Article Thumbnail

What’s on a Supreme Pizza — And Whose God Complex Made It So?

Seriously, who decided that sausage, pepperoni, peppers, onions and olives is somehow superior to all other pizza combinations?

As the pandemic rolls on through yet another summer, one particular group of Americans has grown restless — Costco food-court loyalists. At the beginning of the shutdown, their beloved food courts were closed across the country, yet when they reopened, some menu items were missing. Most notable among them was their “Combo” pizza, which featured pepperoni, sausage, peppers, onions, olives and mushrooms. 

Officially, it seems that — at least through the rest of the pandemic — the Combo pizza will remain discontinued, but the food-court stans aren’t taking this lying down. There’s now a petition to bring it back that’s approaching 6,000 signatures, and on Twitter, there’s a daily drumbeat to revive the beloved pie. 

While I’m not a Costco shopper myself, I support the return of this pizza for one very important reason: Costco does not refer to it as a “supreme pizza,” which is a title that I — as a pizza lover and pizza journalist — take severe issue with. Pizza titles are not about stature, they are supposed to be descriptive in nature, referring to either the toppings — like meat lover’s pizza or veggie pizza — or its place of origin, like Neapolitan pizza or Detroit-style pizza.

Supreme pizza, on the other hand, offers you no insight as to what it contains, which has led to a certain degree of variation. Generally, supreme pizzas are topped with pepperoni, sausage, onions and peppers. In addition to that, they may also contain olives, mushrooms and even hamburger. For example, Red Baron’s Supreme Pizza contains pepperoni, sausage, peppers and onions, while Pizza Hut’s Supreme Pizza has pepperoni, sausage, peppers, onions, mushrooms and beef. DiGiorno, on the other hand, has two different supreme pizzas, one with pepperoni, sausage, peppers and onions and another that has all those plus olives

Normally, a variation in recipes is no big deal, but when the word “supreme” becomes attached, it becomes troublesome. “Supreme” — according to the Miriam-Webster dictionary — refers to something final, ultimate or authoritative, so by the very definition of the word, there can only be one recipe. Yet, as demonstrated above, supreme pizza has several variations.

Such a name is especially problematic for pizza because it’s probably the most subjective food there is. Everyone likes pizza, but they like it in different ways with different toppings and in different styles. Who is “supreme pizza” to call itself supreme? Personally, I’m not big on olives or mushrooms, so I don’t order supreme pizza because I’m afraid it’ll have one of those on it. Also, even though I’ve been known to eat some crazy shit on pizza, I generally prefer to taste the pizza part of my pizza, and supreme pizzas are more loaded up than I like. 

I’m not the only one who feels this way either. I consulted James Beard Award-winning pizza chef Chris Bianco, who says, “Whatever you like, I’m cool with, but for my pizzas, I like things more restrained and I keep my pizzas very minimal. For me, all those ingredients are too much.”

So are Bianco and I failing to recognize the supremacy of supreme pizza, or is it maybe not so “supreme” after all? Much more appropriate is Costco’s “Combo” pizza or the “Deluxe” pizza at Domino’s (which features pepperoni, sausage, peppers, onions and mushrooms). Admittedly, these are still vague titles, but they at least don’t claim superiority.

Digging into the history of supreme pizza doesn’t offer any justification for the title either. Carol Helstosky, author of Pizza: A Global History explains to me that pizzas began to become popular in America after World War II. To make the new food seem more like a complete meal, people began to offer it with more and more toppings. Pizza with “everything” began to grow in popularity around the 1960s, and supreme pizza’s history is an extension of that. 

The earliest example I can find of a pizza called “Supreme” is from an Illinois restaurant with an unfortunate name: “The Plantation.” Back in 1953, they offered a “Supreme Pizza” with just sausage, peppers and mushrooms. More likely, though, the association of the words “supreme” and “pizza” were popularized by America’s first pizza chain, Shakey’s, which was referring to their entire menu as “Pizza Supreme” as early as 1959.

An ad for Shakey’s from 1959

For the next decade, the word “supreme” could be found on more pizza menus, but it’s difficult to say what was on the pizzas from the title alone. In 1964, an Oklahoma barbecue restaurant touted a “Supreme Pizza” with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms and hamburger, which would seem a bit more like a “meat lover’s” pizza today.

Things would begin to standardize in the late 1960s when Pizza Hut started offering “Pizza Supreme” on their menu with pepperoni, sausage, peppers, onion and mushrooms (within a few years, they’d invert the title to “Supreme Pizza”). Throughout the 1970s, Pizza Hut grew into a nationwide chain, and along with that, they built some uniformity around the phrase “Supreme Pizza” as other restaurants — and even frozen pizza brands — began to recognize it as a pizza with a mix of meat and vegetables.

Pizza Hut ad from 1970

Thus, much like stuffed crust pizza, we have Pizza Hut to thank for the popularization of supreme pizza. And though I’ve been a loyal patron of the Hut since my youth, I struggle with the idea of any fast-food pizza joint dictating which set of toppings is truly supreme. Hell, Pizza Hut isn’t even the top pizza chain anymore, as Domino’s overtook them in 2017

Even from a scientific perspective, flavor chemist Terry Miesle explains, “Maybe back in the 1960s those were the supreme toppings, but there are so many choices when it comes to toppings, I don’t know how you could technically call any superior. Sausage, peppers and onions are part of traditional Italian cooking, so it makes sense to include them and even pepperoni, which is from America, provides a nice contrast to those flavors. But I still don’t think there’s anything ‘supreme’ there.” Additionally, he notes that olives and mushrooms can often be alienating ingredients for some people (read: me), so to include them is also suspect.

In fact, having now examined supreme pizza’s lack of uniformity, its questionable history and its dubious sovereignty, it becomes all the more apparent to me that the title isn’t only erroneous, but it’s also downright insulting. No other assortment of pizza toppings would ever dare be so presumptuous. Look at the meat lover’s pizza, it supposes no authority over other pizzas! It’s for lovers of meat — be they king or peasant — no superfluous titles are needed. Or take Hawaiian pizza, is it guilty of cultural appropriation? Sure, but does it profess superiority? Never! On the contrary, Hawaiian pizza desperately fights for its very right to exist!

Supreme pizza? No. I, and qualified others, object to the title. May I suggest renaming it “Combo” like Costco has done or some other ambiguous adjective — one that doesn’t seek to belittle other, perhaps even tastier, varieties of pizza. Supreme pizza, we ask that you step down off your self-appointed throne, or face the consequences.

Do Not Sell My Personal Information