It’s Time to Get Creative With Your Pizza Meats

Pizzeria chefs and operators weigh in on the most in-demand Italian meats and how to use them profitably in your recipes.


Photo by David Morales

For carnivorous pie lovers, meat and pizza are a match made in heaven—and, of course, Italian meats especially remain a must-have for many pizzaioli. With options from soppressata and prosciutto to guanciale and ’nduja, finding the perfect pairing for your pizza toppings is easier than ever—and chefs from coast to coast are taking advantage of the myriad possibilities to create truly standout pies.

Here, PMQ checks in with these creative minds to find out what Italian meats are trending in their operations, how to maintain solid profits when incorporating these top-quality ingredients, and what flavor combinations are flying out the door.

“Right now, we’re seeing a ton of demand for crumbly sausage and gluten-free options. Meanwhile, spicy options can really bring out the flavor of your sauce and other toppings when paired well. One of our favorite combos (and our No. 1 seller) is our supreme pizza, called the Five Boroughs. We pair several Italian meats—including pepperoni, sausage and bacon—with black olives, red onions, green peppers and mushrooms. Another pizza on our menu that we’re seeing a lot of demand for is our Summer of 2010, which includes pepperoni, spicy sausage, jalapeños and pepperoncini. A few of our personal favorite combinations are pepperoni and cream cheese; Italian sausage with garlic, green pepper and onion; and meatballs and ricotta.

“For cost-effectiveness, we recommend that pizzerias cook their own sausage. It’s easy to do, and you create a much better product for a lower cost than a cooked product. We also recommend testing pepperoni options, since there are so many out there to explore—your new favorite might be right around the corner. But be careful; you don’t want to change your taste profile too much if you’ve found a combination that works!”

—Nick Parry, director of training and new store openings, Parry’s Pizza & Bar, eight locations in CO


“When choosing Italian meats for pizza, it is important to select items that are bold, rich and easy to use. Guanciale, lardo, soppressata, prosciutto cotto (cooked ham) and fresh sausage are great choices. These meats can be sliced thinly or, in the case of sausage, crumbled and added easily to a pizza. They add great flavor and richness.

“Guanciale, lardo and sausage are higher in fat, melting beautifully into the pizza while cooking—a great complement to fresh vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, mushrooms and eggplant. They are also best paired with cheeses that are lower in fat, such as Parmesan, ricotta and Pecorino. Soppressata and prosciutto cotto bring a meatier component to your pizza, so they pair well with traditional mozzarella and Fontina cheeses.”

—Ken Arnone, master chef, Colavita, Edison, NJ


Photo by Liz Clayman

“I’ve been seeing ’nduja, a spicy spreadable sausage, popping up in a lot of different places. It’s a pork salumi from Italy—Calabria, to be specific—and typically made with parts of the pig such as the shoulder and belly, as well as tripe, spicy roasted Calabrian chili peppers, and a mixture of spices that pack a unique punch. It’s soft in texture, but not on the palate—it’s hot!

“Still, prosciutto is king. It’s my absolute favorite Italian meat topping for pizza. I love adding a few thin slices for that extra layer of complexity; those nutty, buttery overtones added to the usual sweet-salty combo can really make pizza explode. Prosciutto pairs well with so many toppings, but my personal favorite combos are earthy portobello mushrooms, a cool and creamy burrata, and Fontina.

“For a cost-effective option, I love mortadella. It’s far less expensive than cured meats but packs big flavor. I like to place it on the pizza after it comes out of the oven, or put it on before it goes in the oven, allowing it to crisp up. Both methods are great to get the full mortadella experience.”

—Michael Pirolo, chef and owner, Macchialina, Miami, FL; The Saint Austere, Brooklyn, NY; Pirolo’s Panino, Los Angeles, CA


Photo courtesy Oggi’s

“Some of the most popular meats for pizzas now are prosciutto (thinly sliced Italian dry-cured ham), soppressata (Italian dry salami), salami and mortadella (a large Italian sausage or luncheon meat). Personally, pepperoni is always my favorite; it adds a slightly smoky taste to pizza and pairs well with creamy mozzarella. Pancetta is also a great one—it’s the Italian version of bacon, and who doesn’t love bacon? But prosciutto is the meat that really elevates a pizza. I find that adding it to the pizza for the last minute of cooking keeps its integrity but makes it slightly crispy.

