Upper Crust: The Story of Pizza Hut's Forgotten Priazzo Pizza

Pizza Hut tried to up their game in 1985 with a high-rise "Italian pie."
Pizza Hut tried to up their game in 1985 with a high-rise "Italian pie."
Presley Ann, Getty Images for Pizza Hut

When Pizza Hut rolled out its newest menu item in the summer of 1985 under the nonexistent Italian word Priazzo, the chain was quick to correct anyone who declared it a new variety of pizza.

The Priazzo was unlike any pizza Americans had ever come across. With two layers of dough, pepperoni, mushroom, onions, spinach, ham, bacon, tomatoes, and one full pound of cheese, Pizza Hut called it a pie; others called it a strange alchemy of pizza, quiche, and lasagna. PepsiCo, which owned the franchise, hoped it would boost revenue by 10 percent.

It did. For a while. But there were problems inherent in a pizza chain that claimed to be serving something other than pizza.

The Priazzo, which spent two years in development, followed the successful 1983 rollout of Pizza Hut's Personal Pan Pizza. That menu item, which was intended to appeal to customers who wanted just a single portion on their lunch break, was a tremendous hit, increasing the company's lunchtime business by 70 percent. With the Priazzo, however, the restaurant went in the opposite direction—super-sizing a dinner option and limiting its availability to after 4 p.m. on weekdays and all day on weekends.

Though the name was nonsensical—it was the invention of Charles Brymer, a marketing consultant who had also named the Pontiac Fiero—Pizza Hut used names of Italian cities for the three variations. There was the Roma, which had a mix of meat (pepperoni, Italian sausage, and pork) along with mozzarella and the very non-Italian cheddar cheese, plus onions and mushrooms; the Milano had all the meat of the Roma plus beef and bacon, mozzarella and cheddar on top, but no mushrooms or onions; and the gut-busting Florentine, which featured spinach, ham, and five different kinds of cheese, including ricotta, mozzarella, parmesan, romano, and cheddar. (A fourth pie, the vegetarian Napoli, was added later.)

All the pies were stuffed with ingredients and then had a layer of dough with tomato sauce and cheese baked on top. A small Priazzo sold for about $8.05, a medium was $10.95, and a large ran around $13.75. For that you got the full Priazzo experience and nothing extra, as customers were not allowed to change or substitute toppings—or, more accurately, stuffing—as the surplus of ingredients was the entire point of the Priazzo. Diners could, however, ask that ingredients be subtracted.

“Most Italian homes have a version of their own,” Arthur Gunther, Pizza Hut's president at the time, told the Chicago Tribune of the idea behind the Priazzo in 1985. “We looked for those that we felt would have application in the United States.” In Italy, such double-crusted pies are known as pizza rusticha, though putting sauce and cheese over the top crust was unique to the Priazzo.

On the strength of a $15 million marketing campaign and a commercial shot in Italy, and accompanied by music from famed Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini, the Priazzo made a splashy debut in June 1985, right around the same time that Pizza Hut and other chains were moving into home delivery. While it was not exactly a deep dish pizza, it promised something of similar gastronomic substance, and Pizza Hut hoped that would entice people who didn’t have access to table-tipping pizzas outside of Chicago.

The Priazzo gained some early devotees who enjoyed the dish's generous and layered presentation. One notable exception was Evelyne Slomon, a cooking instructor and author of 1984's The Pizza Book: Everything There Is To Know About the World's Greatest Pie. She refused an offer to endorse the pizza and noted that actual Italians would rarely put so much meat in their pies. Others observed that pizza is one of the words commonly used for pie in Italian, making Pizza Hut’s insistence that their “Italian pie” was not a pizza rather grating for linguists.

Still, they fulfilled their objective. In early 1986, PepsiCo reported a 12 percent increase in Pizza Hut revenue, aided in part by the Priazzo. But its success would not last. In the fast-casual atmosphere of a pizza chain, consumers wanted their typical fare. After the initial curiosity wore off, not many customers were returning to the Priazzo for pizza nights. Anecdotally, there were also reports of employees finding the thick pies too cumbersome and time-consuming to deal with.

