How to jump-start your pizza menu with chicken toppings, related sauces and recipes

The humble chicken may not be the smartest critter in the world, but it ranks among the tastiest. With more than half of all pizzerias serving wings, sandwiches and pasta and a hefty 98% offering salads, it’s pretty safe to assume that your pizzeria features chicken somewhere on the menu. In fact, chicken is enjoying something of a golden age—according to a report by Priceonomics, a data services company in San Francisco, Americans now eat more chicken than beef for the first time in 100 years. So boosting sales of chicken-based menu items shouldn’t be too hard if you’re preparing and marketing them right.

The basic chicken choices in a pizzeria setting usually include grilled breast meat for inclusion in salads, sandwiches and pizza; pasta dishes such as chicken Parmesan and chicken Alfredo; and wings of the spicy and mild variety. But chicken often gets overlooked when sexier meats—such as bacon, sausage and prosciutto—enter the picture. Fortunately, there are several ways to bring chicken back into the spotlight by utilizing fresh applications and sauces, highlighting chicken in new sections of the menu, and actively showing customers that there’s a whole new world to explore outside of pepperoni.

“The No. 1 chicken-related trend is the fact that chicken is the No. 1 trend. But pizza operators should not lose sight of the fact that they are in the Italian food business. Incorporating menu items that are Italian and made with chicken will give consumers what they want the most. And that’s when you’ll see revenues increase.”
—Vincent Todaro, Todarini Foods

Going Green

Salads are one of the easiest ways to wow customers with chicken. The salad section is usually one of the first menu sections that your patrons see, so this is a great opportunity to grab their attention. Instead of listing a simple house salad topped with grilled chicken, create a few chicken-centric salads (at a higher price point), such as a BBQ Chicken Salad with roasted corn, avocado, black beans and tortilla strips topped with avocado ranch dressing, or an Italian Chopped Salad topped with diced chicken, pepperoni, mozzarella, basil, tomatoes and house-made croutons.

Gables Pizza & Salad (gablespizzaandsalad.com), with locations in Miami and Coral Gables, Florida, offers a choice of 22 specialty salads, which can be topped with grilled or breaded chicken. In addition, any of the salads can be made into a wrap, using a variety of tortilla choices. These unique options appeal to everyone and have the potential to encourage additional visits by customers who come in just for your salad selection.

Flying High

Wings remain one of the most popular appetizers at pizzerias. If you’re currently offering them on your menu, how do yours stand out from the competition? Take a look at menus from some of the more popular wing-focused restaurants and choose a few sauces to test on your customers. Some avid wing fans won’t order wings from pizzerias if they don’t offer unique sauces—such as garlic, Thai, BBQ, sriracha and lemon pepper—that can be found at the larger wing eateries. Atlanta-based Chick-a-Biddy Wings, for example, has made a name for itself with flavors such as Wood-Grilled Piri Piri, Spicy Green Tabasco, and Thai Chili and Peanuts.

Adding just a few signature sauces to your wing lineup could help to boost wing sales month over month. Test the sauces out as specials and see which ones fare the best before adding them to your permanent menu. Also think about other appetizers that work well with chicken: shredded chicken nachos; fried chicken tenders; grilled chicken, mozzarella and tomato skewers; ground chicken sliders; and anything else that is small and/or sharable.

Poultry and Pasta

Dishes like chicken Alfredo and chicken Parmesan are expected on a pizzeria menu. But the expected isn’t always what guests are in the mood for when they have a hunger for something that will make their mouths water. Consumers nowadays are bombarded by media images and television programs that illustrate new and unique ways to prepare ordinary foods, including chicken. Many consumers expect to find this global food obsession reflected in the restaurants they visit on a regular basis.

Baris Pizza & Pasta (barispizzaandpasta.com) in Pflugerville, Texas, offers 10 types of homemade pastas alongside chicken specialties such as chicken Madeira, chicken Marsala, chicken Cacciatore, chicken Florentine and more. Meanwhile, the California Pizza Kitchen (cpk.com) chain, headquartered in Los Angeles, serves up its famous Chicken Tequila Fettucine, made with a creamy jalapeño lime sauce, red onions, bell peppers and cilantro. As these dishes prove, you can create several different chicken pasta dishes by simply changing the sauce and/or pasta, creating the illusion of a much larger menu.

Unforgettable Sandwiches

When it comes to chicken sandwiches, you can choose to make them boring and bland or truly memorable. The most memorable ones often combine flavors that your customers already love, such as chicken Parmesan, ranch chicken and barbecue chicken. Think about some of the great chicken sandwiches you’ve eaten—the bread, sauce, cheese, etc. What made them great?

At Pizza by Certé (certenyc.com) in New York, owner/head chef Edward Sylvia created the mouthwatering chicken saltimbocca, featuring grilled chicken, prosciutto, basil, mozzarella and lemon caper aioli on a pressed baguette. One of the most popular sandwiches at Mr. G’s Italian Pizzeria (gotomrgs.com) in Bryan, Texas, is the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich, which mimics his signature hot wings. It’s stuffed with marinated chicken breast that’s been dipped in a spicy red-hot sauce and comes topped with lettuce and ranch dressing.

Trust the Crust

As with any other topping, you can get creative when it comes to chicken and pizza. While there are die-hard pizza traditionalists who oppose using chicken on a pizza, many others can’t get enough of it. Common chicken pizza recipes feature barbecue, Thai, pesto and Alfredo. Make your menu stand out by offering a couple of the favorites and then whipping up some unusual ones that entice customers to try them.

Xtreme Pizza Kitchen (xtremepizzakitchen.com), based in Fargo, North Dakota, caters to Alfredo sauce fans with several chicken pizzas, including the top-selling Cordon Bleu, topped with Alfredo sauce, green peppers, red onions, chicken, Canadian bacon, a three-cheese blend and Swiss cheese. Earlier this year, Piece Brewery and Pizzeria (piecechicago.com) in Chicago teamed up with fellow Windy City restaurant Honey Butter Fried Chicken to create a specialty pie, sold during February. It’s made with a combination of mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, plus chicken that’s double-battered inbuttermilk and seasoned flour and fried in—you guessed it—honey butter.

As for calzones, everyone offers at least one version with ingredients such as pepperoni, meatball, sausage and vegetables. But don’t forget about the chicken lovers out there. Consider the variety of chicken pastas and pizzas that you currently offer; almost any of these can work as a calzone.

Giovanni Cerone, owner of Mr G’s Italian Pizzeria, has a big fan following for the huge calzones he serves at the pizzeria, but until now, he never had a chicken calzone on the menu. He recently added one to the lineup after talking with PMQ, filling it with chicken and mozzarella and serving it with a side of barbecue sauce and his famous Alfredo sauce.

Spring is a time of renewal, so why not begin with your chicken offerings? No matter which section of the menu you start with, from salads to sandwiches to pizzas, there’s always room for improvement.

Liz Barrett is PMQ’s editor at large.