This week, John Schnatter—better known to most Americans by his stage name, Papa John—made an audacious claim: that Papa John’s, which has recently seen its sales falling, has experienced the declines because of its relationship with the National Football League. Player protests, Papa John suggested, have inspired “negative consumer sentiment” against the league—and, as a result, against the pizza pies that are officially associated with it.
But: Could there be a simpler explanation for the changing financial fortunes of this purveyor of mediocre pizza? Could it be, rather—Papa’s razor—that Papa John’s, even by the relatively low standards of the national-chain-store pizzastuff*, is simply not very good? Could it be that, instead of “Better Ingredients. Better Pizza,” customers seeking a quick pizza fix now simply have “Better Options”?
Since we at The Atlantic are committed to the exploration of the American idea, and since there are few things more American than carbohydrates piled with saucy mounds of cheeserubber, we decided to investigate. We ordered three varieties of Papa John’s offerings: plain cheese, elegant and iconic; “the works” (a pie topped with Canadian bacon, pepperoni, green peppers, spicy Italian sausage, mushrooms, onions, and black olives); and—a more recent addition to the Papa John’s menu—a spinach Alfredo pizza, featuring cream(ish) sauce instead of marinara, with a thin crust. We sampled, we compared, we rated each product according to the metrics that matter most when it comes to pizza: engineering (this includes the all-important dough-to-sauce-to-cheese ratio), presentation, flavor, texture, and, as measured on a five-🍕 scale, shame.
Here are the results of our research.
Original Crust Cheese Pizza
Engineering: This pie, most strikingly, featured an extremely disappointing distribution of cheese—“it’s like a doily of cheese as opposed to a blanket,” Julie Beck, senior associate editor, pointed out—and an overabundance of sauce.
Presentation: There is, perhaps like a Papa John’s pie itself, no excess of dignity here. The cheese, again, was problematic: sparse, noncommittal, lacy in the worst way. The more immediate problem, however, was, and there is really no way to say this but to say it ... leakage. Despite the doughy sturdiness of a Papa John’s classic crust—and this specimen was both doughy and notably sturdy—liquid, still, escaped. The box containing our pizza was, in various areas, wet.
Flavor: Thoroughly middling. The most dominant flavor here was “crust,” which in Papa’s case is definitely a flavor, and, next, the sauce—which does its job, offering brightness between the richness of the bread and the cheese, but also verges on becoming cloyingly sweet. The cheese here, the star for which the dough is for the most part merely a delivery vehicle, is nearly imperceptible.
Texture: The Papa John’s original crust is notably airy: It is denser and chewier than the reconstituted cardboard situation that forms the base of some other pizzas. And yet it is, at the same time, fluffier. “Foamy,” senior editor Ross Andersen put it.
Thin-Crust Spinach Alfredo Pizza
Engineering: The “spinach” here exists mostly as strips of green, colorful yet flavorless, more decorative than anything else. The thin crust—which managed to be simultaneously oily and dry—seemed to have proven difficult to cut: Several of the pieces we tried to pull from the pie tore at the edges, which wasn’t that big of a deal except that it disrupted the integrity of the crust, and also made an unsettling cracking sound as it ripped, and also served as a general reminder that entropy is a thing and that chaos reigns and that eventually we will all return to earth.
Presentation: There is something notably disconcerting about the very particular aesthetic of this pizza. On its surface, cheese and sauce blend together, an indiscriminate swirl of oily white. There’s a Schroedingerian quality to the whole thing: This pie is pizza, technically, but it’s somehow also not-pizza. Food, but also … not quite. As Gillian White, senior associate editor, said of the Spinach Alfredo’s topping: “It’s like cheese … but it’s not cheese.”
Flavor: White, taking her first bite of this pizza, said, “Oh no.” And then: “I just keep waiting for the cheese to hit.” And then: “I just wasn’t prepared.”
“It’s muted in a bad way,” Julie Beck noted. She clarified: “It’s like the ghost of Alfredo.” And also: “For something that has so much alleged flavor, this is really bland.”
Texture: One taster likened this pizza’s foundation to “convenience-store flatbread.” (I don’t quite know what that is, either, but it seems extremely apt nonetheless.) Another of our samplers likened the flaky-dense crust to “a slightly leavened saltine.” As for the texture of the cheese-and-Alfredo situation that, during our testing, grew vaguely gelatinous atop the pizza’s crackery crust: “hand cream.”
