Pizza with pizzazz

May 15, 2003
Freschetta goes gourmet with some help from its newly formed Culinary Council
Many food companies have tried , and failed -- to bridge the gap between frozen and restaurant-quality pizza. Now, with its launch of Freschetta Brick Oven pizzas, Schwan's Consumer Brands North America believes it has succeeded. The product is the result of a three-year effort by Schwan's R&D team, as well as the company's newly assembled Freschetta Culinary Council, which is comprised of five upscale restaurant chefs. Freschetta is a fierce competitor in the frozen pizza market. With U.S. sales of $188 million last year, the line enjoys a growing share of the estimated $2.5 billion frozen pizza segment. But privately held Schwan's, which also produces Red Baron and Tony's pizza brands, wanted to extend the upscale Freschetta brand with a line of gourmet offerings for sophisticated consumers who want pizzazz in their pizza toppings.  "Our goal with Freschetta has always been to bring a level of quality to the frozen food shelf that rivals what consumers get in restaurants," says national brand manager Tom Bierbaum.To do so, Schwan's formed the Freschetta Culinary Council, the first working chef advisory board organized by a major food company to enhance the quality of its products.Personality and passion Selected for their personalities, passion and culinary renown, council members include Tony Mantuano, of Chicago's Spaggia; Robert McGrath, chef/owner of Roaring Fork in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Joe Miller, chef/owner of Joe's restaurant in Los Angeles; Boston chef Daniele Baliani, known for his creations at Pignoli; and Italian-born Walter Potenza, owner/chef of Aquaviva Eurobistro in Providence, R.I. The Council's first order of business was the reformulation of existing Freschetta's frozen pizza varieties. Meetings were held in January 2000, followed by jaunts to the chefs' home cities. Next came the development of new pizza varieties, a project that ultimately took Council members and the R&D team to Gubbio, Italy, where Potenza operates a cooking school. "I believe a chef ought to have extensive knowledge of history, geography and agriculture because they are the foundations of our research and the strength of our efforts," says Potenza. "Cooking takes us back home.''Fit for a king Italians are believed to have created pizza as we know it today. The story goes: In the late 1800s, Raffael Esposito, a baker living in Napoli, created the dish for visiting royalty -- the Italian monarch King Umberto and his consort, Queen Margherita. In order to impress them , and as a display of his patriotic fervor -- Esposito chose to top flat bread with food that best represented the colors of Italy: red tomato, white mozzarella cheese and green basil. The King and Queen were so impressed that word quickly reached the masses. Pizza has since become one of the most popular foods in the world. While in Italy, the Freschetta's project team consulted with one of the country's leading experts on pizza. As work on the Brick Oven line progressed, it became clear that development of a new tomato sauce was warranted. Team members thought that the sauce used for other Freschetta brands was too thick for the new brand and agreed on a lighter-tasting puree of fresh tomatoes. To give the pizza a rich gourmet taste and mouthfeel, they also experimented with cheese varieties. Despite a higher cost, they switched from skim-milk mozzarella to one made from whole milk. A major breakthrough occurred when they developed a thin crust that is actually fire-baked in a brick oven, the same as restaurant pizza. When the "perfect crust" was ready, the Council began to work on different varieties that would cater to pizza lovers' demand for adventurous flavors.  "I've been amazed by the amount of work that has gone into these products," says Miller, who joined the Council last November. "It's already been so much fun to work with these other chefs, feed off each other's ideas, and actually impact the finished product. We are truly leaving our mark on products that we can be proud of." Creating new benchmarks for frozen pizza necessitated a close working relationship between Council members and Schwan's R&D team, with the two groups continually challenging one another to take the products to the next level. They continue to meet every few months to generate ideas for Freschetta products. "When we started out with this program, we had high hopes for what it could mean for the future of our brand," says Bierbaum. "Now, after spending time in the kitchen with these guys and tasting the results of their work, I can safely say the product has surpassed all of our expectations." There are times during each meeting when the kitchen becomes a stage, and the five chefs move from station to station in a seemingly choreographed performance. Prepping pizza dough, roasting garlic bulbs, slicing peppers and seasoning sauce, the team creates a flurry of activity, as well as quality and taste that are unusual for a frozen pizza company.  A bargain at its suggested retail price of $6.79, Freschetta Brick Oven Pizzas are available in six varieties: Italian Style Pepperoni, Five Italian Cheese, Classic Supreme, Three Cheese and Bacon, Southwest Style Chicken and Spinach and Roasted Portobella Mushroom. Each has a thinner, fire-baked crispy crust and a unique 12-in. square shape similar to the pizzas the chefs sampled and created together in the Italian countryside. "The development of the Brick Oven line is a testament to the way we can use the talents of our Freschetta Culinary Council to bring consumers a new level of quality and taste," says Bierbaum. "We listened to consumers who said they wanted different crust types and a wider variety of unique toppings to choose from. What we ended up with is a truly innovative product that raises frozen pizza to the level of restaurant quality."Belissimo!Schwan's Consumer Brands' Freschetta Brick Oven pizzas, which are available in six varieties, are intended to rival the quality of restaurant-made pizzas. Schwan's newly formed Culinary Council, which is comprised of five upscale restaurant chefs, consulted with R&D on the Brick Oven line. Members include (left to right) Daniele Baliani of Pignoli; Tony Mantuano of Chicago's Spaggia; Robert McGrath, chef/owner of Roaring Fork in Scottsdale, Ariz.; Joe Miller, chef/owner of Joe's restaurant in Los Angeles; and Italian-born Walter Potenza, owner/chef of Aquaviva Eurobistro in Providence, R.I. 

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