A Golden Era for Pizza in Taiwan

Taiwan’s main claim to pizza fame is nontraditional toppings, but the island is home to some great artisanal pizzerias, too.

Taiwan has fallen in love with pizza – not just with the fast-food staple from the major American pizza chains, but also artisanal and famously innovative versions of what is arguably one of the world’s most beloved dishes.

There has been a boom in the number of pizzerias and pizzaiolos (pizza-makers), not only in urbane Taipei but all over Taiwan. Convenient and tasty, easy to make but perfect for sharing, pizza continues to evolve from being a simple flatbread-plus-topping into a slice of foodie heaven that reflects local tastes.  

This has made it a winner in the local restaurant scene because of a decent profit margin on the supply side and a growing appreciation for Western or convenience foods on the part of consumers. Added to this, there has been a switch to meals picked up at the store or delivered to the door – and no food travels better than pizza.

As for fine dining, better ingredients, and equipment, Taiwanese returning from studying or working abroad, government encouragement for foreign business owners, and more demanding consumers are among the factors making this a golden era for baked cheese on a tomato and dough base, according to several keen observers.

“Over the past 10 years, Taiwan has seen a huge influx of young people who have spent significant time abroad in Europe or the United States,” says David Pan, the founder and owner of Domaine Wine Cellar in Taipei and Les Belles Collines winery in California. “As consumers, their palates are more developed and demanding of high quality, authentic pizza, and as restaurant owners and pizzaiolos, there are more people aiming to meet that demand.” 

Pan also points to the trend of celebrity chefs and trillions of artfully presented food pics on social media. “It’s a new thing with Instagram, Facebook food groups, and so on,” he says. “It ups the game and people are really working at their craft. The pizza scene in Taiwan is thriving, and it’s exciting to think about what the next few years will bring.”

Independent operators have in recent years made a name for themselves as purveyors of handmade, authentic, or artisanal pizza. At these kinds of eateries, Pan says, “the chef or restaurant owner’s idea of praise is someone saying, ‘it tastes better than the real thing’ in Italy, or New York, or Chicago.” 

Artisanal pizzas have become more widespread in Taiwan as the island has become more internationalized and welcoming of foreign business owners.

Also, since it’s a trend, local businesspeople have gotten in on the action. Just like the explosion of coffee shops over the past decade, hundreds of mom-and-pop pizza places have opened in recent years. Most are fairly nondescript but serviceable, catering to the office worker or lunch special crowd, with pizzas tailored to local tastes: sweeter, less cheesy, and lighter on tomato.

Then there are the elephants in the room: the multinationals like Domino’s and Pizza Hut. Though a dedicated food and wine connoisseur, David Pan has an interesting take on pizza franchise operators and their fare. “They serve a different function and do different things, and I’m not saying one is better than the other; they are just different and best enjoyed for themselves without comparing too much,” he explains.

Plug in some variant of “world’s most popular foods” into Google and it will quickly become apparent that pizza is near the top of the list. Dive a little deeper and a YouGov data journalism study shows that Italian cuisine, namely pizza and pasta, comes out on top. This is followed by Chinese and Japanese food. Surprisingly, perhaps, Taiwanese fare is ranked 17th – one place below British food – in the survey of 34 national cuisines in 24 countries. 

Looking at the metrics of the world’s most popular restaurant chains, pizza wins again. According to B2B business platform BizVibe, Subway has the most outlets with about 43,600 worldwide. Starbucks makes the most money, having earned US$26.5 billion in 2020, followed by McDonald’s. But pizza scores best in having two large operators – Domino’s and Pizza Hut parent company Yum! Brands – in the top 10.

According to the 2021 Pizza Power Report, pizzerias are expected to “thrive in the coming year.” The world market for 2021 is forecast to expand and be worth about US$132.3 billion, a 10.96% increase from last year, with growth in the Asia-Pacific market a healthy 14.3%. Meanwhile, Taiwan’s mini-lockdown in June 2021 saw food and beverage sales plummet by nearly 40%, while American chains including Pizza Hut and Domino’s saw gains of 3.6%, Ministry of Economic Affairs figures show.

