I not only rely on our resident film critic Phil Dy for movies worth watching during my free weekends, I also note all his food and restaurant recommendations whenever we'd bump into each other. Some time last year, Phil told me to check out Papa John's Pizza, saying it was really good. I heard about the pizza chain planning to open stores here as early as mid-2010, but I didn't really know what the fuss was all about. It's pizza. We have it at every corner, every mall, in all price ranges (from gourmet to carinderia style). I've also grown up with pizza -- my dad used to be involved in the pizza industry and I was this little short-haired kid tagging along his restaurant visits. So how different is their pizza? "It's the crust. It's a bit sweet, a little hard to explain. And everything seems fresher," Phil explained. That description piqued my interest, and led me to my first visit at Papa John's first store in the Philippines at the Robinsons Galleria Veranda.
It was early for pizza -- 10:30am, to be exact -- but hey, breakfast food makes for amazing midnight meals, and so pizza, I guess, may be eaten at any time of the day. We seated ourselves at Papa John's Pizza and browsed through their menu, which served as my crash course on Papa John's history. 'Papa John' isn't a fictional character, he is John Schnatter, founder of the brand.
Schnatter has been making pizzas for 25 years, and it has always been about quality for him. Their slogan 'Better Ingredients. Better Pizza.' echoes the founder's sentiments about food quality. 'Better means quality is non-negotiable,' he is quoted saying, 'better is pizza I'd be proud to serve my family.' Think of Papa John's as that pizza place where you can feel at home while that favorite uncle of yours whips up a storm out of fresh vegetables, real meat, and hand-tossed pizza dough.
The restaurant's interior is dominated by reds, greens and browns, taking cue from the delicious colors of their pizza. A brick wall gives the place a more earthy feel, while glass paneling allows you to peek into their kitchen. While everything looks new, sleek and modern, let this not intimidate the pizza lover in you. Their food prices are surprisingly reasonable. I say surprisingly, as the look and feel of the place seemed to suggest a more expensive price point in my mind. If you compare their items to the popular pizza chains in the metro, you'll see that they're very competitive. Soups and salads go for under P100, pasta dishes are from P160 to P190, and desserts are priced P99 to P149. Their largest size of pizza, either thick or thin crust, doesn't exceed P600. This is definitely a group-friendly restaurant ideal for big families and barkadas who would like to enjoy good eats at wallet-friendly rates.
Before we dove to the highlight of the restaurant, we had several appetizers to nibble on. We started with Cream of Chicken and Corn (P49), a cup of thick creamy soup dotted with small chunks of grilled chicken. Adding sweetness to the soup were the bits of corn kernels.
Cream of Chicken and Corn
The Bread Sticks (P70) and Cheese Sticks (P90) arrived on our table. These two side items are made from their signature fresh dough. For the former, the dough is shaped into thick strips; for the latter, the fresh dough is shaped into a pizzette, covered with special garlic sauce and sprinkled with mozarella cheese.
Both are baked crisp and served warm, the bread sticks a delicious brown and the cheese sticks golden and bubbly. They are served with two dipping sauces: pizza and special garlic. These are also what makes Papa John's pizza stand out -- dips of different flavors for pizza dipping delight (tongue twister right there). Aside from the garlic and pizza sauce, they also have BBQ, garlic ranch, and honey mustard for you to partner with your pizza or bread of choice.
I have to say the Cheese Sticks are little delicious devils made more sinful with every dip of garlic butter. Each bite comes with a slight crunch, followed by a chewy, pillowy middle. Dipped with the pizza sauce, it becomes tangy. Dipped in the butter will make you forget about that summer season diet. The butter makes the cheese stick taste like savory lip-smacking buttered toast -- only much, much better.
Another little Papa John trivia: their kitchens do not house any fryers. This means you get fresh, tasty baked dishes -- this applies even to their potatoes, chicken, and of course, the pizza. You'll taste and feel the difference when you order their Chicken Platter (P299). The platter comes with three pieces of wings, three pieces of chicken strips, and a handful of potato wedges good for sharing. There are three sauces on the side: garlic ranch, honey mustard, and BBQ. The wings were best paired with the BBQ sauce; albeit tiny, the pieces were very juicy and soft, thanks to the no-fry kitchen rule. The chicken strips have a crisp outer coating and I found best eaten when slathered with honey mustard. Just mix and match the sauces to see what works for you; and when in doubt, just order garlic sauce as your default flavor. Extra servings of dipping sauces are P20 each.
And finally, we experienced the pièce de résistance -- Papa John's Pizza in both thin crust and thick crust varieties. Their pizzas come in three sizes: small (9-inch), medium (12-inch), and large (14-inch). Selected flavors have the Jr. Papa (P150) size, good for one person. If you want to load your pizzas with more ingredients, extra toppings of meat and vegetables are available, priced P40 (small), P50 (medium), and P60 (large) per topping.
And here enters another reason to try out the restaurant, aside from having reasonably priced food and fresh ingredients -- their pizza crust. It was my first time to fall deep in love with pizza crust, and now, I'm hooked.
The Super Papa's (P300 - small, P440 - medium, P550 large) is one of the resto's Classic Pizzas. We ordered it in thick crust. If you want to taste how fresh Papa John's Pizza ingredients are, this is what I recommend ordering. It's your classic 'everything on it' pizza, packed with pepperoni, Italian sausage, chicken, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and black olives. When you grab yourself one slice, you will notice it isn't too heavy, unlike other thick crust pizzas that bend with the weight. Hold the slice with your hand, and also observe that the bottom isn't overly greasy.
How do I describe the crust? Well, Phil is right, there's a tease of sweetness to it. It's like a biscuit or a croissant type of bread that has been transformed into perfectly baked pizza dough. I know it sounds silly, but it definitely tastes unique.
For me, I most enjoyed the uniqueness of the pizza dough with their thin crust pizza. The thin crust version of Pepperoni (P150 - Jr. Papa, P280 - small, P420 - medium, P520 large) was a hit on our lunch table! The complex mix of flavors in the dough made our tastebuds confirm that Papa John's Pizza is particular about every ingredient placed on their food. The dough is not kept frozen, and the dough is not just some slab of white bread shaped into a circle and haphazardly tossed with ingredients for baking.
Bite into pepperoncini instead of drizzling hot sauce on your pizza. It Gives your food a zesty zing!
So is this new player in the country's pizza chain industry worth the money and calories? You bet. Papa John's Pizza is the new bright star in the fast-casual pizza scene, serving fresh food at reasonable price points. Let's not forget those irresistible pizza dips and unique pizza dough that's a bit hard to put into words (just try it yourself). They currently have three branches in Metro Manila (Robinsons Galleria, Taft Avenue, and Greenhills). And more good news: according to their press event, we can expect more branches opening up this year.