Pizza in Ireland

Corned beef, potatoes and shamrocks. It's the perfect topping trio for an Irish pizza, right? Well, not really, except perhaps in some stereotypical pizza kitchen.

What today's traveler to Ireland will find in some of the better, more creative pizza parlors are bacon and cabbage pizzas, as well as toppings like spicy lamb, vegetables, feta cheese and olives. There's even Irish breakfast pizza, with bacon, sausage, black pudding, tomatoes and egg. But, we're getting ahead of ourselves.

"Pizza in Ireland is in a sad state," according to John McKenna, who has been writing and publishing Bridgestone Guides to the best food in Ireland since 1991. McKenna, who said he was educated as a lawyer before becoming a journalist, has been writing about food with his wife Sally since 1989.

Domestic (Ireland and Great Britain) consumption is dominated by Goodfellas Pizza, a hugely successful brand which I wouldn't countenance eating. It's frozen! And has become one of Ireland's and the UK's most popular branded pizza names in the past five years. It's the product of Green Isle Foods, the Irish consumer foods subsidiary of Northern Foods.

"But, pizza is popular." McKenna said, "The problem is that it's also bad, like Chinese food a decade ago." He said that most pizza is sold in Italian-style restaurants. Here's where you find 'fresh pasta' and 'fresh pizza' and other Italian food. There are also freestanding pizza-only parlors (eat in, take out and/or home delivery) including:

Apache Pizza, founded in 1996, now with 13 units in Dublin plus 'express delivery.'

Four Star Pizza, advertising 'American style pizza' in eight major Irish cities, founded in 1981 near Pittsburgh (USA) and incorporated in 1986 a wholly owned Irish company; and

Pizza Express, an upscale operation with classy modern furniture and jazz music, with about 250 units in the UK and Ireland. These are concentrated in Ireland's major urban centers, such as Dublin, Belfast, Cork, Limerick and Galway.

Major U.S. chains are cropping up, like Dominos and Pizza Hut. Dominos is pushing its home delivery, a concept that is increasingly popular, again in the cities, according to McKenna who also said, "pizza is an urban food, but it is classified into a fast food ghetto, which is the great problem, so no skill is used in making it properly. It's dismal. Still back in the days of ham and pineapple." However, there are some bright spots in this Irish black pizza hole.

On our trip to Ireland last year, we visited two of those pizza operations that McKenna highlighted: the long-established Bad Ass Cafe in Dublin's Temple Bar and O'Connells in Ballsbridge, a section of Dublin. While only several miles apart, these two operations are worlds apart in pizza and atmosphere. O'Connells, located in the lower level of the very upscale Bewley's (the tea folks) Hotel, offers several course meals (from starters through roasts and fresh catch from Irish waters) on a daily menu.

The Bad Ass Cafe, on the other hand, caters to the informal, walk-in-off-the-street crowd in this trendy, pub-dominated section of Dublin. And the menu is focused on pizza. Tom Lorigan, general manager, said Bad Ass Cafe was one of the original eateries in Temple Bar more than 20 years ago, but the whole area was only revitalized about four years ago when the Irish economy began to soar.

Bright blues and brighter reds dominate the exterior and interior at Bad Ass. A casual setting, small wooden tables that can be pushed together to accommodate larger groups (as in tourists), an open kitchen and large wall murals of donkeys in action give Bad Ass an atmosphere you won't duplicate in Ireland or in the U.S.

Bad Ass offers "Beginners" (chicken wings, mushrooms, bruschetta and nachos), a 'Pasta Parlour,' Mexican Sombrero' specialties and 'Saddle Sore' salads. Chicken strips (baguette), sirloin steak, burgers and side saddles (fries, baked baby potatoes and garlic bread) are also available, but Bad Ass is known for its pizzas, according to Lorigan.

He said the favorite is the meat combo, referred to as the 'Kitchensinko,' with tomato, cheese, ham, frankfurters, pepperoni, mushrooms and peppers. Medium size (9") is 6.95 Irish Pounds (IP) (about $7.82 as converted during summer travel) and the large (12") is 9.10IP ($10.25). Other 'designer pizzas' include:

'Pesto We're Impressed-oh' with homemade pesto sauce with fresh tomato, olives and mozzarella cheese;
'Whiter Shade of Pale' with white cheese sauce, ham, mushrooms and peppers;
'Blue By You' with blue cheese, bacon and cherry tomato; and
'One Serious Veggie Combo' Stop the Lights…The Big One with tomato, cheese, peppers, mushrooms, onion, fresh tomato sauce and herbs.

Prices for above pizzas are 6.75IP ($7.60) or 6.95IP ($7.82) for medium and 8.95IP ($10.07) for large. Pizza toppings for D.I.Y. (well not really, you design, we construct.) include those mentioned above plus additional ones, such as spicy chicken, anchovies, tuna, corn, fresh garlic and Jalapeno chili.

Lorigan said that when it comes to pizza, Bad Ass has been successful "because the ingredients are fresh and we keep changing the menu to make it interesting." He said that pepperoni is the favorite topping of visiting Americans and ham and mushrooms for the local Irish.

Across town in Ballsbridge is O'Connells in the Bewley's Hotel on Merrion Road, located near the U.S. embassy, several large U.S. and Irish corporations and the new Four Seasons Hotel. Here the atmosphere is more upscale, a level above dress casual, but comfortable for any meal of the day and an expansive lounge for after-theatre nightcaps.

