The Pizza Issue

History of Frozen Pizza

Who Created Frozen Pizza?

As with so many other ultra-convenient foods — instant oatmeal, for example, or canned soup — it’s easy to take frozen pizza for granted. Never necessarily anyone’s first choice when craving a pie, but always reliable and at the ready, frozen pizza delivers satisfaction with simplicity: Pluck your pizza of choice from the freezer aisle and you’re already halfway to a slice of cheesy, saucy deliciousness. (No waiting for dough to rise — or a deliveryman to find your house — required.)

It might be hard to believe, but inside every tiny, frozen, pepperoni-and-bell-pepper icicle atop your yet-to-thaw pie is a complex history of frozen pizza innovation. There’s the science behind how the pies are able to be frozen in the first place — a method known as “flash-freezing,” which was created by Clarence Birdseye in 1924. There’s a long-standing debate over who first tried to freeze a pizza for greater public consumption. On one side, there’s Joe Bucci, who applied for a patent for a a method for freezing dough in 1950 that would make it less soggy and, thus, ideal for frozen pizza. Another claimant to the “frozen pizza originator” title is Chicagoan Emil De Salvi, who was described in The Chicago Tribune in 1951 as having “…perfected a frozen pizza pie, six fanciful fillings, for the television viewing home trade.”

There are still others who believe that frozen pizza was their brainchild, but at some point, it’s not about who was first — it’s about who refined the practice. Below is the story of four crucial moments in frozen pizza history that you can read in less time than it takes to cook a pie — and certainly faster than any delivery pizza could arrive. (I timed it, I swear.) So set your clocks, and let’s get started.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees: The First Lady of Frozen Pizza, Rose Totino
It’s difficult, sometimes, to imagine that our favorite brands have actual, down-to-the-letter namesakes: Walt Disney, for instance, or Ben & Jerry founders Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield. But the next time you’re microwaving a plate of Totino’s Pizza Rolls as a midnight snack or scarfing down an entire Totino’s Party Pizza in lieu of a proper dinner (no shame), give a little shout-out to nonna Rose Totino between bites.

A second-generation Italian-American from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Rose Totino (nee Cruciani) was earning 37 cents an hour at a local candy store when she met her future husband, a baker named Jim Totino. Totino quickly showed a knack for baking herself, and after the kind of thin crust pizzas she had grown up eating became a hit with her children and fellow local parents, she and Jim opened a restaurant known as Totino’s Italian Kitchen in 1951. (According to legend, pizza was so rare in those days that she baked a pizza for their loan officer because he had never eaten one.) By 1962, unable to keep up with the demand for pizzas at their brick-and-mortar establishment, the Totinos expanded with full gusto into the frozen pizza business, and by the end of the decade, had become the top-selling frozen pizza in the United States.

Eventually, Pillsbury came calling, and in 1975, the Totinos sold their business for a whopping 20-million-dollar deal (which is said to have been negotiated up from $16 million by Rose, who told Pillsbury that “$20 million is God’s will”). The sale, though, didn’t stop Rose — who had quickly proven herself to have serious business acumen — from being involved in all facets of the frozen pizza business. She became the first female corporate vice president at Pillsbury and worked diligently to help patent the “crisp crust” for Totino’s (the patent was granted in 1979). When Pillsbury acquired the business of fellow Minnesotan Jeno Paulucci — which used an egg roll machine to stuff each piece of dough with, yes, pizza fillings — Rose was quick to help premier this new food — the pizza roll — under the Totino’s brand name. She dressed up in stereotypical nonna Italian garb and appeared in commercials for the company. She was the first woman to be inducted into the Frozen Food Hall of Fame. Both publicly and behind the scenes, Rose Totino was a force to be reckoned with.

“I remember my mother traveling from city to city introducing crisp crust nationally on TV and radio. Even though she was petite and stood only 4 feet tall, she would hold her hands high and often repeat her own words on the new pizza carton, ‘Be the best and be generous!’” Rose’s daughter, Bonnie Totino Brenny, told the crowd at her mother’s induction into the Minnesota Inventor’s Hall of Fame in 2008. Today, Totino’s is the second highest grossing frozen pizza company in the United States, selling approximately $380 million worth of pies a year.

A particularly hilarious glimpse into Totino’s personality is found in her 1994 obituary, which recalls an invocation Rose delivered at the Pillsbury annual company meeting in 1980: “A deeply religious woman, she thanked the Lord for a long list of things and then stepped away from the lectern. But she had one last thought, and grabbed the microphone to say, ‘Oh, and Lord, I forgot to thank you for crisp crust.’”

Set the timer to 20 minutes: Schwan’s and the Frozen Pizza on Wheels
New York and Chicago might be the cities that initially come to mind when someone mentions locations known for their classic pizza styles, but if frozen pizza had a historical home base, it would be — of all places — Minnesota.

