Kitchen), adding new crusts and engineering new topping combos. DiGiorno, for instance, offers packages that include pizza, cookies and something called chicken "wyngz."

How are ordinary citizens supposed to keep up with all this madness? Which brands are worth an extra couple of bucks, and which cause immediate regret? Why do they spell "wings" funny? Is it like how Kentucky Fried Chicken had to change its name to KFC because it wasn't technically serving chicken anymore? We don't know the answers to all these questions. But we know a lot about frozen pizza, and we have the high cholesterol and low self-esteem to prove it. Here, then, is Fat City's trusty, bottom-up guide to your next frozen pizza (which comes on the heels of last week's pizza issue).

A Totino's Party Pizza is to frozen pizza what White Castle sliders are to hamburgers: a perverse, Soylent Green imitation of actual food. Really, including Totino's on a list of frozen pizzas means that we almost have to include other peripheral pizza items, such as Jeno's Pizza Rolls or pepperoni-flavored Hot Pockets. But if it looks like a frozen pizza and kind of tastes a little bit like a frozen pizza, then we say, OK, maybe it is technically a frozen pizza. A bad frozen pizza, sure, but the savings! These babies were going for $1.38 at Hy-Vee the other day. At that price point, it's easy to ignore its weird, croissantlike crust and unnaturally sweet sauce.

Palermo's is a relative newcomer, but its pies usually retail for an entitled $6. Uh, hey, Palermo's: You need to either up your game or kick those prices down. You're skimping on the crust, your traditional pizzas (pepperoni, supreme) are fatally basic, and your specialty varieties (spinach, bacon and feta; chicken Caesar) use lousy ingredients. We don't expect absolute freshness from frozen pizzas, but we also don't expect chicken that chews like a pencil eraser. Workers on the Palermo's line in Milwaukee went on strike last summer, citing hazardous working conditions and anti-union threats made by management. Taste the disgruntled labor.

Jack's has earned its market share by manufacturing consistently bad frozen pizzas and pricing them accordingly. You can usually find Jack's pies bundled in three-for-$10 deals, and your wallet stretches still further if you eat only half a pizza at a time. Tip: If you break it in half before cooking and save the other side in the freezer for later, you're looking at about $1.70 a meal. The bacon-cheeseburger pizza is not horrible. Still, in general, we should all try to do a little better than Jack's.

You know the part in Cocktail when Bryan Brown's character says to Tom Cruise's character, "Bartenders are the aristocrats of the working class"? Well, Tony's is the aristocrat of value-brand frozen pizzas. The sweet, tangy sauce is better than it has any right to be, and there's rarely a long wait for the next five-for-$10 sale. But don't be one of those dopes who confuses Tony's with Totino's. Show some respect.

California Pizza Kitchen
California Pizza Kitchen is a boring chain restaurant that serves froufrou pizzas to people who think the pizzas are better than the ordinary, sausage-and-pepperoni variety. Because these frozen pizzas are made by Nestlé, they come in such flavors as "Sicilian" and "Hawaiian." There's nothing intrinsically wrong with this. No, the wrong comes when you pay $4.99 for an insultingly wee personal-size pie with a too-crackery crust and not enough cheese. We're reluctant to indulge in generalizations, but if you buy California Pizza Kitchen frozen pizzas at the grocery store, you're probably a huge wuss.

Red Baron
A Red Baron "Special Deluxe" supreme (pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, black olives, onion, red and green peppers) tastes the way frozen pizzas are supposed to taste. Nothing sophisticated here - just a simple, salty, flavorful pizza. It's affordable (usually less than $4 if you catch a sale) and it's a respectable enough brand that you don't have to hide the thing under vegetables and bread loaves in your shopping cart. Cook it long - err on the side of crispy - and enjoy.

In many ways the godfather of the modern frozen pizza, Tombstone began ceding its hegemony sometime around the turn of the millennium. It has made a few missteps over the years - cubed pepperoni? That's bush league - but remains a vital middlebrow player. Along with Red Baron, Tombstone is one of the last remaining links to a simpler time in the frozen-pizza industry. And sometimes it tastes like an iced-in missing link, too, but not often enough to keep us from buying it.

DiGiorno pizzas are typically cost-prohibitive, but sometimes a $5 deal can be worth your coin. (This is definitely another break-it-in-half pizza.) DiGiorno could be said to have pioneered the rising-crust trend, and that remains a major draw. (Don't know what to do with all that extra crust? Try dipping it in some ranch or Italian dressing.) And its innovations haven't stopped there. The company is at the forefront of the half-and-half movement, allowing a cheese side and a pepperoni side on the same pie. And, as previously noted, some packages now include cookie dough and chicken wings. Mystery solved: They're called "wyngz" because they do not contain actual wing meat. They taste like McDonald's chicken nuggets ... but nastier.

The Dish
You run up against a quality barrier when you deal with mass-produced frozen pizza. But a couple of regional pizza joints break the boundary with frozen versions of their pies in grocery stores. Oddly, Liberty deep-dish mainstay the Dish has made its thin-crust pizzas most visible in the freezer case. Those are just OK - similar to a Tombstone thin crust but pricier. What you want is the stuffed pie, which sets you back about $8 but is super-filling and delicious. Follow the instructions (microwave it for five minutes before putting it in the oven) and you'll have yourself a restaurant-quality pizza.

The legendary Columbia restaurant stocks a frozen version of its pizza at area stores (mostly Hy-Vees and McGonigle's), and it barely tastes refrigerated. The ingredients seem so fresh, the crusts so lovingly made, the cheese so cheesy, that every one of these we've bought has felt suspiciously close to the real thing. Considering that Shakespeare's serves arguably the best pizza in the Midwest, that's a serious feat, one well worth whatever cost is involved. This stuff isn't cheap, but as far as we're concerned, there is no sexier status symbol than a freezer with a Shakespeare's pizza in it.

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