O'Connells daily menu features fresh fish, roasts, leg of lamb, steak and (on this day) 'wild mushroom spring rolls,' with entree prices from 12.95IP ($14.57) to 17.95IP ($20.20).

Pizza offerings are limited, but changing frequently. The night we were there the feature was wood burning oven pizza with basil, roasted pepper, mozzarella and chorizo sausage 5.95IP ($6.70) for the 'starter' size and 11.95IP ($13.44) for the larger 'main' entree. Accompanying the pizza is a choice of garlic bread, green salad or chips. (Chips in Ireland are French fries.)

Chef John in the kitchen said that one of their pizza favorites is the three cheese Irish pizza, which he labeled a 'contradiction in term.' Included are three native Irish cheeses, Cashel blue, cheddar and Gubeen. Food critic McKenna said the 'pizzettas' at O'Connells rise above the commonplace because of their use of 'artisan' toppings, those grown and produced locally in Ireland, and the creative combination of those toppings.

Traveling from east to west in Ireland, on roads narrow enough to make America's urban rush hours seem tame, most pizza is "very mediocre," according to McKenna. He did, however, nominate two Ireland pizza operations worth a visit: the Ballymore Inn, in Ballymore Eustace, County Kildare, and Pi in Cork City. But, in Galway, a youthful as well as Ireland's fastest growing city, we encountered Scoosi's, an Italian restaurant serving pasta, pizza, steak, fish, chicken and 'lots of vegetarian dishes.'

Scoosi's restaurant is located at the end of a long, store-lined pedestrian, cobble stone walkway and situated by the river Corrib at Spanish Arch, with outside seating throughout the summer. Here the pizzas are all 11 inches with a thin crust and are served with a basic toppings of mozzarella and tomato sauce. The most popular, according to our hostess, are Margheritta (mozzarella and tomato sauce. We'd call it 'plain.') (5.50IP) ($6.20), Spanish Arch (prawns/shrimp, mussels, tuna and cod) (7.95IP) ($8.95) and Scoosi (pepperoni and mixed peppers) (6.95IP) ($7.82). Scoosi's gourmet pizzas are Surf and Turf (fillet steak, prawns, mushrooms, onions and mozzarella) (11.95IP) ($13.45), Benedict (mozzarella, tomato sauce, spinach and a free range egg) (8.95IP) ($10.06) and Claddagh (smoked Galway salmon, capers, mozzarella and tomato sauce) (9.95IP) ($11.20).

Further up north in Ireland is Roscoff Café, on Belfast's Fountain Street, the home of the newest phenomenon in pizza 'n' focaccia pizzas. Food critic McKenna wrote recently in Irish Times about these focaccia pizzas, calling them 'simple, delicious and ingenious.' The owners have taken the smart idea of using widely available focaccia bread, sliced in half and coated with a tomato sauce, to take the place of the conventional pizza base. McKenna describes recipes for various focaccia pizzas (chorizo sausage focaccia with red and yellow peppers, chicken and rosemary potato focaccia) at http://www.ireland.com/dublin/living/food/mckenna/mckenna0619.htm

McKenna said that the Roscoff organization "understands exactly what is the food of the moment, the food people want to eat right now." And focaccia pizzas are as hip as ever."

As we've circled Ireland, it's obvious that pizza is popular and low cost. McKenna simply called it 'cheap.' But its popularity is probably linked to its price, because for many years Ireland has been a poor, struggling country. Only lately, and before the fall of the dot-coms, has Ireland experienced significant financial and social growth. Today it is called the 'Celtic Tiger,' Europe's equivalent to our Silicon Valley. They're even building four lane highways; and people are complaining they have to move away from the cities (like Galway and Dublin) to afford housing.

How popular is pizza? Some have even claimed that pizza has replaced fish and chips (deep fried white fish and French fries served with a special vinegar) as the most popular take out meal. If that were true, it would be the equivalent of pizza replacing the Big Mac and other burgers at the drive thru.

The Irish people are a social people. Just visit a few pubs and note the pints lifted high in the air before being downed and the always-present traditional or folk music. And pizza is a social food, often eaten with many friends around the six-top or the kitchen table or in front of the TV. Pizza fits into the Irish culture.

Pizza is also popular because of the use of fresh ingredients. While there are typical distributors of restaurant ingredients, Irish people, and therefore many (but not all) restaurant proprietors, cook with freshly (as in daily) bought ingredients. Many Irish still stop at the grocery, the deli, the butcher and the open-air market daily. I think they could tell the difference between a canned mushroom and a fresh one.

When Americans think of Irish food, they mention corned beef and cabbage or Irish stew. Some even joke about potatoes, or the lack there of, as in the Great Potato Famine. (Believe me, and my waistline, there is no shortage of potatoes in Ireland today!) But pizza is a strong contender for the most popular food in Ireland. Irish pizza operators have found a niche-a demanding and growing market for low cost, fresh food-and are meeting the need. And by offering more gourmet pizza with more expensive and upscale ingredients they're able to improve their margins and keep the customer from getting bored with only pepperoni and cheese. PMQ

Jim Berberet (Freeport, IL) writes about pizza and travel, business topics like marketing and sales, and financial topics like retirement planning and publicly traded stocks. Contact him at berb@prodigy.net.