This week, we're presenting a contest within a contest.
Instead of stopping in at just one pizzeria, we checked out both Domino's (399 Bloomfield Ave., Caldwell) and Papa John's, which held its grand opening Thursday night at 455 Bloomfield Ave., in Caldwell on the corner of Central Avenue.
How will the local branches of these national franchises fare against each other, and the local businesses of The Caldwells overall? We can't wait to tell you, but let's take a look at the world of pizza franchising first.
In case you haven't been paying attention, the "chain" pizza wars have been heating up as of late.
There was a time when Domino's ruled the Northeast in fast-food pizza takeout. The local spot on Bloomfield Avenue in Caldwell did some serious business for a long time. Then things like "The 'Noid" and a 30-minute delivery guarantee did more damage than good to its reputation.
Soon Domino's were being knocked down all over the place. In the meantime, small-business pizzerias as we know them started redefining themselves with eat-in dining rooms and expanded menus.
Enter Papa John's. The company came on strong in the post-Domino's dominance and "pizza, pizza" world (yes, that's a Little Caesar's reference).
With a novel emphasis on super-fresh ingredients and some strong cross promotion with the likes of NASCAR (a Domino's thing), Papa John's put a dent in what was left of Domino's market share with concentrated one-upmanship.
It's actually a nice healthy competition; both are constantly upgrading their menus with creative things like Domino's "pasta bowls" (carb-y but good) and better prices.
Domino's actually recently dusted off its "30-minute guarantee" campaign, but without guaranteeing anything—it's just a message to customers how quick the deliveries can be.
Every Pizza Tells a Story
The boxes from each business are covered with advertising about their ingredients, service and even box design. Domino's credits its cut-off front corners for being "all about the pizza."
The top of the Papa John's box features a giant illustration of a relieved John Schnatter, the company's founder, among seemingly just harvested vegetables.
Beyond Their Four Walls
In the Web 2.0 age, the battle for the pizza chain title may be won online. Perhaps even more than taste, these two pizza places are in the convenience business.
Both Papa John's and Domino's have state-of-the-art Web sites where customers can create accounts for even faster ordering.
Domino's currently has a slight edge; each step of the ordering process is outlined on a timeline on the top of the screen (example: "Bill started making your order at 7:53 p.m.") Customers can even play a version of the old board game Connect Four (maybe a game of dominoes was be too hard to program).
Both sites feature special online-only coupons with significant discounts. They also send out e-mail blasts with offers and deals through Twitter as well.
There are even various third-party applications for the iPhone that are compatible with both companies' official sites.
Barring a delivery driver drag race down Bloomfield Avenue, the only way to rate each restaurant individually and then against each other is to eat the stuff.
Grabbing a plain cheese pizza from each place, we convened at Rockn' Joe in Caldwell to go crust-to-crust.
The judges this time are editor Mike Pignataro, contributor Ron Albanese and Caldwells Patch interns Jesse Feldman and Geordy Boveroux, both West Essex High School students.
It was just about 6 o'clock Thursday night when I went into Papa John's to pick up the pizza. Only an hour into its grand opening, the place was already buzzing with a steady stream of customers picking up pies or phoning in orders.
It's army of workers—24 in all—manned the counter and worked on a sort of pizza-making conveyer line.
General Manager Sal Amoreno, a Caldwell resident for the past 12 years, is a sort of entrepreneur who hatched the idea of starting his own franchise last spring.
In December, converting the old Breslows Decorators store—now located in West Caldwell—into a take-out only pizzeria on the corner of Bloomfield and Central avenues was underway.
"I've lived here for 12 years and I know a lot of people in town," Amoreno said. "When this space became available, I thought it was a great spot. I'm really happy to be here."
I've always considered Papa John's to be in a bit of a higher class than the other chain pizzerias. Perhaps I bought into the whole "better ingredients" pitch.
While the pizza we tasted Thursday was not the best Papa John's I've ever had, it still overall beat Domino's.
I think the primary difference for me was that I've always been a fan of the zesty sauce on Papa John's pizzas. However, this pie was smothered in cheese and lacked in the sauce category.
The crust was more doughy and filling than Domino's with a bit of a rising-crust effect around the edges. The Domino's crust, on the other hand, was flat and limp—pretty much collapsing underneath it's cheese, which, like Papa John's, overpowered its sauce as well.
I'd have to say Papa John's claimed victory in this head-to-head battle. But while Papa John's might offer a nice change of pace (and expanded hours—open Friday and Saturday nights until 1 a.m.), I'd still stick with the mom-and-pop shops that dominate in The Caldwells.
