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Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Calzone?

Though it's been around just as long as pizza, calzones have never gotten out of pizza’s shadow

If you were to head Little Caesars right now, you could get yourself something called “The Crazy Calzony.” It’s basically a pizza that’s had every two slices folded together into pockets and then stuffed with cheese, “garlic white sauce” and pepperoni (if you want the pepperoni version at all). On par with Little Caesars bacon-wrapped pizza, the Crazy Calzony is the kind of greasy-yet-delicious, little-time-only monstrosity that the restaurant chain is known for. But despite its name, the one thing the “Crazy Calzony” definitely isn’t, is a calzone.

A calzone is a closed pocket made from pizza dough and usually stuffed with mozzarella and ricotta cheese as well as whatever else you want to put in there. It’s basically the Italian version of an empanada, but generally much bigger — calzones are often made from an entire pizza crust, just stuffed and folded in half. Little Caesars’ Crazy Calzony, on the other hand, is much closer to a stuffed-crust pizza or even a stromboli, which is often rolled with the ends still opened up. The difference here might seem pedantic, as most of the ingredients involved with pizzas, strombolis and calzones are the same. Still, I’d argue that Little Caesars’ casual disregard of what a calzone actually is will only serve to hurt a food that’s spent its entire existence struggling to find its own identity in the shadow of its flatter, circular and far more famous cousin.

Pizza and calzones came into existence at the same time, in the same place: 18th century Naples. But despite having equal footing at their inception, pizza has gone on to become one of the most consumed foods on planet Earth, while calzones generally lag behind as a secondary — if not tertiary — item at your locally-owned pizzeria. And, when it comes to fast-food options, big-name pizza franchises have largely ignored the item. To say nothing of how incredibly rare calzone-centric restaurants are.

It’s not like calzones haven’t had help, though. Since the 1980s, Pizza Hut has occasionally served calzones, but the “P’zone” — as they call them — goes largely forgotten when it’s not on the menu. Also, in 1996, Seinfeld had a whole episode about the deliciousness of calzones, and this was when Seinfeld was the number one show on TV.

However, it was Parks and Recreation that had a more fitting portrayal of calzone, as Adam Scott’s character is portrayed as being obsessed with them, with every other character just wondering why. 

What is it about the calzone that makes it so much less beloved than pizza? For the opinion of an authentic Italian chef, I turned to Chopped winner Giuseppe Fanelli, who owns Tredici North in Purchase, New York. He believes that calzones have failed to keep up with pizza because, “they’re much more doughy than pizza,” explaining that when you bite into a calzone, you’re getting twice as much dough as you would from a bite of pizza, which might turn a lot of people off. 

He also says that he rarely sees a lot of creative effort put into calzones. “In the region of Italy that my family is from, we have something called panzerotti,” Fanelli explains. “They’re basically a fried, handheld calzone, and we put all kinds of different stuff inside of it. They make them by the trays over there, and they’re delicious.” In America, though, most calzones are simply stuffed with cheese. 

For a perspective from the other end of the pizza spectrum, I turned to Patty Schiebmier, who spent decades with Pizza Hut R&D and also invented the stuffed-crust pizza. When I ask her why she thinks calzones have failed to make a big impact on the fast-food pizza scene, she replies with something similar to Fanelli. “With calzones, there’s twice the crust and half the toppings,” she explains, adding that many people go for pizza because of the toppings. She also says, “The top crust is usually dry and hard, and you have to eat through that double layer of dough, which usually mutes those yummy toppings.”

Personally, I think a few things hold calzones back from reaching the glory of pizza. For one, they often require a fork and knife to eat and the sauce is usually on the side, all of which makes them kind of unwieldy, especially when compared to a slice of pizza. It’s also much more difficult to share a calzone. I mean, have you ever heard of someone holding a calzone party? Of course you haven’t.

However, maybe calzones just haven’t yet had their chance to shine. Jason Griffin is the director of franchise development for a company called D.P. Dough — which solely focuses on calzones and doesn’t even serve pizza — and he says that his company has made some significant inroads in the college towns they’ve opened up in. “Calzones are too often just seen as a side item in pizza restaurants, but in time, they can stand on their own if they’re given more of a chance,” he believes.

He adds that this isn’t just wishful thinking. D.P. Dough presently has 53 restaurants — 11 of which have opened in the last year — and Griffin says that when a new franchise debuts, things are slow at first because people don’t really think about calzones. But, once word-of-mouth spreads, D.P. Dough locations acquire a good, steady lunch crowd. 

One thing D.P. Dough has done to make calzones more appealing is to shrink them down, which is actually a more traditional approach. American calzones might often be huge, but the original calzones in Naples were handheld. By making them a “personal item” as opposed to something for the group, Griffin says that they can cater more toward the individual tastes of each customer. Along with that, they offer a wide array of items to be stuffed inside, like their “BBQ Chicken Zone” or their “Chick-N-Bacon Zone.” While these hardly seem like the authentic Italian ingredients from the old country, it does represent a focus on the calzone that Fanelli says is usually lacking here in America. 

This approach is pretty much the exact opposite of what Little Caesars has done with their “Crazy Calzony,” which only has two options — plain and pepperoni — and it’s even messier and more unwieldy than a traditional calzone. (Also, and I can’t stress this point enough, it’s not even a fucking calzone.)

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