Fast-Food Pizza Chains Attempt Gourmet

Pizza Hut’s Natural Pizza

By: Pizza Hut

I Paid: $9.99 and $11.99 for a 12-inch pizza (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 4stars

Marketing: 3stars

Pizza Hut claims to have stepped the game up with its new pizza, the Natural. Lo and behold, the Pepperoni, one of two recommended topping schemes, isn’t too bad. No mere puckered, chewy grease receptacle, it’s crispy and meaty with a bit of spice, and more delicate than you might expect.

Besides the meat, which the company describes as “100% real beef with no fillers,” it has a whole-grain crust, vine-ripened tomato sauce, and cheese with no preservatives or artificial ingredients. Despite being “five grain,” the crust doesn’t taste like health-food-style whole-wheat bread. It’s more like a decent conventional pizza crust (not, thank God, the doughy, deep-fried variety of Pizza Hut’s other offerings). The cheese isn’t bad, either. Again, it’s more about what it isn’t, which is to say it isn’t a thick, slimy morass.

The Natural Rustica offers a more high-minded approach. It’s topped with roasted red peppers (minor players from a flavor perspective, sadly), sausage (nice fennel flavor, tender texture), and sliced, marinated Roma tomatoes (fairly bright and slightly juicy). Add the same, surprisingly nuanced crust, and you’ve got a tolerable piece of pizza. First Tuscani Pastas, now the Natural … it looks as though Pizza Hut might be starting to cook.

Domino’s Oven Baked Sandwiches

By: Domino’s

I Paid: $4.99 for a 10-ounce sandwich (prices may vary by region)

Taste: 2stars

Marketing: 4stars

Domino’s makes an attractive offer: For $5 (plus tax and tip) you can get a hot, oven-baked, ciabatta-style sandwich delivered right to your door. If you order online, you can actually watch each step of the process take place on a special food-delivery meter, which starts by acknowledging your order, and then moves successively through food prep, oven baking, sitting on the counter, and (finally) being delivered to your house.

The downside to this level of transparency is apparent when you find yourself watching in aggravation as your sandwiches sit on the counter in a “HeatWave® bag” for a full 10 minutes. But then … oh good, delivery expert Larry has left the building with your order.

When it comes to flavor, leave it to Domino’s, maker of America’s most reliably terrible pizza, to screw up a sandwich. The Chicken Bacon Ranch comes closest to the concept’s potential, and it’s still pretty far from perfect. The cheese and ranch dressing are pleasantly creamy, and the bacon imparts a fairly formidable amount of salt, which helps the sandwich fillings stand up against the Wonder bread version of ciabatta.

The Chicken Parm is a real step down from even this modest level. Imagine a slice of Domino’s pizza folded into sandwich form: a one-dimensional sweet red paste with tasteless chicken, a slick of oil, and little else. Finally, stuck morosely to the bottom of the barrel is the Philly Cheese Steak, a bready middle finger pointed right at the Keystone State. If you like greasy sliced mushrooms and flavorless finely minced “steak,” here’s the sandwich for you. Otherwise, you might just have to do the unthinkable: put some meat and cheese on bread and toast up your very own creation at home.

James Norton edits the Upper Midwestern food journal Heavy Table. He's also the coauthor of a book on Wisconsin's master cheesemakers. Follow Chowhound on Twitter, and become a fan on Facebook.