Dining With Denise Neil

Review: Pizza Hut re-imagines pizza with bold new flavors

Pizza Hut’s new Giddy-Up BBQ Chicken Pizza has a barbecue sauce “drizzle” and a crust rimmed with baked cheese.
Pizza Hut’s new Giddy-Up BBQ Chicken Pizza has a barbecue sauce “drizzle” and a crust rimmed with baked cheese. The Wichita Eagle

One of the things I’ve always found amazing about Pizza Hut is its ability to come up with new ways to make pizza.

Stuffed crust. P’Zones. Dippin’ Strips. Cheesy bites. Twisted crust. Bigfoot. Pizza sliders. Double deep pizza. Square pizzas in dinner boxes.

So I was only a little surprised last month when the chain, which got its start in Wichita, announced that it was re-imagining its pizzas again.

This was no simple crust stuffing or twisting, though. This involved the addition of 11 specialty pizzas made with several new sauces, crust flavors and specialty toppings as well as a selection of lower-calorie “skinny pies.” And drizzle.

Pretty bold, even for the risk-taking product development department at Pizza Hut.

Setting aside, for a second, the fact that dining at a large pizza chain might not be the most responsible thing to do for our health or for our consciences, Pizza Hut has a place in my Midwestern life. I grew up reading and getting rewarded for it with a Book It coupon good for a personal pan pizza. When I got older, my sister and I would order a medium hamburger pizza on Friday nights, eating it while we watched “Webster” and our parents went out for date night.

Now that I’m a parent, my 9-year-old is perfectly clear that her preference is Pizza Hut or Papa John’s over the many delicious local pizza places Wichita offers, from Picasso’s in Delano to Ziggy’s in Clifton Square. And I’ll admit I occasionally enjoy a thin-and-crispy beef and mushroom piled with powdered Parmesan with a side of marinara for dipping.

I cannot fight the Pizza Hut power. So this week, I decided to fully investigate the new menu in all of its curry-spiced, Sriracha-drizzled, Peruvian cherry pepper-topped weirdness.

And I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, the pizza is a sodium bomb, and after eating it for two days in a row, I required several gallons of water. But the new toppings, sauces and crust add so many possibilities, and, best of all, the pizzas come out looking as beautiful as the marketing photos promised.

The major downside is that the menu is now confusing as heck, and even after sampling six of the new pizzas, I’m still not sure I understand exactly how it works. It would require time, money and several pounds to find the perfect combination. (Don’t panic, Pizza Hut fans, the menu still has its original offerings, too.)

For both pizza binges, I ordered online so I could poke around and see what was available. I chose the “new recipes” tab on the website, which listed the 11 new specialty pies along with photos. They’re all served only as large pizzas and cost $12.99 apiece.

I chose the Giddy Up BBQ Chicken, which was served on a traditional hand-tossed crust and topped with barbecue sauce plus grilled chicken, the new hardwood-smoked bacon and red onions. The finishing touches were shavings of Cheddar baked onto the edges of the crust and a swirly barbecue sauce drizzle prettying up the center. I’m not usually a fan of barbecue pizzas, which tend to taste overwhelmingly of the too-sweet KC Masterpiece. But this sauce was subtle, and the chewy bacon was a nice complement to the tender chicken. It was a winner.

I also try to avoid anything labeled “skinny” because that usually translates into “weird tasting.” But the skinny crust on Pizza Hut’s new menu doesn’t taste weird at all. It’s made, according to Pizza Hut, with a “smarter” portion of hand-tossed dough, and the pizza makers go easy on the meats and cheeses so that each slice contains only 250 to 300 calories. The menu offers a list of pre-imagined skinny pies, but I went on my own, ordering one with pineapple and hardwood bacon. I’m a thin-and-crispy devotee, and this crust tasted similar but was a little doughier. It’s almost too good to be true.

The curry-flavored crust intrigued me from the first minute I read about it, so I knew I had to have it. I couldn’t see it listed as an option on any of the “new recipes,” so I created my own. Curried pizza crust is a new thing to me, so I selected toppings I thought would clash the least: the honey Sriracha sauce, sliced ham, Peruvian chili peppers, banana peppers and fresh spinach. The crust definitely smelled and tasted of curry, but it was a bit of a grease sponge, and the overwhelming saltiness of my creation was a problem. It was the spiciest of the pies we tried, fired not only by a kick in the curry crust but also by the hot cherry peppers and Sriracha sauce.

The next day, I treated the newsroom to a pizza buffet and this time selected three of the 11 new specialty pies. One was the Garden Party served on thin-and-crispy crust with fresh veggies, including the new diced Roma tomatoes and fresh spinach, all topped with a drizzle of balsamic. Although the sauce was too sweet on the spinach, the pizza was piled with crunchy fresh veggies. Paired with the thin crust, it almost seemed like health food.

The Buffalo chicken pizza also was a hit. Though its banana pepper and grilled chicken toppings didn’t set it dramatically apart from other Buffalo pizzas, the crust was rimmed with baked-on cheese shavings, and that made it special. It also had a Buffalo sauce drizzle, a nice touch. Not only do they make the pizzas prettier, they also add an extra layer of palate-pleasing texture and flavor.

Perhaps the most tasty of our selections, though, was the Cock-a-Doodle Bacon pizza, which showcases the restaurants’ new garlic Parmesan sauce, a creamy, thick Alfredo-like invention. It’s generously slathered on a hand-tossed crust and topped with grilled chicken, hardwood-smoked bacon and diced Roma tomatoes. This is a high-calorie, high-fat foodstuff that will make you moan in appreciation even though you know that the richness will likely cause immediate intestinal distress. In fact, after both of my tours through the new Pizza Hut menu, several of my samplers complained of minor queasiness.

Overall, I like the novelty of the new menu, and nothing was a total miss. I doubt I’d order curry crust again, but on future visits, I’ll likely ask for skinny crust loaded with some of the new veggie options, including the Roma tomatoes and spicy cherry peppers. I’d definitely ask for a drizzle.

If nothing else, the new menu has inspired my Pizza Hut-loving 9-year-old to expand her horizons. Previously a pepperoni-only girl, she loved the barbecue chicken pizza.

I guess that’s a start.

The new Pizza Hut menu

New crust options: Toasted Parmesan, salted pretzel, honey Sriracha, toasted Asiago, fiery red pepper, toasted cheddar, garlic butter, curry, ginger

New sauce options: Crushed tomato, creamy garlic Parmesan, honey Sriracha, barbecue, buffalo

New drizzle options: Balsamic, Buffalo, honey Sriracha, barbecue

New topping options: Salami, seasoned pork, anchovies, hardwood-smoked bacon, banana peppers, diced Roma tomatoes, Peruvian cherry peppers, fresh spinach