“Glorified tortillas”

The first pizzeria in Taipei opened in the late 1970s – an investment by a local businessman who had made his money in the sporting goods industry. The conventional wisdom at the time was that Taiwanese would never go for pizza since “Chinese people don’t like cheese.” The venture was ahead of its time. It drew few patrons aside from expats and Taiwanese who had returned from the U.S., and it folded in about a year.

Besides a gradual change in the local diet to include more dairy products, what made a difference in consumer acceptance of pizza was the heavy promotion by Pizza Hut, which first appeared in Taiwan in 1986, and especially Domino’s. Scott Oelkers, who started the Domino’s business in Taiwan in the late 1980s and served as managing director for a long time, had learned Mandarin as a Mormon missionary. He became a television personality by going on air to do his own spirited commercials for Domino’s in fluent Chinese. The ads ended by giving an easy-to-remember phone number to call that sounded a bit like “Baba, I’m hungry, I’m hungry.”

Today, Domino’s Taiwan has about 157 stores, focused on the takeaway and delivery market, and reported NT$1.6 billion (US$57.5 million) in sales in 2020. The company was recently acquired by Australia-based Domino’s Pizza Enterprises, the world’s largest Domino’s franchisee, which has long-term plans to expand to 400-plus stores domestically.

The island’s biggest operator, Pizza Hut Taiwan, hasn’t been doing as well of late. Its model of operating traditional sit-down restaurants was hit hard during the pandemic and stores have closed. Internationally, the organization lost about 1,064 outlets over the previous year, leaving 17,639 restaurants, according to the market and consumer data company Statista. In Taiwan, the company’s locations have dwindled from about 209 in 2016 to an estimated 177 this year, according to some sources.

The Pizza Power Report adds that the industry showed resilience through COVID over the past two years, led by “independent operators” while “their non-pizza restaurant counterparts struggled to deliver food that simply wasn’t meant to travel.”

This largely corresponds to the picture painted by Dominik Tyliszczak, owner of Maryjane Pizza, which was originally founded in 2004 but only recently expanded to four locations around Taipei. He believes Taiwan has internationalized and is more welcoming to foreign businesspeople, while the economy is doing relatively well. Such circumstances have helped pizza chains spread their wings.

Photo: Maryjane Pizza

Like David Pan, who describes pizza in Taiwan a decade ago as “glorified tortillas topped with spaghetti sauce and mozzarella cheese,” Tyliszczak says the scene has vastly improved and is now world-class in scope and quality.

“A lot of young people who learned how to make real pizza abroad have come back to Taiwan to make it here. There’s good pizza everywhere,” says Tyliszczak. He rattles off several high-profile restaurants in Taipei, then talks about how ubiquitous pizza is even in the far-flung southern resort town of Kenting, Pingtung County. “There are at least three or four roadside trucks that sell really good wood-oven fired pizzas.”

A DJ, VJ, and designer, Tyliszczak likes the branding elements of his enterprise but has also devoted hours of effort to making the perfect dough. During the pandemic, he tinkered with the recipe so it retained more moisture. He also re-engineered the boxes to keep in the heat better because deliveries had become a bigger part of the business.  

Maryjane Pizza, which first opened its doors nearly 18 years ago, now has four locations around Taipei. Photo: Maryjane Pizza

Tyliszczak cites the rise of Pizza Rock as an example of how doing pizza right can be financially rewarding. Ugo Ortolano and his wife, Ruby Lai, thought there was a gap in the market for proper pizza in the late 2000s. The Canadian was so sure of his hunch that he went on a pilgrimage to Italy to discover how pizza should be made.

Drawing on his Italian roots, Ortolano experimented and eventually came up with what he called a “neo-Neapolitan” – stone-baked, thin-crust pizza. He opened his first outlet in Taichung in 2011 and began expanding to a dozen outlets over the next five years. The couple now has a thriving “gourmet pizza” franchise operation, with 27 stores all over the country.  

