The rise of cauliflower crust

Once upon a time, the lonely cauliflower was confined to the bottom shelf of the produce case. Usually, it sat there until it shifted from eggshell white to yolky yellow, peppered with dark freckles.  Occasionally, well-intentioned parents would give it a home and a place on the dinner table, where a fussy child would regift it to a dog who wasn’t quite as fussy.

Kids can be so cruel. 

But, things have changed. Today, cauliflower reigns supreme as the king of carb substitutes with crowns found in every aisle and an increasing number of pizzeria kitchens. Many restaurants, including New York’s critically-acclaimed Adoro Lei, have found cauliflower crust pizza to be a top seller.

Making cauliflower pizza

Is cauliflower crust pizza here to stay? Will it prove to be Gen-Z’s pepperoni slice? Or is it just a flash in the pan, like Gen X’s sesame-crusted seared ahi tuna?      

“I really don’t know,” said Adoro Lei head chef Mario Gentile. “But I’m gonna keep riding the wave until there’s nothing left.”

The sales suggest that the crust has yet to hit its crest – it’s a godsend for the gluten-intolerant and a hit with low-carb dieters who are unwilling to sacrifice pizza.  Brooklyn Pizza Masters churns out “about 200” cauliflower pizzas per week, owner Alfred Mitaj says. On the Lower East Side, Charles Fusto of Il Mattone initially bristled at the notion of adding it to the menu, but the order volume has been “tremendous” ever since.

“It’s not as popular as our regular [New York-style] pies or our grandma slices. No comparison.” Fusto said. “But, compared to what I thought we’d do? It’s huge, and it’s getting more popular every week.”

Kristina Lima, founder of The Gourmet Pizza Company in South Tampa, has also been pleasantly surprised.  

“When it first came around, I thought it was a fad. Now, I think it’s going to hang out for a while,” Lima said. “ The numbers have grown exponentially since we started carrying it. It’s not like the low-carb diet that came and went. This is something else…I’m just not quite sure what it is yet.”

That’s good news for restaurateurs and, perhaps, not such great news for chefs. Turning a watery vegetable into a sturdy and tasty base, they’ve learned, is no easy task. Gentile had to experiment with countless recipes until he came up with a pizza that could withstand scrutiny and the vaunted New York fold.

“Pliability was the biggest challenge,” said Gentile, who eventually found the right ratio of eggs, cheese, rice flour, and other ingredients for a structurally sound crust. 

Adoro Lei was an early adopter of the cauliflower pizza by way of what Bob Ross would call a happy accident. In 2016, the restaurant set out to create a special one-time pizza in support of the National Kidney Foundation’s annual walk. After the event, participants were treated to the limited edition pie, anchored by cauliflower, garlic, and red bell peppers, which are among the world’s most kidney-friendly veggies.

In addition to a folic acid, fiber, and an alphabet’s worth of vitamins, the bell peppers provided the pizza with a textural contrast that’s often missing from store-bought cauliflower crusts. Even though it was completely different from Adoro Lei’s traditional pies, the kitchen staff gobbled up the cauliflower crust slices almost as fast as the volunteers.

“It was only supposed to be for one day, but it was such a hit that we kept it on the menu,” Gentile said. “I still eat it all the time, but not for any health reasons. I do it because I like the taste.”

Gentile’s carefully-crafted cauliflower pie even satisfied pizza expert Scott Wiener, who isn’t normally a huge fan of what he deems to be a “pizza surrogate.”

“They do a great job, because it chars the way that standard pizza does and it folds the same way, which isn’t easy to do. I’ve taken gluten-free people there on my tour and they’re usually surprised at how good it is,” Wiener said. “Given a choice between that and their standard pizza, I’m going to have the regular pizza, for sure. But in a pinch? I wouldn’t turn it down.”

Wiener sees potential for cauliflower crust pizza, a savior for the gluten-sensitive and carb-phobic. Still, he doesn’t envision the faux dough rising beyond traditional pizza, or even gluten-free pizzas anchored by potato starch.

“To me, cauliflower crust pizza is like that wine you get in the grocery store,” Wiener said. “It’s not really wine, but if that’s what you need it to be, then that works just fine.”

Lima – a gluten-intolerant pizzaiolo specializing in GF and vegan pies – agrees.

“I eat our own gluten-free pizza like it’s going out of style, but cauliflower crust gets weird the next day, due to the moisture,” The Gourmet Pizza Company chef said. “Ultimately, there’s nothing like real pizza [with dough]. If someone tells you different, they’re lying.”

Cauliflower Crust pizza slicing

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