While we think mom-and-pop shops make the best pizza in the nation, we'd be remiss if we didn't keep abreast of what the chains are up to. Suit up, it's time for another Chain Reaction, folks.
I ate a lot of Domino's pizza one fine summer during my late-teen dirtbag years, because they were in a price war with the new Little Caesar's in town. I don't remember the specifics, but I know one promotion involved a steep discount if you handed over a bounty of the competitor's refrigerator magnets. And my friends and I spent way too much time conspiring to make our order as convoluted and inconveniently timed as possible, because you got another $3 off if the delivery took more than half an hour.
We hustled hard for those discounted pizzas, and we got exactly what we deserved. Domino's pizza of that era was terrible, which they must have known years before they admitted as much in a stunningly frank advertising campaign, so they focused their efforts on their only viable market: the underfunded and pizza-dumb. Every dollar saved was another dollar diverted to the malt liquor fund, so we didn't care how bad the food was.
I haven't had a lot of Domino's since, but I keep hearing that it's much improved. Of course, I'm mostly hearing that from Domino's themselves in their somewhat desperate but endearing series of ads that can summarized as "We don't suck anymore, we swear!" I'm a sucker for cheese and redemption, so I set my skepticism aside and dipped my toe back into the Domino's end of the pizza pool with the new Stuffed Cheesy Bread.
I had too many negative childhood associations to trust myself with a fair assessment of the new and allegedly improved Domino's pizza, but I figured I could be reasonable about the cheese-filled breadsticks that dominate the chain's current TV advertising. What they call a stuffed breadstick looks like a calzone to me, and fresh off a bad date with the Pizza Hut P'Zone, I felt qualified to judge the Domino's version.
Stuffed Cheesy Bread comes in three flavors: Cheese; Bacon and Jalapeño; and Spinach and Feta. Each $5.99 calzone comes sliced into 8 "breadsticks" and contains as much cheese as a medium pizza. Domino's website calls it "a blend of cheese made with 100 percent mozzarella and cheddar." Hmm. The careful (or paranoid) reader might see some wiggle room in the wording there. That doesn't quite say "a blend of mozzarella and cheddar," does it? But that's all right if it tastes good.
The exteriors of all three were thoroughly cooked, which provided a nice contrast between the crunchy crust and the pillowy interior. The outside is said to be "seasoned with a sprinkling of garlic, parsley and Romano cheese," and while I couldn't detect much additional flavor beyond basic pizza crust, the taste was good enough and the texture was even better.
The soft layer of bread separating crust from filling is very good, though perhaps a bit too thick. Domino's could cut out a half-inch of bread and reduce the cheese accordingly and still not be ripping anyone off. The ratio is good; there's just too much of both bread and cheese.
The cheese itself is pretty bland. It's salty and gooey, which is almost sufficient, but like most commercial mozzarella it lacks any definitive evidence that it is an actual dairy product. This means that the plain cheese flavor lacks luster on its own, and Domino's makes the strangely parsimonious mistake of not providing any dipping sauce. Not only do you have to think to order sauce separately, but you have to pay 60 cents for it.
Might as well get the sauce coverage out of the way here, then: I ordered a tub each of the Garlic, BBQ, Kicker Hot, Marinara, and Sweet Mango Habanero, and they were all disappointing. The Garlic looked like lemon meringue and tasted like garlic powder dumped in movie theater popcorn butter. The BBQ was a super thick sludge of brown sugar in ketchup. Marinara could have been worse, but it also could have had flavor beyond tomato paste and salt. Sweet Mango Habanero was generically fruity, though spicier than expected. Kicker Hot tasted like a heavily celery-salted Bloody Mary mix.
That's OK, though, because the Spinach and Feta and Jalapeño and Bacon Stuffed Cheesy Breads are both good enough to stand alone. The fillings are a bit sparse given the amounts of cheese and bread, but they are almost shockingly flavorful.
Real chunks of salty, tangy feta are incorporated into the standard cheese blend, and if you take big enough bites to make sure you hit one, they elevate this miles ahead of the plain cheese. The spinach is pungent enough to cut through all the bread and mozzarella.
The Bacon and Jalapeño is even better. Whole rounds of pickled peppers have a consistent and distinct heat and a touch of fruitiness. The bacon is on the thick and flabby side and doesn't taste particularly smoked, cured, or otherwise bacony, but if you just think of this as a ham and jalapeño calzone, you'll be more than satisfied.