And now, a wave of Italian Pizza with a Kerala accent
Home-grown pizza brands using locally sourced produce and cheese are evolving, much to the delight of a growing locked-down audience, hungry for comfort food
The tagline of Paulettan’s Pizzeria in Thrissur starts with ‘sayippinte nanma, hungry Paulnte packing…’ (foreigner’s deliciousness, packed by hungry Paul) sums up the rising popularity of made-in-Kerala pizza brands.
Paulettan’s, launched in May 2021, is part of a growing movement. Homegrown brands in Kerala are reinventing the popular Italian pizza, embracing its comforting familiarity, while reinterpreting it by merging locally sourced ingredients with meticulous Italian-inspired techniques. And, with more people working from, and entertaining at, home, sales have been steadily rising all through the pandemic.
When Dr Sajjad Saleem launched Siji’s Pizza Street out of a small space in Thiruvananthapuram in late 2018, one of the things the medical professional wanted to ensure was a world-class pizza experience. “We wanted to serve thin-crust pizzas and show how different it tastes from those sold by the big chains,” he says. With three outlets in Thiruvananthapuram and one in Kochi, Siji’s recently opened one more space in Kozhikode. Siji’s signature pizza, KL01 Pizza, is topped with: you guessed right, Kerala-style beef.
In Kochi, Phil-J Pizzas introduced the city to New York Style ‘monster’ pizzas: their largest one being 26 inches. Owner Philip Thomas calls it pizza fantasy, and it can be served with a choice of four different toppings from the menu which include pepperoni, beef, chicken, cheese, vegetables and paneer. Operating out of a 300 square foot space in Panampilly Nagar, he says, business has been good despite lockdown hiccups, primarily due to word-of-mouth publicity.
He adds that people returning to their home towns from bigger cities and abroad to Work-From-Home, has spurred sales. Not just limited to cities such as Thiruvananthapuram, Kochi, Kozhikode or Kottayam, their popularity has percolated to smaller towns such as Ettumanoor, Tiruvalla, and Adoor.
“The current situation has definitely been a factor in the rise in interest and orders,” Philip says. As a result, with pizzas being delivered to family homes, “It is not just young people, but their kids, parents and grandparents also eating pizza,” adds Akarsh Paul of Paulettan’s.
Girish Mathai was perhaps one of the first people in Kerala to serve ‘unbranded’ pizza when he opened in 2009, at a time when international chains, like Domino’s and Pizza Hut, dominated the market. He opened his first outlet, Favourite Pizza in Kottayam, and everything that went into the pizzas, except for the cheese, was and still is made in-house. “I was apprehensive if people would like it and if it would catch on. I started very small, with an investment of around ₹5 lakh,” he remembers. Favourite quickly gained a loyal following, Girish had other Italian fare such as pasta, cannelloni, and lasagna on the menu.
Two years later, he opened an outlet in Kochi in 2011, which he later shut down as it got too hectic for him as he had opened other outlets in nearby towns. Besides Kottayam, Ettumanoor and Tiruvalla are outlets that are doing well. He has one in Adoor as well.
He analyses the reason for the popularity of homegrown pizza brands, “Everything that goes into our pizzas is made in-house — the base, topping and sauces — which makes a difference to how they taste. Our ingredients are not pre-cooked or frozen.” Philip adds that he still remembers how the pizzas eaten at Favourite, in his hometown Kottayam, changed the game. Agreeing with Girish’s assessment, he adds, “We offer better pricing, for the quality that we offer. The international brands will always have more business because of their size and reach. But there is, obviously, a market for us too.”
While the attempt is to provide an experience closest to the original, the local palate has been factored in. Philip had test runs making pizzas over several months, roping in friends and family to taste before deciding which to put on the menu. He has tweaked toppings but stays away from cliches such as ‘tandoori chicken’, which are available across brands. His homework comprises speaking to chefs with pizza making experience. “I got the recipes for the pizza dough, sauces and toppings from people who know how it is done. The chef follows the recipes to a T, consistency is key. There cannot be bad days or excuses,” he says.
That said, innovation is the key to appealing to palates used to certain familiar tastes. A bit of desi and some naadan (local) spices go into the making of a best seller. Hence pizzas such as the ‘Mallu Beef Trip’, ‘Chicken 65’ and ‘KL01’.
Akarsh says, “If you are looking for the actual thing, then Paulettan’s is not for you. These are flavours that appeal to the masses.” Already running a multi-cuisine restaurant, he opened the pizzeria during the pandemic, with cooks from Puducherry, recommended by friends in the business. Going with his ‘gut feeling’ has paid off.
Not all pizzas have been indigenised; classics like the Margherita feature on all these menus. And innovation is thoughtful, not limited to just adding desi spices and masalas. For instance, the ‘Hulk’ (inspired by the character from the Marvel Comics Universe) on Siji’s menu uses pesto sauce instead of the tomato-based version. “We are also focussed on bringing more vegetarian options. As of now 15-20% of our menu is vegetarian,” Sajjad says. Chicken still reigns supreme, and almost 60% of the pizzas sold at Siji’s are chicken-based.
“Beef toppings do well, for instance our Beef Teriyaki pizza is very popular. But if we go by numbers sold, I bet it is chicken everywhere!” says Philip.
Smaller towns too have taken to pizzas, “Around 90% of our orders are from outside Thrissur, places such as Chavakkad, Vadanapally and Guruvayoor. There are days when we deliver in four or more towns, despite the additional delivery charges which can come to up ₹ 300. What sets us apart is that we have reached places with limited pizza exposure,” Akarsh says.
Abraham Mathew’s Instagram feed has been tempting customers to drive down 250-odd kilometres [from Thiruvananthapuram] to Irinjalakuda where he is based, for a pizza. The pizza puritan, keeps his as close to the real thing as possible, though he is yet to try the real thing in Italy, he confesses. His pizzas are Neapolitan-style: smaller, minimalist not loaded with toppings. He is also experimenting with the larger New York style pizzas, which are known for their size.
Abraham’s interest in pizzas started out as a hobby. Lockdown enabled him to research more making him confident enough to make them. “I have binned more than I have ‘Instagrammed’,” he says. Among the factors that impact a pizza are temperature of not just the one it is cooked in but also atmospheric and humidity. “The dough is the main character!”
He has even got an oven customised to his specifications. He gets most of his hard cheese from Italy, “the fresh mozzarella is from India as they don’t have a long shelf life. And sourcing it has been quite tough, especially because of the current scenario,” he says.
For now, he runs a pop-up style outfit, announcing when he’d be making pizzas on Instagram. Despite his location [not a major city] his pizzas are sold out in a matter of few hours, with customers driving in from Kochi, an hour and a half away and even from Thiruvananthapuram.
As for the other brands, as Akarsh says, they [the pizzas] may have taken off from Nedumbasserry (Kochi’s airport) but have not quite landed in Milan.