Kitchn Love Letters

A Midwestern Pizza Chain Perfected Hawaiian Pizza with 2 Strange Ingredients

published Aug 21, 2019
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Hawaiian Pizza from Donato's
Credit: Christopher Michel
Donatos Hawaiian Pizza

At Kitchn, our editors develop and debut brand-new recipes on the site every single week. But at home, we also have our own tried-and-true dishes that we make over and over again — because quite simply? We love them. And we decided to start sharing some of our absolute favorites with you. Here’s a peek into what we’re cooking and eating in our own kitchens.

I want to be upfront about something: Hawaiian pizza is not a food borne out of any notion of authenticity.

Quite the opposite, in fact. The name itself causes cognitive dissonance: Italy and Hawaii are almost opposite each other on a globe. And it certainly wasn’t invented in either place. (That would be Southern Ontario, Canada, in 1962, by Sam Panopoulos, who was also neither Hawaiian nor Italian.) 

But it does have legitimate roots: The rising popularity of air travel at the time inspired a ton of cultural cross-pollination in North America that was reflected in the foods people started enjoying. Pizza (at the time a strange new thing) was one of those. “Tiki” inspired flavors, like ham and canned pineapple, was another. But the reason the dish has stuck around — the reason I love it — is because the flavors work really well together. 

This is a hard sell for some of you, I know. It’s been widely maligned (most famously by the President of Iceland). But if you approach the dish without a lot of preconceived notions, you’ll discover the sugars and acids in the canned pineapple (it has to be canned) highlight and complement the sugars and acids in the tomato sauce. And both balance the rich cheese and ham. It’s a good combination of toppings. It works.

But a small Midwestern pizza chain called Donatos has, for at least the last 20 to 30 years, been making an even better version, a more perfect version. And it’s something Hawaiian pizza lovers everywhere should know about. They’ve done it by adding two more unorthodox ingredients: slivers of toasted almonds and cinnamon

I mean, why not? If you are no longer bound by notions of authenticity or tradition, then why not start going really far afield, and see what happens? In this case, what happens is that a pretty good pizza combo turns into an incredible one.

The almonds are smart, but the cinnamon is ingenious. Cinnamon has long been one of those spices that can really tie together a sweet and savory dish (like, say, roasted butternut squash and cranberry salad). Here, a generous covering (as you can see from the photo) gives depth to the other flavors without overpowering anything. And the almonds add both an unexpectedly welcome textural crunch and a nuttiness that further balances against the sugars and acids. 

Credit: Christopher Michel

But there’s a good reason you may never have heard of this particular combo: It’s unique to a Midwestern chain called Donatos. Unless you live in Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, or a handful of neighboring locations, you probably haven’t heard of them. Donatos makes a St. Louis-style pizza, as you can see, with a cracker-like thin crust and toppings all the way to the edges, and it’s cut in squares. But this combo of flavors works with nearly any style.

I grew up in Columbus — where the chain was founded — but moved around the East Coast during and after college, and never really came back. After high school, I spent years looking for a Hawaiian pizza that was as good, but to little avail. I relegated myself to ordering it when I was visiting — or occasionally making my own (although you have to actually make it from scratch. Simply sprinkling cold almonds onto delivery pizza doesn’t have the same effect).

But recently, my family moved to the South — Birmingham, Alabama — and it turns out there’s a Donatos outpost. I didn’t realize it for almost a year, but one day in a pique of nostalgia, I did some searching and sure enough: It’s just 15 minutes away.

I suggested to my wife, Karen, that we go for a date night, but she shot that down. She was more than a little skeptical of both the restaurant and the combo. She’s not a fan of delivery pizza (I don’t understand either) and basically told me if I wanted to try it, I should drive myself over for lunch one day and enjoy it all by myself.

But it’s Pizza and Ice Cream Week here at Kitchn! It was just the excuse I needed. So last Saturday I made plans to get a few pizzas, including the Hawaiian, for our family game night. And then, because Karen kept “forgetting” and trying to make other dinner plans, I placed the order several hours early and told her it was a done deal. At the appointed hour, I went to pick it up. (We’re a little outside their delivery zone. Nothing’s perfect.)

It had been a dozen or so years at least since I’d last had the pizza, and I was unsure if it would be as good as I remembered it. I’d never been to this location before — would it be as good? Had the chain gone downhill?

I didn’t need to worry. In the car I snuck a small piece and it was all right there: The almost marzipan-like flavor of the almonds, the pungent cinnamon, the sweetly tart pineapple, and thinly sliced shavings of ham, all perfectly combined on a thin crust with cheese and sauce. 

At home, I opened the box, put a slice on a plate for Karen, and held it out to her. She looked at it and rolled her eyes. But she took it, then took a bite.

Reader, she went back for seconds.

If you’re not lucky enough to be near a Donatos, it’s actually easy to make at home. I recommend using a thin-crust recipe, with a classic red sauce. All you need for toppings is a drained can of pineapple chunks, a bag of sliced almonds, some thinly sliced deli ham, and a generous dusting of ground cinnamon. 

Have you tried Donatos Hawaiian pizza? What did you think?

Note: This article has been updated. The original post suggested using slivered almonds to make the pizza. Sliced almonds are what Donatos uses.