“The Works” Pizza
Engineering: On the plus side, no ingredient-stinginess here. This pie came piled high with the toppings promised in the menu’s description: salty pepperoni, spicy sausage, unctuous black olives, crispy (well, relatively crispy) green peppers, onions, mushrooms … truly, the works. On the minus side, though: The hearty mound of toppings proved too much for a crust that, having absorbed so much tomato sauce in transit to us, had become limp and slimy. This pizza had pretty much zero structural integrity. The “works" solidified, as the pizza’s cheese cooled, into a mass; there was, unfortunately, between the pizza’s foundation and its toppings, a lot of slippage.
Presentation: Excellent—from the careful distribution of cheese to the artful arrangement of toppings.
Flavor: Fantastic. This thing was a veritable umami bomb. Plus, implicit in the premise of “the works” is the promise of several pizzas in one: You’re getting, basically, a circular buffet. You can nibble on the toppings individually, picking and choosing—a piece of pepperoni here, a black olive there—or you can take a bite of the whole beautiful mess, all together. Either way, a win.
Texture: Decent for the crust (see above); passable-to-nearly-exceptional for the rest. Plus, as Andersen pointed out, there’s a literal dimension to “the works”: From the well-stretched dough to the carefully scattered toppings, you can almost feel the human labor that went into this pie. Did John Schnatter, free-market advocate, intend his creations to be Marxist metaphors? Probably not, but, then again, as Elena Ferrante once put it: “I believe that pizzas, once delivered, have no need of their authors.”
Garlic Dipping Sauce
Engineering: The full name of this product, per its label, is Special Garlic Dipping Sauce. The “special” here is apt: This sauce, due apologies to the pepperoncini (see below), is the iconic Papa John’s innovation, perhaps the most significant contribution Papa John has made to the world of American pizzery. The sauce comes in a container with a tear-off top, which is mostly fine, except that the container is flimsy, which can result in spillage—which, however Special the Garlic Dipping Sauce may be, is a decidedly suboptimal situation.
Presentation: The primary flaw in this product is that the sauce container, per FDA regulations and all that, lists the ingredients that you ingest when you consume Papa John’s Special Garlic Dipping Sauce. And, of course, as a general rule when it comes to Papa John’s products: You do not want to know the ingredients.
The secondary flaw is also, potentially, health-related. “For best quality keep refrigerated,” each tub’s packaging says; the ones we received with our pies are notably room-temperature. But it’s fine. It’s probably fine.
Texture: Kind of great? And also, at the same time, incredibly disgusting?
Flavor: Kind of great. And also, at the same time, incredibly disgusting.
These were the sole fresh things in our order (unless you count the slivers of green pepper in the “works” pizza, which you definitely should not count).
Engineering: Nature made it. It’s perfect.
Presentation: See above.
Texture: See above.
Flavor: The pepperoncini, it turns out, is the perfect accompaniment to a middling pizza product: It’s spicy. It’s juicy, without being messy. You can use it as a palate cleanser. You can treat it as a dessert. You can consider it, being green and vaguely vegetabley, to be essentially a salad, thus rendering your Papa John’s meal a reflection of moral virtue and good health and, in general, extremely solid life choices.
Overall Papa John’s dining experience: 🍕🍕
I mean, it’s pizza. Even when it’s bad, as they say, it’s good. But, wow, it could have been better. As The Atlantic’s testers were
testing engaging in brave acts of investigative journalism, several other staffers came through the office kitchen. Each was offered a sample; most politely declined. (“Hard pass.” “Uhhh … thanks, but I brought in lunch today.” “Why are you doing this.” “No, but really: why.”)
Jeffrey Goldberg, The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief, walked by the kitchen as the taste-test was going on. He looked upon his gathered employees, congratulated them on their dogged commitment to truth, gave a rousing speech about pizza and the American idea, told them that Ralph Waldo Emerson would be proud. The editor was offered a piece of pizza; he declined; he was informed that the spinach Alfredo pizza wasn’t actually as gross as it looked; he backed away. The intrepid reporters were left to survey the scene: hardening cheese; rinds of crust; half-bitten pepperoncinis; Special Garlic Dipping Sauce.
As Andersen put it, speaking for the group: “I wanted to hate this more.”
* The definitive ranking, since you asked, is obviously this: Costco, on account of being both foodstuff and art installation; Little Caesars; Papa John’s; 7-Eleven (a “flavor high five for just $5”); Pizza Hut; the sweaty-slices-of-American-cheese-atop-pieces-of-stale-bread that they served at the Fyre Festival; literal hot garbage, extracted from an obliging dumpster; Domino’s.