Upon my first sampling, both pies tasted remarkably similar; the amount of cheese and baking processes saw to that. Both pizzas were fairly hot out of their boxes.
Cheese: Both pies had a solid, continuous covering of cheese on an estimated 97 percent of the pie. Neither was too flavorful, but the Papa John's pizza had a little less, leaving room for the sauce to make its presence known.
The cheese on both pies was just slightly crisp in spots here and there, presumably from a sort of high-speed, top-down baking—those were the better parts.
The cheese on the Domino's pie was a little undercooked.
Sauce: Both of these were "dry pies." How about a little more sauce? The better of the two was definitely Papa John's.
Crust: The crust on the Papa John's pizza was bigger (as was the pie overall), and held the cheese and sauce better. My Domino's slice collapsed under the weight of its copious amount of cheese. The crust was quite "pillowy."
I think Domino's needs to tweak the speed of their conveyor belt oven—if its pizza cooked a little while longer, it would have been a better product.
Overall: Something interesting happened in this contest. I sampled the pizza in this order: Papa John's, Domino's, Papa John's again and then some more Domino's.
The second time around, the Papa John's was a lot better. When it cooled off a bit, the sauce really grabbed me.
I think Domino's could do better. They've spent millions nationally touting a revamped menu, specifically "50 years in the making." How about adding a year for cooking and better sauce?
The victor: Papa John's!
Special Guest Judges: Jesse Feldman and Geordy Boveroux
These two aspiring writers from West Essex High School are often powered by pizza; a couple of their local favorites include Forte and Russillo.
Jesse on Papa John's:
Cheese: I thought it was a little too cheesy for me. The cheese covered up the sauce, which made for an almost tasteless pizza.
Sauce: I liked what I could taste of the sauce on the pizza. I thought that it had good flavor and a good "kick" to it.
Crust: It was well-cooked and a good "bonus" to the end of the pizza.
Overall: Overall, the pizza was not as good as I hoped it would be. I was less impressed with Papa John's than I have been in the past. Maybe if they let up on the cheese a little, it would help with the taste.
Jesse on Domino's
Cheese: Although I also thought that the pizza was a little heavy on the cheese as well, it wasn't as much as Papa John's. I could actually taste some of the sauce.
Sauce: I liked the sauce from Papa John's better, though the Domino's sauce still had some good taste.
Crust: It was a little bit undercooked and slightly doughy.
Overall: I liked the Domino's pizza better than Papa John's. I think that if Papa John's would let up on the cheese it could overtake Domino's. However, for now, Domino's rules the battle between these two superpowers of the pizza industry.
Geordy on Papa John's:
Cheese: This is a major factor in how I choose a pizza, and when I took one bite into their pie, I don't know what I was eating, but it sure wasn't any sort of cheese I'd ever had.
Sauce: What can really set a pizza over the top for me to make it a must-have is for it to have a flavorful sauce that isn't overpowering. Luckily for Papa John's, they got this part right as there was almost no sauce on it. I saw a little bit of something that was red, but it was so tasteless I couldn't figure out if it was sauce I was eating.
Crust: I enjoy it to be doughy, but it has to have a little crunch in it. Papa John's could not fit my needs as it was as soft as the inside of a bagel.
Overall: Papa John's being a large chain pizzeria had me tempering my expectations, but it still could not meet them. With the slogan "better ingredients, better pizza," you would expect something better than what Papa John's delivered.
Geordy on Domino's
Domino's has run multiple ads where they attempt to silence their critics by having them try their "new and improved" pie. They have tapes of some people calling their crust "cardboard" and they go to the critics homes and apparently the new pizza changes their mind.
Cheese: It had a flavor to it, though I have had better, and they put on a little bit too much.
Sauce: I was once again left wondering "what sauce?" There was barely any on my slice, and with the extra cheese, it only made the lack of sauce all the more obvious. It, like Papa John's, lacked any real taste.
Crust: When it came to the dough, maybe Domino's would be better off using that actual cardboard, as it simply could not hold up to any extent. It also seemed a little undercooked, remarkably soft.
Overall: I would give Domino's the nod over Papa John's, but it wasn't much competition. Domino's may boast that they have new and improved sauce—but perhaps they should use more of it.
Address: 399 Bloomfield Ave., Caldwell
Address: 455 Bloomfield Ave., Caldwell
Pizzas from both businesses were tested on April 8, 2010.
If you would like to be a guest judge, please let us know or post your experiences at each pizzeria below. The Caldwells Patch has visited Forte, Calandra's, Nicco's, Cedar Grill and Pizza, Pizza and Sandwich Barn, Tony D's and now Domino's and Papa John's.
Next week: Michael's Pizzeria and Restaurant in West Caldwell.