How Much Should Pizza Cost?

Both high-quality restaurant pizza and delivery pizza cost more now. But is a $30 pie fair?

Stop me if you've heard this before, but food is getting expensive.

I've done a fair bit of research on this topic, investigating the rising cost of both sandwiches and pasta at restaurants, and within each category I aim to pinpoint the various sources of inflation. Sandwich prices, for example, have risen by a dollar or two due to food costs alone. Though the labor and overheads remain relatively low—many sandwich shops in L.A. operate out of liquor stores and grocery stores—chefs have still had to get crafty with their ingredients due to the price hikes.

Pasta is a bit trickier, because even though labor costs for this labor-intensive product play a role in its cost, pasta has also come to be seen by consumers as a generalized luxury item and is priced accordingly. Which brings us to pizza, another staple of American cuisine that has ascended to the level of luxury. It used to be anything but.

The price of pizza everywhere has gone up

Los Angeles is currently in the midst of a pizza renaissance. It's been a good year for great pizza, with many restaurants earning national acclaim for their pies. However, those pies don't come cheap.

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Secret Pizza in Los Angeles, dubbed the best pizza in L.A. by Times food critic Bill Addison in 2022, charges $26 for its plain, East Coast-style 18" pie. Yes, L.A. has great New York style pizza now. Toppings cost $4 each.

Pizzeria Bianco, the famous Phoenix-based restaurant helmed by chef Chris Bianco, charges $23 for the Margherita. Toppings are a bit more expensive here: Prosciutto and anchovies cost $7 each.

Quarter Sheets was recently listed as one of the 50 best restaurants in America by The New York Times. The pizza here takes the form of hefty Grandma-style squares for about 5 bucks a pop, while whole pizzas sit in the $29-$36 range. With a tip, you might be looking at more than $40 for a large pie.

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If that seems expensive, consider that Domino's isn't far behind these nationally lauded pizzas. A large 14" Ultimate Pepperoni pizza from Domino's now costs $21.99 in my area. Given how the quality of, say, Chris Bianco's Margherita compares to Domino's pepperoni, it's striking that there's only a $1 price difference between them.

People are only willing to pay so much for chain pizza, however. Domino's made a big mistake earlier this year when it upped delivery prices, which caused a whopping 20% drop in first half profits. Papa Johns' franchise owners made a similar mistake, raising prices so much in 2023 that customers have left in droves.

Still, there's hope for cheap pizza. Costco's large pizza, while not spectacular, is still $10. And Little Caesars remains both an anomaly and a revelation, with its large pepperoni pizza costing only $10.99.

So, given such a wide swath of prices, what "should" pizza cost? And is it even possible for independent restaurants to serve an artisanal pie for under $30 anymore?

Customers appreciate good pizza more than ever

Like pasta, pizza has also evolved into something of a luxury item in the 21st century, and as such, consumers demonstrate more appreciation for it on a culinary and technical level. Words like "undercarriage" are now common vernacular, not just among pizza makers. The average pizza consumer now judges a pizza by its flop and pays attention to the particular crisp and crunch in a bite of crust. Hell, there's whole dialogues revolving around the proper brand and style of tomatoes, and what constitutes an authentic Long Island Grandma slice. Chef's Table did a whole damn series on pizza just last year. In short, people are paying attention to their pizza more than they ever have before.

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"Definitely, I feel that," says Sean Lango, owner of Secret Pizza in Los Angeles, which started as a pandemic pop-up in his apartment and now occupies a brick-and-mortar space in Monterey Park. "Pizza just became kind of a social thing that people care about and talk about, and they like to go to different places, too."

Lango himself has always embarked on these long pilgrimages to try pizza. "I've always gone on little trips to try pizza from far away," he says. "I remember going to Di Fara 10 years ago. A slice is 5 bucks. The whole pizza is 30 dollars. I thought it was crazy."

Still, Lango didn't mind paying because he's always had a love of good pizza. It's an appreciation shared by his customers, which means they're willing to pay more for the good stuff, too. Which is good, because with such stiff pizza competition across Los Angeles, high-quality ingredients, reliable staff, and equipment must be invested in.