Whatever the case, the Priazzo was disappearing by 1991 and was last mentioned in print by Pizza Hut in 1993. The baton of pizza excess was later picked up by their stuffed crust pizza, which was introduced in 1995 and has remained a perennial favorite. That might be due in some part to the fact that Pizza Hut was content to call it what it was: a pizza.

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Good Gnews: Remembering The Great Space Coaster

Tubby Baxter and Gary Gnu in The Great Space Coaster.
Tubby Baxter and Gary Gnu in The Great Space Coaster.
YouTube

Tubby Baxter. Gary Gnu. Goriddle Gorilla. Speed Reader. For people of a certain age, these names probably tug on distant memories of a television series that blended live-action, puppetry, and animation. It was The Great Space Coaster, and it aired daily in syndication from 1981 to 1986. Earning both a Daytime Emmy and a Peabody Award for excellence in children’s programming, The Great Space Coaster fell somewhere in between Sesame Street and The Muppet Show—a series for kids who wanted a little more edge to their puppet performances.

Unlike most classic kid’s shows, fans have had a hard time locating footage of The Great Space Coaster. Even after five seasons and 250 episodes, no collections are available on home video. So what happened?

Get On Board

The Great Space Coaster was created by Kermit Love, who worked closely with Jim Henson on Sesame Street and created Big Bird, and Jim Martin, a master puppeteer who also collaborated with Henson. Produced by Sunbow Productions and sponsored by the Kellogg Company and toy manufacturer Hasbro, The Great Space Coaster took the same approach as Sesame Street of being educational entertainment. In fact, many of the puppeteers and writers were veterans of Sesame Street or The Muppet Show. Producers met with educators to determine subjects and content that could result in a positive cognitive or personal development goal for the audience, which was intended to be children from ages 6 to 11. There would be music, comedy, and cartoons, but all of it would be working toward a lesson on everything from claustrophobia to the hazards of being a litterbug.

The premise involved three teens—Danny (Chris Gifford), Roy (Ray Stephens), and Francine (Emily Bindiger)—who hitch a ride on a space vehicle piloted by a clown named Tubby Baxter. The crew would head for an asteroid populated by a variety of characters like Goriddle Gorilla (Kevin Clash). Roy carried a monitor that played La Linea, an animated segment from Italian creator Osvaldo Cavandoli that featured a figure at odds with his animator. The kids—all of whom looked a fair bit older than their purported teens—also sang in segments with original or cover songs.

The most memorable segment might have been the newscast with Gary Gnu, a stuffy puppet broadcaster who delivered the day’s top stories with his catchphrase: “No gnews is good gnews!” Aside from Gnu, there was Speed Reader (Ken Myles), a super-fast sprinter and reader who reviewed the books he breezed through. Often, the show would also have guest stars, including Mark Hamill, boxer “Sugar” Ray Leonard, and Henry Winkler.

All of it had a slightly irreverent tone, with humor that was more biting than most other kid’s programming of the era. The circus that Tubby Baxter ran away from was run by a character named M.T. Promises. Gnu had subversive takes on his news stories. Other characters weren’t always as well-intentioned as the residents of Sesame Street.

Off We Go

The Great Space Coaster was popular among viewers and critics. In 1982, it won a Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Individual Achievement in Children’s Programming—Graphic Design and a Peabody Award in 1983. But after the show ceased production in 1986, it failed to have a second life in reruns or on video. Only one VHS tape, The Great Space Coaster Supershow, was ever released in the 1980s. And while fan sites like TheGreatSpaceCoaster.TV surfaced, it was difficult to compile a complete library of the series.

In 2012, Tanslin Media, which had acquired the rights to the show, explained why. Owing to the musical interludes, re-licensing songs would be prohibitively expensive—potentially far more than the company would make selling the program. Worse, the original episodes, which were recorded on 1-inch or 2-inch reel tapes, were in the process of degrading.

That same year, Jim Martin mounted an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign to try and raise funds to begin salvaging episodes and digitizing them for preservation. That work has continued over the years, with Tanslin releasing episodes and clips online that don’t require expensive licensing agreements and fans uploading episodes from their original VHS recordings to YouTube.

There’s been no further word on digitizing efforts for the complete series, though Tanslin has reported that a future home video release isn’t out of the question. If that materializes, it’s likely Gary Gnu will be first to deliver the news.