As a pizzeria operator, cheese is one of your go-to ingredients, adding gooey oomph and rich flavor to piping-hot pies. But cheese can also please as a key ingredient for small plates and appetizers. Whether you stock traditional Italian favorites such as mozzarella, Parmesan and ricotta, or keep on hand bold varieties such as feta, goat or Gorgonzola, cheeses’ versatility and unique ability to bring out the flavors in other foods should make them a star ingredient for every part of your menu. Here, operators who have created standout cheesy shareables share the keys to their success.
The Texture Sector
When you’re thinking about how to incorporate cheese in an unforgettable appetizer, experimentation in the kitchen is a must. At the four-location, fast-casual Crushed Red Urban Bake & Chop Shop (crushed-red.com), based in St. Louis, customizable organic salads and personal pizzas make up the foundation of its menu. But its secret weapon is the Warm Herbed Goat Cheese appetizer. “We try to do things a bit ‘left of center,’ off the beaten path, so we experiment a lot with foods,” says Chris LaRocca, the company’s CEO. “Goat cheese, with its creamy mouthfeel, is great in our salads, but we wanted to make it the star of the show by adding ingredients that really set it off.”
Early on, LaRocca aimed to create depth of texture by adding some sweetness and crunch. The appetizer is made in-house; first, fresh herbs, including basil, are whipped into the goat cheese, which is then formed into fist-size balls and rolled into a mix of dried cranberries and toasted almonds to encrust the cheese. The balls are drizzled with agave nectar, stored in casserole dishes and popped in the oven for five minutes to warm for each order; the appetizer is served with housemade lavash and bite-size servings of pizza dough brushed with garlic oil. “The mix of sweet, savory and crunchy is addictive,” LaRocca says. “It’s been on our menu from day one in 2012, and it’s our No. 1 seller. It’s all about balancing those flavor profiles and bringing out the best qualities in each ingredient.”
Peppadew peppers stuffed with goat cheese combines complementary flavors for a winning appetizer.
Similarly, the four-location Fireside Pies (firesidepies.com), based in Dallas, hit on a winning combination with its Goat Cheese Stuffed Peppadew Peppers—combining sweet, spicy and creamy in bite-sized delights. Goat cheese is whipped with fresh herbs and cream, piped into peppadews, then cooked in a cast-iron skillet in the wood-burning oven to add some char and fire-roasted flavor. The dish also incorporates flavor boosters like cilantro pesto and spiced candied pecans. “We wanted to invent something new with goat cheese, and it’s become one of our more popular appetizers—rich but light, not too heavy or filling,” says Joe Bozarth, senior operating and culinary manager.
Fireside also offers the more indulgent Fireside Fondue, described by Bozarth as a “cheese pizza deconstructed”: pizza sauce mixed with four ounces of its house cheese blend (Fontina, Fontinella, mozzarella and Parmesan), cooked in the oven and finished off post-bake with Grana Padano, then served with pizza dough that’s flattened, brushed with garlic butter and Parmesan, and baked to a crisp. “It’s the perfect appetizer for sharing among a table of four and has become really popular with kids—now it’s our No. 1 seller,” Bozarth says. “Grating fresh Parmesan over the top to order sets it off and makes all the difference.”
Fireside Pies and Crushed Red have already discovered some secrets of profitability when it comes to creating memorable cheesy bites—including the importance of cross-utilizing ingredients. For example, Crushed Red already had agave nectar on hand for sweetening its teas, while almonds and cranberries are stocked for salads. At The Pizza Press (thepizzapress.com), a build-your-own concept with three locations and based in Anaheim, California, the Garlic Cheesy Bread appetizer simply combines its pizza dough with minced garlic, olive oil and a Parmesan-mozzarella blend. “It’s become a great add-on item for customers and something that people can easily share,” notes Dara Maleki, president and CEO of The Pizza Press. “It’s our No. 1 side item and uses ingredients we already had on hand. It’s also a huge moneymaker for us, providing double the profits when compared with our pizza; we sell a couple hundred orders each week.” Even better, customers can customize their selection by adding ingredients to the order—for example, some like to top the appetizer with jalapeños for a kicked-up version.
