Overcoming cheese challenges with vegan pizza

Pizza is enjoying continuing success in the out-of-home market, with vegan options a hotbed of plant-based creativity and ingredient innovation.

12 February 2020

The UK celebrated its national pizza day on Sunday, with the Italian staple continuing to be a cornerstone of the booming out-of-home sector.

In casual dining, our colleagues at MCA Insight recently reported that six of the top ten branded restaurants by outlets are either pizza-led or are Italian chains with pizza prevalent on their menus, with the Italian staple continuing to entice the masses. Meanwhile, a recent survey of nearly 3,000 UK consumers by global intelligence platform Streetbees got to the heart of the matter, with 68% saying they “love pizza”, with only 1% saying they strongly dislike it.

Like so many other areas of the food industry, vegan pizza is growing in presence and availability.  Streetbees’ survey also revealed that while only 33% of those surveyed said they had tried a vegan pizza, an impressive 75% said that they would be willing to try it.

Veganism and Italian food aren’t necessarily natural bedfellows, with the cuisine being so well known for regional cheeses and meats. But it’s often the case that challenge breeds creativity, with plant-based pizzerias starting to take bigger slices of the £4.9bn pizza market.  

Pioneering pizzerias

Last week Purezza, the UK’s first vegan pizza chain, announced plans to triple the size of its estate by the end of the year, with the company aiming to become “one of the biggest vegan restaurants in the UK”.

Starting out in 2015, Brighton-born Purezza is one of a growing number of plant-based pizza pioneers, with London-based competitors Picky Wops (which roughly translates to ‘demanding Italians’) initially starting out as a traditional pizzeria before embarking on a “transformation”.

“We started out in 2016 as an ‘omni-restaurant’, with just the one vegan option,” explains co-founder Cristiano Vitelli.

“But in 2017, when I decided to try Veganuary, we added five more vegan pizzas. And, when my business partner Andrea Moro also became vegan that March, we decided to ditch meat and dairy altogether and become 100% vegan.”

Picky Wops, who are currently the 36th best vegan restaurant in the world according to review site Happy Cow, operate out of their Brick Lane home in Shoreditch and have recently upgraded their pasta menu in line with current London trends. They use a number of different vegan cheeses including an almond-based ricotta and a potato and coconut-based mozzarella.

“It’s great what’s happening with vegan food,” says Vitelli. “When we first started, we didn’t know all that much about veganism and it was a struggle to find ingredients and alternatives, but now it’s much easier”

Their selection of vegan meats include chicken from prolific plant-based alternative brand THIS, with effective tacking of texture - a much talked about developmental area of late - emerging as Vitelli’s standout focus area.

“I’m 20 years as a chef in the industry and it is very challenging with vegan food, but it really speaks to my creativity,” says Vitelli.

“Especially when it comes to replacing textures. In Italian vegan cuisine, you need to recreate textures mainly because the spices and herbs are already there.”

Avoiding blobs

In the last year, Picky Wops have struck a deal with vegan cheese supplier Green Vie, with the Greek company working with Vitelli and his team on perfecting the many vegan cheeses on the menu.

Before the partnership, Picky Wops used to make and use a cashew nut-based mozzarella, but there were constant issues in the development.

“We had around five different recipes for the cashew nut-based cheese and we were experimenting with a rice milk cheese,” says Vitelli.

“The big challenge with mozzarella is replicating the stringiness and chewiness, which is a bit tricky. Flavour-wise, it wasn’t much of an issue, but it’s the look.

“With the cashew nut cheese, it wasn’t melting so we were effectively making a blob. You really have to think when making vegan food.”

Parmesan is another tough one, according to Vitelli, with many options being trialled in the Picky Wops kitchen. Blitzing almonds and blending in nutritional yeast for saltiness is one way to go, with the team also experimenting with different salami alternatives – with flavour becoming something of a stumbling block.

“Our salami is usually made with seitan, but we are looking at jackfruit,” explains Vitelli.

“But seitan has a distinct flavour so if you don’t prep/cook it properly, you can still taste it and it’s not very nice. The same can be said for jackfruit, you can have a bit of a brine aftertaste, which is a no go. But if you know what you’re doing, it can be very nice.”

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