I love Hawaiian pizza – and maybe you should too

Back in June, 2017, Sotirios ‘Sam’ Panopoulos passed away in London, Ontario, Canada. While you’ve likely never heard of Sam, you know him well through his iconic dish, the Hawaiian Pizza – That creation, loved or reviled, came from the mind of a 28 year old Greek immigrant to Canada. I’m here to declare, formally, that I love Hawaiian pizza – and maybe you should too.

Sam Panopoulos, The Man
Sam Panopoulos, The Man

Sam and a couple of brothers owned the Satellite restaurant in Chatham, Ontario, due east across Lake Saint Clair from Detroit. It was the early 60’s, so a place called the Satellite was very fashion forward, indeed. They served a mishmash of stuff, from burgers to Chinese food made by a Chinese chef. He later noted that it was the Chinese penchant for blending elements of the five major tastes in a dish that got him thinking about inventing a pizza – He’d enjoyed eating that in Italy and the US, and thought he might be able to come up with something original. He was right.

Truth? A lot of chain Hawaiian pizza sucks.
Truth? A lot of chain Hawaiian pizza sucks.

Today’s version of the Hawaiian pizza is not what Sam started with. His shining contribution was the pineapple – Canned Dole pineapple, which begat the Hawaiian thing. He later recalled that, in Canada at that time, “People only put on mushroom, bacon and pepperoni, that’s all. I had pineapple in the restaurant and I put some on, and I shared with some customers and they liked it. And we started serving it that way. For a long time, we were the only ones serving it.”

Sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Get the mix right, and things can be delightful. What Sam had done was add a tacitly sweet note to what was, as he noted, a pretty heavy mix. Yet pineapple did more than that – It added acid, which cut the fatty mix of cheese and meat, and offered a minor sour note as well. It may seem wrong, but I think it was brilliant, and the explosion of that now legendary combo on the world of pizza would seem to support that.

Now, the Hawaiian is almost always tomato sauce, mozzarella, ham, and pineapple. It is surprising to me that seemingly equal faction either love the combination or loath it. The President of Iceland recently denounced it, (albeit tongue in cheek), prompting Canadian PM Trudeau to quip, “I have a pineapple. I have a pizza. And I stand behind this delicious Southwestern Ontario creation.” Many chefs have vilified the thing, from Gordon Ramsay To Tony Bourdain, sometimes prompting outraged defenses in response from yet other chefs. Somewhere in print, the haters actually invoked Godwin’s Law, and declared that those who like Hawaiian pizza are ‘worse than hitler.’

What is it about pineapple on pizza that’s so polarizing? Purists cite Neapolitan roots and flatly state that pineapple has no place there – I imagine these folks have kittens over quite a few other ingredients as well. Sweet notes in a pizza certainly aren’t taboo – Hell, that’s what tomatoes do, for cryin’ out loud – and pineapple has been eaten in Italy for a long, long time. In the states, it’s a top ten fruit, so it’s not broadly disliked here either. Google the first sentence of this paragraph and you get a whole raft of discussions and levels of intensity – It’s interesting, but all that stuff doesn’t necessarily answer the question.

The whole thing really seems to boil down to two arguments – either that pineapple just doesn’t belong on pizza, or that it just doesn’t taste good – To both, I call bullshit. If you like pineapple, and want to use it, do so. If you’re running a pizzeria that swears eternal fealty to all the arcane rules of the game, then by all means, don’t. If you don’t like the taste, no matter what, then don’t eat it – it’s that simple. But if you’re cooking at home, and you want to, then to paraphrase Alton Brown, by God, have pineapple. 

As for the taste thing, fact is, this is often enough true. A poorly made pizza isn’t likely to taste good at all – but that’s easily remedied. Let’s face it, a notable chunk of commercial pizza from big name chains and the stuff at the grocery store is crap – They’re not generally made with love and care, and you get what you pay for. Change that, and it’s delicious.

Great Hawaiian pizza is all about balance of flavors
Great Hawaiian pizza is all about balance of flavors

Tony Bourdain infamously had nothing good to say about Hawaiian pizza, (most of it highly profane, I might add). Yet he was forced to swallow his smartass comments when, in Rome, he ran into Gabriele Bonci of Pizzarium. Chef Bonci does pizza right – great dough, top notch ingredients, just a few things combined on each slice. Bourdain made the Hawaiian crack, and Bonci immediately said ‘No, is good,’ and made some. They both agreed it was good, but not great. Then Bonci disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a sauté of onion and hot peppers added, and bingo – Even Tony had to admit it rocked.

Homemade sauce makes the pizza
Homemade sauce makes the pizza

That harkens all the way back to what Sam Panopoulos said about first offering pineapple on pizza – It was added to whatever you liked. It’s all about balance, and what Sam gleaned from Chinese food was a well balanced thing. Love it or hate it, the fact that it flourishes decades after its inception says it’s true.

The secret to great Hawaiian pizza? Chiles!
The secret to great Hawaiian pizza? Chiles!

So, if you’re not from the hater camp, try it done right. Fresh pineapple is always best, but truth? Canned will work fine if you blend and cook it well. You don’t need to use fancy ham, but you sure can if you want, or sub bacon, or whatever porky deliciousness you prefer. Make or buy great dough, sauce, and use as much fresh stuff as you’ve got for toppings. What you see in the images herein was made with fresh dough, tomatoes, onions, garlic, jalapeños, and basil out of our garden, and locally made smoked scamorza cheese. Use different chiles if you like, red onion, maybe a few capers for a bitter note – experiment, have fun, and surrender to Sam.

Great homemade Hawaiian pizza
Great homemade Hawaiian pizza

One interesting side note – Sam died one year to the day before Bourdain took his own life in France.