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Food & Ingredients

How Chicken Is Redefining the Classic Pizza Slice

Once considered an exotic topping, the chicken pizza has become a canvas for a diverse range of fusion flavors from Mexico to India to Nashville.

By Rick Hynum

 

Who was the first chef to top a pizza with chicken? No one knows for sure, but the late Ed Ladou gets credit for popularizing the BBQ Chicken Pizza by putting it on the original menu for California Pizza Kitchen in 1985. At that time, chicken on a pizza was considered wildly original, along with other “exotic” toppings that LaDou introduced, such as duck breast and marinated shrimp.

Today, any pizzeria that doesn’t offer poultry on a pie is an outlier. Of course, the wing is still the king of appetizers—Americans wolfed down a record-breaking 1.45 billion chicken wings over Super Bowl weekend this past February, according to the National Chicken Council. But chicken’s flying higher than ever as a pizza topping, too. A September 2023 survey by Casinos.com, which examined Google trends data on the 15 most popular pizza toppings in each state, ranked chicken at No. 5, locked in a dead heat with mushrooms and pineapple.

“California Pizza Kitchen made [gourmet toppings] available to the masses,” LaDou once said. “And the greatest proof of that is BBQ Chicken Pizza. Putting it on a pizza told everyone that this is volkspizza, pizza for the masses.”

Since the mid-1980s, chefs have taken this populist favorite to new heights in the pizza kitchen, redefining the classic slice. Here’s a closer look at how independent pizzerias and chains alike made chicken pizza unforgettable in 2023.

 

Donatos’ version of the Nashville Hot Chicken pie includes smoked provolone, Romano, jalapeños and dill pickles. Photo courtesy Donato’s.
Chicken and Cheatin’ Boyfriends

Like chicken as a pizza topping, we’re also not sure who invented Nashville hot chicken. But Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, founded in the 1930s by Thornton Prince, has the best origin story ever told about a chicken dish. According to family legend, Prince, a notorious philanderer, stepped out on his girlfriend one Saturday night. To punish him, she doused his fried chicken with red pepper the next day; to her dismay, Prince liked it so much, he opened a late-night eatery—initially called BBQ Chicken Shack—that went on to become a Nashville hot spot, so to speak.

Today, hot chicken is as easy to find in Nashville as a country music singer in a cowboy hat. But what’s the secret to making it right? “There’s no secret,” Timothy Davis, author of The Hot Chicken Cookbook, has said, beyond just heaping on “a ton of cayenne.”

So it’s hardly surprising that someone got the idea to put Nashville hot chicken on a pizza—often paired with pickles. Dare we call it a regional pizza style? Probably not, but it has exploded in popularity.

For its annual collaboration with local mainstay Hot Chicken Takeover (HCT), Mikey’s Late Night Slice, which has six locations in Columbus, Ohio, and one in Cincinnati, uses Nashville hot chicken pizza to raise money for the Columbus Diaper Bank every February. In addition to the original pie, topped with HCT’s hot chicken, housemade ranch dressing and pickles, Mikey’s offers the Ma’s Mac edition, crowned with mac and cheese, as well as a vegan version called the Not Chicken, featuring housemade seitan, plant-based cheese and ranch.

Family-owned Donatos, also based in Columbus, has a hot chicken pizza of its own, showcasing fried spicy chicken, smoked provolone, Romano cheese, jalapeños, dill pickles and a ranch drizzle. Meanwhile, Atlanta-based Your Pie, with about 70 locations around the U.S., rolled out its own limited-time Nashville Hot Chicken pizza as part of its wintertime Craft Series in January. It’s topped with spicy chicken, pickles, red onions, house-pickled jalapeños, mozz and Nashville hot sauce, plus a side of comeback sauce.

Even Pizza Hut tried to score a Nashville-style hit, testing its Pickle Pie—combining crispy, breaded chicken breast sprinkled with Nashville Hot Seasoning, white onions, cheese, buttermilk ranch sauce and spicy dill pickles—at its store on 8th Avenue in New York City last spring. The catch? The pie was offered for just one weekend, from June 9 through 11. And we haven’t heard a word about it since.

 

The success of their Nashville Hot Chicken LTO took the owners of Berwick Pizza by surprise. Photo courtesy Berwick Pizza.
Chicken and Faraway Lands

Chickens live nearly everywhere—they’re the most common bird on the planet. No wonder their meat tastes so good with just about every type of regional cuisine. Rapid Fired Pizza, with 25 locations in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas and West Virginia, recently debuted a Thai Chicken Pizza, topped with grilled chicken breast strips, Thai Satay sauce, shredded mozzarella, cheddar, red peppers, green onions, cilantro and a lime wedge garnish.

What about the flavors of India? Butter chicken pizza has been ruffling feathers in Canada lately. Made with tender chicken thighs simmered in a spicy, creamy, tomato-based sauce called makhani, this Indian specialty is already hugely popular in Canada. So it was inevitable that companies like Ontario-based Rapizza, with eight locations, would suspect that butter chicken’s even better on a pizza. Rapizza’s version spotlights Tandoori chicken, makhani sauce, mozzarella, a blend of peppers, red onions and mint chutney. In June, Smithville Pizzeria, with one store in Smithville, Ontario, debuted its own version of the butter chicken pizza with a tad less spice, and even Papa Johns rolled out a butter chicken pizza for Canadians in May.

Finally, Mexican-style chicken is so at home on a pizza that Bill Crawford, owner of Righteous Slice in Rexburg, Idaho, won the $15,000 grand prize at this year’s Real California Pizza Contest with a pie called El Pollo Borracho. Packed with fresh, zesty flavor, it married tequila-lime chicken, elote corn, jalapeños and Tajín seasoning, plus Oaxaca, queso fresco and crème fraîche cheeses.

Austin Buckland, co-owner of Berwick Pizza in Green Camp, Ohio, was a finalist in that same contest, sponsored by the California Milk Advisory Board, and showed off a Mexican-inspired chicken pizza of his own, dubbed La Fiesta. “This one was our version of a chicken fajita pizza,” Buckland says. “It started off with fresh fire-roasted salsa on our homemade dough. We then added grilled chicken, grilled veggies, cilantro and tortilla strips. The contest was focused on California cheese, so it also featured three of [the state’s] amazing cheeses: Oaxaca, cotija and a drizzle of queso blanco. A true fiesta of flavors!”

Buckland and his team are often pickin’ chicken for their restaurant’s Pizza of the Month specials: Chicken Cordon Bleu, Honey Mustard Chicken, Chicken Teriyaki, Chicken Fajita, Chicken & Waffle, Sweet & Sour Chicken and Summer Honey Chicken have all graced the menu.

The La Fiesta is also on that list of recurring LTO specialty pies, Buckland says. “We offered it around the time of the contest for everyone to try, and our customers anxiously awaited its return. They loved the flavors and thought it was absolutely delicious. On top of that, they thought it was amazing for a small-town shop in the Midwest to be able to go out and represent on a national level!”

And in case you’re wondering: Yep, Buckland’s customers are partial to his Nashville Hot Chicken pizza, too. It’s made with a garlic butter base, mozzarella, baked chicken tenders tossed in a Nashville hot sauce, dill pickle slices and a ranch drizzle. “The popularity of it really surprised us,” Buckland says. “Our intention was for the Nashville Hot Chicken to be limited to summer only, but we’ve had so much positive feedback that it’s on our full-time menu now.”   

Rick Hynum is PMQ’s editor in chief.