Both Tyliszczak and Pan believe the independent pizza operator business in Taiwan has flourished because it is authentic and Westernized, rather than pandering to local tastes. However, as has already been noted, some localization has occurred and perhaps Taiwan, in time, will proudly bake its own version of the dish, in the same way that New York and Chicago so successfully adapted the Naples-style pizza in the first half of the 20th century.  

While Canada’s contribution of the Hawaiian pizza, with its toppings of ham and pineapple, used to be shocking, it is standard fare on menus these days. Bananas are popular in Iceland and Sweden, while India has tandoori chicken pizza, and there is spaghetti pizza in New Zealand.

So far, Taiwan’s main claim to pizza fame is nontraditional pizza offerings. When boba milk tea blew up in 2019, both Pizza Hut and Domino’s got in on the act with their own “limited edition” tapioca ball pizzas. No one should have been surprised as unusual concoctions have been a thing since at least 2007, when Pizza Hut came up with rice pizza and even developed a portmanteau for it: “mizza,” from the Chinese word for rice, mi (米).

Since then, there have been toppings such as spicy hotpot, cilantro and century egg with pig’s blood, beef and kiwi, glutinous rice, ramen, stinky tofu, durian and coffee, and “crispy salt and pepper dragon balls” (the mouths of squid or octopi). Taiwan has also rolled out both hot dog and peanut sauce pizza crusts, in addition to a cauliflower crust that was advertised as having 66% fewer calories than the original.

Gold-plated pizza

While the combinations sound fairly random, the fact is a lot of computer power has been harnessed to come up with toppings that tickle local taste buds. An August 2021 Bloomberg article on the subject found the forward-looking Pizza Hut was using big data to analyze social media posts and come up with word clouds for novel toppings.

Maryjane’s 24k pizza, which was created to garner attention for the restaurant’s opening, was covered in edible, rolled gold. Photo: Maryjane Pizza

No doubt it also helps that “weird” toppings get significant media coverage, from local papers to international editions and segments on CNN. This, too, is calculated. For example, the marketing agency for Pizza Hut’s ramen pizza was Taiwan’s Isobar. Its ad campaign was formulated on the idea of “a pizza that offended 2 countries,” and it amplified social media chatter about cultural food wars to maximize exposure.

When Maryjane’s Tyliszczak wanted to garner some attention for a new restaurant opening, he came up with the idea of the 24k pizza, which was covered in edible, rolled gold. The NT$1,699 pie with four kinds of cheese and pepperoni made it onto Taiwan’s news channels. From a marketing point of view, however, the timing could have been more fortuitous, as former President Lee Teng-hui passed away the same day and the headlines understandably belonged to him.  

David Pan is all for innovation. “I don’t begrudge people experimenting with their toppings,” he says. “Gabriele Bonci, the owner of the famous Bonci Pizzarium in Rome, is famous for his combinations which include spring beans and eggplant puree, pumpkin puree and octopus, and zucchini flowers and anchovies. If you think of pizza as a platform, it’s only natural for people to want to top it with flavors with which they are familiar.”

However, he tends to downplay “strange toppings as really just marketing,” saying, “Taiwanese love new things, they’re always ready to try them out. They have a taste for something they like, and they put it on pizza crust or dough and have it once, but they’re not going to be coming back for it.”

Clearly, Taiwan already has an evolving adopt and adapt strategy toward pizza and deserves a mention in Wikipedia’s extensive “List of pizza varieties by country.” However, localizing pizza in such a way that it’s more than just a novelty – here today, gone tomorrow – is another question.

“For that, for something genuinely innovative, we will need to wait around 10 to 15 years… for [Taiwanese] pizzaiolos to have really mastered their craft,” says Pan. “Then they may be in the position to do something with pizza similar to what Americans or migrating Italians did in America.”