Fireside also spreads the cheese love across its menu, using creamy burrata for not only pizza, but in an appetizer (Burrata Mozzarella Crostini, served with roasted tomatoes) and for salads (the Burrata Panzanella, plus a seasonal salad made with peaches and arugula). “We even make our own ricotta—it’s really easy and tastes better than anything we could buy,” Bozarth adds. “Making it yourself is more impactful for staff and guests, and we can create different flavors, such as garlic ricotta, to use across our menu. You can do so much with it.”
When it comes to moving your signature cheesy apps, server suggestion can play a big part. At Crushed Red, employees are accustomed to wholeheartedly recommending the Warm Herbed Goat Cheese to customers. “They’ll say, ‘You’ve got to have this—try it, and you’ll be addicted,’” LaRocca says. “If they’re on the fence, we also say, ‘If you don’t love it, we’ll buy it for you.’ Not one person has taken us up on that offer yet.” LaRocca also finds the appetizer is popular among the happy-hour crowd; it pairs perfectly with wine and gives customers something to munch on when they’re having a post-work tipple.
(Left to right) Warm Herbed Goat Cheese receives hearty recommendations from servers at Crushed Red; creamy burrata is highlighted in appetizers and salads at Fireside Pies.
At The Pizza Press, which combines a craft-beer menu with its customizable pies, servers are eager to recommend pairings. For example, light beers (such as blondes and wheats) go well with the Garlic Cheesy Bread. “Staff members definitely suggest the sale; we heavily push the appetizer in-store,” Maleki says. “We work with scripting for staff to really drive that item forward.” And offering a beverage selection to pair with it, of course, increases incremental sales as well.
Meanwhile, Fireside engages with its customers online by offering feature appetizers that change seasonally. The company recently hosted a contest called #FiresideFavs, which allowed guests to vote for their favorite seasonal appetizer (with the winning starter awarded a permanent spot on the Fireside menu). “We used the contest to re-evaluate items we’ve taken off the menu in the past, to see what we should bring back,” Bozarth explains. “Customers vote for their favorite on Facebook, with the option to choose from our list or write in their own choice.”
Ultimately, marketing your gooey small bites not only ramps up revenue; it establishes a point of difference for your business. Crushed Red’s financial reports show that goat cheese is the No. 3 item (by dollar amount) the pizzeria buys—and though the Warm Herbed Goat Cheese is a bit less profitable than other menu items, with a food cost of about 40%, the winning app has become a menu mainstay. “It’s all about the menu mix, and if this brings in incremental dollars, that’s important,” LaRocca notes. “The higher cost is offset when customers order other things with lower food costs so we can stay in the high 20s or low 30s overall. Plus, we’re doing something that no one else does, and that makes people talk about us, then come in and maybe buy salads and two glasses of wine. When you do something unique, you move away from the ‘me-too’ mentality and make your concept that much more distinct.”
Mascarpone-Stuffed Strawberries Dipped in Chocolate
|Photo and Recipe Courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board
1 lb. large, fresh strawberries, washed and dried well
Using a paring knife, cut stems from the strawberries and core the centers, being careful not to cut entirely through the strawberry’s flesh. Spoon mascarpone into a piping bag or resealable bag (cut the tip off one corner of the bag). Pipe mascarpone into the cored strawberries. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with wax paper and set aside. Place the chocolate in a heat-proof bowl. Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water. Heat the chocolate, stirring occasionally, until melted and smooth. Dip the stuffed strawberries in the melted chocolate and allow any excess to run off. Transfer the dipped strawberries to the prepared baking sheet (if adding nuts, sprinkle nuts over the chocolate coating before allowing the chocolate to set). Transfer to the refrigerator and chill until the chocolate has set, about 15 minutes. Drizzle with melted white chocolate, if desired. For best results, serve immediately. Serves 8.