Answer / Introduction
Well, that depends.
As a rule of thumb, artisanal pizza prepared fresh at a local pizza restaurant does not fall under the category of fast food.
Delivery pizza ordered from one of the large multinational chains, or frozen pizza sold at the supermarket, on the other hand, are the textbook definition of what constitutes fast food.
Interestingly enough, pizza, as we know it today, was originally a type of affordable street food that could be eaten on the go, so in the strictest sense of the word, the pie offered by these modern-day fast-food pizza chains actually marks a return to this dish’s roots.
What is a fast-food restaurant, anyway?
Merriam-Webster offers two related definitions for the word fast food: the first and primary definition emphasizing speed in the preparation and serving of the food, and the second building up on that by underscoring the quality drawbacks resulting from this focus on expediency.
Another defining trait of fast-food restaurants, or Quick Service Restaurants (QSR) to use the industry term, is minimal table service: interactions with staff are usually restricted to the ordering, delivery, and payment processes.
There is no set definition in terms of speed, but I think the general expectation is for a streamlined experience taking between 5 to 10 minutes from order to bite.
With pizza, one has to factor in delivery times, but the preparation process itself doesn’t take that long, and most places have figured out the logistics to allow them to physically deliver orders to customers in under 30 minutes.
Such a feat would be impossible at sit-down restaurants, even assuming the regular menu could be seamlessly converted into takeout and delivered to customers, which most of the time it cannot.
This is why the takeout menu is found separately from a restaurant’s regular offerings, and consists of a collection of simplified dishes that lend well to being transported over short-to-medium distances.
Are Pizza Hut, Domino’s, etc., Fast Food?
Yes: Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s, etc., all meet the relevant criteria: service is fast, service is minimal, and the food itself is highly standardized.
One thing these restaurants have going for them, though, is that they use fresh dough.
In the case of Domino’s, it is delivered several times a week, and according to a video from 2014, at Pizza Hut, “pizza dough is made fresh at least five times a day.” (At least in New Zealand, which is where the store shown in the video operates.)
Everything’s a spectrum, as opposed to a binary, so on this particular count, Pizza Hut and, to a lesser degree, Domino’s probably find themselves leaning less toward the fast food-end of the gamut.
Contrast this to, say, Burger King, where hamburger patties undergo a metamorphosis from fully frozen to fully cooked in under two minutes.
Overall, though, the basic principle is the same for all fast-food restaurants: processes need to be fully standardized, with precise instructions allowing even high-school students working their first part-time job to deliver food meeting each company’s quality criteria.
Very much like McDonald’s transitioned from having their cooks manually peel off the Russet potatoes that arrived at each restaurant in 50 and 100-pound burlap sacks, to making use of frozen french fries, so have chains like Pizza Hut adopted specialized equipment that ensures each pie has exactly the correct length and width.
Colorful charts affixed to the walls show exactly which ingredients to add, and in what order, and little measuring cups guarantee that neither too much nor too little of each topping is used: just the right amount, every single time.
This difference is important.
If you’ve ever watched one of those shows in which a celebrity chef tries to help out an ailing family restaurant business, then you know just how crucial it is to have a skilled cook running the kitchen.
Oftentimes, the chef either makes or breaks a regular sit-down restaurant, whereas fast-food places, on the other hand, are hardly constrained by such factors.
The way businesses like McDonald’s or Pizza Hut are structured gives them the ability to offer food customers love and which any employee with minimal training can prepare.
Pizza Started Out As ‘Fast Food’ Centuries Ago
Much has been made of pizza’s humble origins and the fact that it was the target of some rather scathing reviews early on by prominent historical figures, most notably Samuel Morse, co-inventor of the Morse code.
Nowadays, fast food is enjoyed by people of all income levels, with even billionaires and celebrities partaking in the occasional Big Mac with a side of french fries and Coca-Cola.
However, back then, it was highly unlikely for someone like the future co-inventor of the electromagnetic telegraph and of Morse code to enjoy the type of food pizza was at the time: an inexpensive dish for day laborers toiling under the hot sun in the Italian city of Naples.
In other words, Morse was no Anthony Bourdain, in that he lacked an interest in regional street food.
All that notwithstanding, I submit that if we were to travel back in time with a box of piping hot pizza from Domino’s or Pizza Hut, I believe the painter-turned-inventor would surely change his opinion.
Needless to say, food sanitation standards have come a long way over the past couple of centuries, so this improvement alone would probably win him over.
The dish itself has also evolved over time and been perfected into top-tier comfort food, so he’d find that modern pizza bears little resemblance to the pies he saw being sold in the streets of Italy.
Indeed, nineteenth-century pizza makers often made use of ingredients we would nowadays consider ‘unorthodox,’ with, for example, horse’s milk cheese and whitebait being available as toppings.
The construction was also much less elaborate and savory, to such a degree that even if these original recipes were to be reconstructed in a modern kitchen and placed side-by-side with your average pizza offered by one of the large fast-food chains, I’m fairly confident that people would still invariably prefer the 21st-century variants.
In fact, we don’t really have to speculate all that much, because polls indicate that anchovies are the most disliked pizza topping among US consumers. That’s 61% of respondents saying they do not enjoy anchovies on their pizza.
Anchovies are not that far removed from the “little fish” Morse mentions in his acerbic review of what has now become Italy’s national dish, so I have a feeling modern-day pizza aficionados probably wouldn’t take to the nineteenth-century version of the dish either.
– Helstosky, Carol; Pizza: A Global History; Specifically, but not exclusively: p.20, 21, 23, 24
– Griswold, Alison; Quartz – DOMINO’S The secret behind the US’s most successful pizza chain is
a hyper-efficient dough factory;
“[…] the fresh dough that Domino’s distributes several times a week […]”
– Schlosser, Eric; Rolling Stone -Fast Food Nation Part One
– Wilson, Charles; Schlosser, Eric; Chew On This: Everything You Don’t Want to Know About Fast Food