Unless you are willing to dive into new form factors, such as pizza rolls, pizza cones, or the seemingly limitless possibilities of the Hot Pocket, there’s not a ton to get excited about in the frozen pizza section of the supermarket. You can have a crust that rises, or one that doesn’t. You can have junk stuffed into the crust, or you can opt for a pizza, sans-junk. You can choose a pizza that comes bundled with something else, like boneless chicken wings or a Cinnabon-flavored milkshake. You can go pseudo-homemade, organic, and socially conscious with a Newman’s Own thin margherita pizza, or you can go self-loathing bachelor-style with a Mama Celeste pepperoni “Pizza for One,” cooked in a microwave at three in the morning, folded in half, and eaten like the world’s saddest pizza taco. I’m grateful each and every day for these (mostly disgusting) options. When it comes to new flavors, however, there simply isn’t a ton of innovation in the bake-at-home pizza market.
It came as some surprise, then, when Tony’s announcement of a “NEW FLAVOR,” rendered in an edgy, distressed typeface that let me know that I was dealing with a very cool product with plenty of street cred, came shouting from the familiar orange box. That new flavor? “MACARONI & CHEESE,” the box exclaimed, and then, presuming I was unfamiliar with macaroni and cheese, went on to explain, “PASTA AND A CREAMY CHEESE SAUCE.” Drawn in by all of the excitement, and always eager to try a new product that nobody demanded or had even thought of, I ponied up my three bucks, and headed home to more fully explore this new taste sensation in the privacy of my own home.
The first thing I noticed upon closer examination of the box, is that Tony seems to be giving a lot of extra attention to the fact that the pizza’s “New Square Shape Fills The Box!” It’s written quite prominently twice on the box, which, much like the flavor of the pizza itself, solves a problem that I didn’t know people were having. Were the Tony’s people fielding dozens of handwritten letters from enraged customers, cheated out of their fair share of round pizza by a cold, faceless square box industry who just doesn’t care about the plight of the little guy? Was the Tony’s pizza factory becoming overrun by all of those peculiar triangular corners, leftover from stamping square pizzas from the production line into the familiar round shape that they foolishly presumed customers desired? Were there honestly shoppers that were disappointed to find that the frozen food they had purchased didn’t match the size and scale of its packaging? Grrrrrr! Thankfully, Tony’s finally (finally!) fixed this problem once and for all, with their New Square Shape, setting millions of hungry customers’ otherwise unoccupied minds at ease.
I also wonder about the designation of “MACARONI & CHEESE” as a flavor. Are we sure that macaroni and cheese is a flavor, and not just another item of um, food? We never think of “sandwich” as a flavor, or perhaps in a more related comparison, we never buy “sausage and tomato flavored baked ziti” products. If one food item is topped with another food item, is that second food item “flavoring” the first? In fact, if something was truly macaroni and cheese flavored, doesn’t that mean it wouldn’t have any actual macaroni and cheese on it, and be spiced instead with a dusty chemical flavor packet?
Not so with Tony’s Macaroni & Cheese flavored (sigh) pizza. After pulling it from the box and freeing it from its plastic prison, I was pleasantly surprised to find not just plenty of cooked macaroni, but a thick layer of both mozzarella and cheddar cheeses. The pizza was almost as square as the box had promised, although I did notice that the corners were still slightly rounded, which is sure to make someone, somewhere, completely furious. I was startled by how white everything was; the uncooked elbow macaroni, cheese, and crust were all nearly exactly the same color.
After 18 minutes in the oven at 400 degrees, the pizza was ready, and I was optimistic. The cheese was pleasantly browned around the edges, and the crust was golden and flaky. After cutting the pizza into rectangles, I tried my first slice. My first reaction was surprise; I was completely stunned that something that was so clearly made of ingredients could not taste like anything whatsoever. The crust, a standard-issue cheap pizza cracker-style thin crust, provided a suitable base for the macaroni & cheese, which managed to be cooked but not rubbery or slimy, and there was clearly an ample amount of hot, melty cheese. With all of those facts in place, how could this pizza taste like absolutely nothing?
Thanks to years of eating sub-par instant macaroni & cheese, I knew just what to do. I’d put ketchup on it. In fact, I’d ketchup the pants off it. Squeeze bottle of ketchup poised over my slice, I briefly recoiled in horror at the notion of applying ketchup to a pizza. I took a moment to reassure myself. Without any kind of tomato sauce, I reasoned, this dish was much more similar to a bread bowl filled with macaroni, than any kind of real pizza. I feel no compunction whatsoever with applying thick squirts of sugary ketchup to my macaroni and cheese, so this should be no different. And, indeed! An icing of ketchup did add a new third element of flavor, making the finished product taste 100% less like pizza, but at least 30% more like macaroni and cheese. A fine bead of Sriracha yielded similar results.
The verdict? Look, when a food item has absolutely no reason to exist, was not requested by a single customer, and was not particularly enjoyed by anyone who then went and bought it, that’s not food’s fault. If we hold “necessity of product” as the standard by which food should be judged, at least two thirds of the supermarket would instantly cease to exist. Once you’ve accepted that these products are out there sharing shelf space with things like mangoes and Kashi granola bars, the question becomes, “Does eating that item provide any benefit to either my mouth or my body?” In this case, the answer is no.
As a pizza, the product fails; though it packs a decently lowbrow crackerlike crust, the completely flavorless cheese and total lack of seasoning would make this one of my last choices in pizza flavors. As a quick macaroni and cheese product, or even as simply a vehicle for ketchup, the product fares much better. If you imagine Tony’s Macaroni & Cheese Pizza instead as the top, crusty layer of a baked macaroni and cheese casserole, complete with crunchy buttered breadcrumb topping, inverted and served upside down, the product becomes marginally more edible. Here, cost becomes a factor, however; for the same three bucks, you can get much better results from a macaroni and cheese frozen dinner. In this case, Tony’s Macaroni & Cheese Pizza gets points for the imaginative flavor and their wildly innovative shape, but for little else.
(Nutrition Facts — 1/4 pizza — 280 calories, 80 calories from fat, 9 grams of total fat, 4.5 grams of saturated fat, 0 grams of trans fat, 10 milligrams of cholesterol, 500 milligrams of sodium, 100 milligrams of potassium, 40 grams of total carbohydrates, 1 gram of dietary fiber, 8 grams of sugars, and 10 grams of protein.)