After Rose Totino helped to jump-start a national frozen pizza craze, another Minnesota company, Schwan’s, decided to take its convenience a step further by delivering frozen pizzas directly to the consumer’s home. Originally a door-to-door ice cream delivery business that was — and is — known for their distinctive yellow trucks (a muted mustard hue that’s now been trademarked), Schwan’s leapt onto the frozen pizza bandwagon in 1970 by taking out an ad in The Wall Street Journal that read, “Wanted: Frozen Pizza Manufacturer.” This led to the purchase of Schwan’s first toe-dip into the world of frozen pizza, Tony’s, which remains mostly recognizable, to this day, not for its memorable pizza, but for the silly drawing on each box of an Italian chef doing “chef’s kiss” fingers and (one can only imagine) exclaiming, “Mamma mia!” Schwan’s frozen pizza portfolio would eventually expand to include Freschetta (which recently received a health-focused makeover) and the biggest pizza prize of them all — Red Baron.

How invested was Schwan’s in Red Baron, you might ask? In 1979, as part of a seriously committed marketing campaign, the company formed the “Red Baron Squadron” of World War II-era biplanes. Over the course of 28 years, these stunt — and, presumably, pizza-loving — planes carried more than 80,000 passengers and became the longest-serving civilian aerobatic team in the United States. Today, Red Baron remains Schwan’s most popular frozen pizza.

Red Baron might still be flying high, but for me, it was the company’s least famous — and now extinct — brand of frozen pizza that launched my love affair with grabbing a pie from the freezer. Created in 1983 under the (somewhat unfortunate) brand name Little Charlies, these 5-inch, deep dish pizzas were perfectly child-sized and made an ideal, do-it-yourself after-school snack for a ravenous little critter like myself. Whenever the “Schwan’s man” (as I called him, though of course he had a real name) would come by our house, I would ensure that, alongside the orange sherbet, my beloved pint-sized pizzas were on our order.

And while I might’ve graduated to more thoughtfully topped, quasi-artisanal frozen pies now (and pizza rolls, which I still unabashedly adore), I’d be lying if I said I didn’t squeal with glee when I discovered an ancient Little Charlies pepperoni pizza in the back of my parent’s freezer several years ago. Time — and freezer burn — might’ve done a number on it, but I heated it up and attempted to eat it anyway. (What can I say? My commitment to nostalgia is strong.)

Schwan’s also cornered the market on selling frozen pizzas to schools in the 1970s, using the federal subsidies for cheese and tomato sauce (which, famously, counted as a vegetable for quite some time) to make those little carpet-square-shaped slabs of pizza, something that millions of schoolchildren would wistfully reflect on years later. Even to this day, 70 percent of all school pizzas are from Schwan’s. (And if you’re a nostalgia-lover like me, yes, the “school lunch” pizza of your youth can be purchased on the Schwan’s website. You’re welcome.)    

Place the frozen pizza directly on the oven rack and cook until golden brown: DiGiorno
“In strictly frozen-pizza terms, the year 1995 was every bit as momentous as 1066 or 1492,” wrote Brendan Koerner for The New York Times in 2004. “Before that date, frozen pizzas were a gourmand’s worst nightmare: overly chewy crusts topped with bland sauce, rubbery cheese and meat specks tougher than jerky. Then came Kraft Foods’ first pie sold under the DiGiorno brand name, and the industry was reborn.”

Unnecessary slander of frozen pizza’s dignity aside, Koerner was right: DiGiorno changed the frozen pizza game. And the specific innovation that DiGiorno brought to the table? A rising crust — just like in a real pizzeria.

Of course, they also benefited from a pretty catchy tagline. It’s not delivery. It’s DiGiorno.” has been seared into the consciousness of several TV-watching generations, piquing curiosity as to whether or not this frozen pie is really just like your favorite takeout joint — and boosting sales along the way. The rising crust company has held steady as the top frozen pizza brand in the country for the past five years, with over 1.01 billion sales in 2017.

Remove the pizza from the oven and enjoy: From cauliflower crust to Bagel Bites and everything in between
While heavy hitters like Totino’s, Red Baron and DiGiorno may continue to be among the brands most often tossed into a shopping cart, a stroll through the frozen food section will quickly reveal that, these days, there’s a little bit of something for everyone — even the frozen pizza skeptic.

There are frozen pizzas with cauliflower crusts, and there are gluten-free pies. You can opt for Atkins-diet-approved frozen pizzas or organic pizzas of all stripes, and even pick up frozen versions of pizzas from national restaurant chains like California Pizza Kitchen. You can go old-school with some Bagel Bites, or try not to singe your mouth (nearly an impossible feat!) on a pizza-stuffed Hot Pocket. Even Oprah has her own line of frozen pizzas!

But no matter what version pairs up best with your mood the next time you have the desire to gobble up a slice, have a little bit of reverence for your Rouses freezer aisle pie: That pizza carries plenty of history in its frosty, cheesy bits.