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Yes, inflation plays a role in pizza prices, too

Supply chain issues and inflation are still an issue, and they have both hit pizza hard. CNET explains the phenomenon of rising pizza prices:

"It's not just the cost of ingredients that's gone up," said Terrence Morash, vice president of brand and creative for Slice, a pizza delivery platform for more than 19,000 independent pizzerias. "It's also the cost of cardboard and bags for delivery. And small restaurants have had to raise compensation to retain reliable staff."

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According to Slice's new report on its member restaurants, the price of a large cheese pizza rose year-over-year in all but five states. Nationwide, the average price for a pie rose more than a dollar — from $16.74 in 2021 to $17.81 in 2022.

But even accounting for inflation, isn't the food cost for ingredients like flour and yeast still really low?

Chef Francesco Lucatorto, co-owner of Ceci's Gastronomia in Silverlake (who helped shed light on the price of pasta in 2023), can't believe how expensive pizza has become. "I went to a pizzeria, two Margheritas that I went to pick up myself, the bill was 57 dollars," he says. "Tomato, mozzarella, olive oil, basil. Even if you use the best ingredients, it doesn't exceed 3 dollars in cost."

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If it's hard for an Italian chef to wrap their head around, then the food cost is worth questioning. But then again, we know pizza makers aren't getting rich off expensive pies. Never once have I seen a guy covered in flour wearing a Rolex.

It's no secret that the price of mozzarella, olive oil, tomato paste, and flour have all gone up, even in Europe. "Cheese is always up and down," says Lango. "It's like gas prices." The flour he uses, though, costs 1.6 times more than what it did when he started Secret Pizza back in 2020. Tomatoes recently jumped up by $10 a case, too.

But strangely enough, the biggest price hike Lango has seen over the last few years has been the cost of pizza boxes.

"Blank boxes got hit the hardest," he explains. "Strange, because you'd think they'd be cheaper. They went up to $1.21 a box or something. Just crazy. [I realized] I could get the generic ones at Restaurant Depot for half that. I'm not going to spend all my money on a blank box. I'd rather get some good cheese."

Even with all of these price hikes, Lango's food cost operates in the low 20s, meaning food cost accounts for 20%-25% of the menu price. That's good, but not a killing.

Other factors affecting the price of pizza

Pizza restaurants of all stripes are full of specialized equipment, too—equipment that needs thorough and consistent maintenance. Lango admits there are many hidden costs that he wasn't aware of when he began his business; for example, he just had to pay $1,000 for a semiannual hood cleaning ("This has to happen twice a year, or you're fucked"). Given the restaurant industry's historically thin margins, this is a tough pill to swallow. Pizzerias require a lot of unique upkeep, beginning with the pizza oven. The one at Secret Pizza cost $41,000, and the repairs "tend to be pricey."

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When it comes to labor, Lango emphasizes just how much he wants to take care of his employees. "We all want everyone to get paid well," he says of Los Angeles pizzerias. "It's just caring about the people who you work with."

Indeed, we seem to be in the midst of an industry-wide shift in how employees treated and compensated. Of all the chefs I talked to about their pricing, they all shared the sentiment that labor costs need to be higher. The cost of food is set at the necessary level to take care of employees, and in the ideal scenario, customers pay what they have to in order to receive a primo product.

Lango could actually make more money selling 12" or 14" pizzas instead of the 18" ones; he notes that a fellow pizza maker keeps food costs around 15% by doing this. An 18" pie is admittedly bigger than most you'll find around here, but that's exactly the point: his restaurant's signature is the massive NY-style pizza slice, one that East Coast transplants and locals alike can enjoy.

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Franchising a pizza place, especially when you have a product like Lango's, is another way to expand profits. But ultimately, Secret Pizza is an operation that has remained rather low-key; the business turns out an awesome product, and Lango tries to be judicious about where money is spent so he can continue to support his staff.

With supply chain issues, food inflation, and customers' penchant for finding good pizza, prices will continue to operate in the $23-$27 range for a plain pie, depending on where you live. While that might seem steep, there's no denying that we live in a golden age of great pizza. It might cost more than a Hot-N-Ready at Little Caesars, but it's an experience that will stick with you a whole lot longer after you eat it. Such is the trade-off of any luxury item.

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