“Pepperoni goes with almost anything (and is great on its own, too). I love to pair sweet Italian sausage with spicy veggies, like jalapeños and onions, to cut the sweetness, and a mild, good-quality mozzarella (which doesn’t overpower the different flavors). We have an option on the menu called the Sports Fan, which combines all of these ingredients with pepperoni.

“Price-wise, pepperoni is the most cost-effective and, taste-wise, it’s the most universally liked meat. Sausage is a close second, and offers opportunities for upsells with added veggies. But if you want to carry a more elevated offering, prosciutto is a great meat to have on hand, and it has great retail margins.”

—Jason Tsiames, executive chef, Oggi’s Sports | Brewhouse | Pizza, 16 locations in CA and AZ


“I think people are really enjoying making their own meats right now. We’ve made some fantastic duck prosciutto that works amazing on our pizza. I’m really into pepperoni right now, too; it seems like it’s making a comeback. Generally, we like anything that has a good amount of fat. We use a wood-fired oven, so the fat really helps keep the protein from drying out. Mortadella is one that works extremely well for us, because it has about 35% fat. Currently, we have a mortadella pizza that pays homage to a muffaletta sandwich, with fresh mozzarella and topped with an olive tapanade.

“For any meat, I always say, check quality first! I would never buy some mass-produced finocchiona, for example, just because it’s $3 or $4 cheaper. I look for the best-quality, humanely raised proteins.”

—Edwin Molina, executive chef, Double Zero, Atlanta, GA


“’Nduja, a spicy, spreadable pork salumi from Calabria, is packed with flavor. Its hot roasted peppers paired with ground pork provide a fiery taste that works as a great base for soups and sauces, too. I also enjoy pairing guanciale, an Italian cured meat prepared from pork jowls or cheeks, with smoked mozzarella and manzana peppers. The richness of the guanciale is a nice contrast to the smokiness of the mozzarella, and manzana peppers bring a heat level similar to a habenero. This pairing produces a rich, smoky, sweet heat that brings all of the flavors in line.”

—Josh Jacobsen, executive chef, Peel Handcrafted Pizza, Frederick, CO


“The Biz, one of our most popular pizzas, is an Italian meat lovers dream, consisting of all-natural pepperoni, salami, sausage, candied bacon, mozzarella and a seasonal onion mix. We also offer prosciutto atop the The Righteous Pig pie, which incorporates pesto, mozzarella, goat cheese, caramelized onions, arugula and a balsamic drizzle. But prosciutto currently seems to be the most popular Italian meat. We often get requests for it when customers create their own pizzas, and it goes well with so many of our fresh veggie toppings, from arugula to Brussels sprouts—it’s so versatile!”

—Lauren Passero-Brooks, owner, The Haven Pizzeria, San Diego, CA


“I see soppresatta trending as a pepperoni alternative. Pepperoni is really an American invention, so pizzaioli in search of a more authentic Italian experience are looking to soppressata, salami, mortadella and ’nduja. At Pizza LUPO, we serve Neapolitan-style pizza, so Italian charcuterie is most suitable. For example, we serve spicy soppressata on a traditional Margherita base and include a little honey drizzle for balance—the popular Sting Like a Bee pizza, named for Louisville’s own Muhammad Ali. We also use mortadella, an Italian-style bologna studded with pistachios and chunks of pure pork fat. We slice it thin and drape it cold onto a pizza made with a broccoli-anchovy mash base, topped with buffalo mozzarella and olive oil.

“Instead of looking for lower-price meats, I recommend using high-quality product in smaller quantities. Low-cost meats usually mean poorly raised animals and automated manufacturing, which result in low quality and poor taste. Do as the Italians do—use the best you can find, but in moderation. The Sting Like a Bee pizza uses only ½ ounce of soppressata, but what it lacks in weight, it makes up in flavor.

“Finally, I recommend restaurants make their own sausage. Pizza LUPO uses its own house sausage on the Vesuvius pizza, with béchamel, fresh mozzarella, house chili flake, smoked tomato, serrano chilis, chili oil, basil and scallions. Find good-quality, preferably locally raised, ground pork. With simple ratios of salt, spice and sometimes a little sugar, you can make a distinct signature sausage for about $4 per pound.”

—Max Balliet, chef, Pizza LUPO, Louisville, KY  

Tracy Morin is PMQ’s senior copy editor.