Take away teachers, books and homework and most teen-agers would shout for joy. But take away pizza and you're bound to have them knocking down your door.
Pizza is a $25-billion industry in the United States, with about 50% of all sales revenue coming from teen-age customers, according to the National Assn. of Pizza Operators. In fact, one out of every 10 restaurants in the United States is a pizzeria, with most grossing an average of $40,000 monthly.
For many teens, pizza is a major part of life. It's associated with daily meals, parties and victory celebrations or just a quiet evening home alone in front of the TV.
"Pizza is there when I'm hanging out with my friends," says Marnie Hunter, a senior at Santiago High School in Garden Grove. "We go out for pizza after most football games, even if the team loses."
Just why do teens find the combination of dough, tomato sauce and cheese so appealing? According to Jay Cruz, manager of Round Table Pizza in Garden Grove, it's the blend of convenience, price and unique taste.
"Pizza has always been affordable," Cruz says. "And with home delivery nowadays, it's no wonder teens have such a craving for it."
Home delivery, however, can often present problems for pizzerias.
Kim Becerra, manager of Pizza Hut in Westminster, says her franchise was losing as much as $150 a month to crank calls requesting home deliveries.
"When an order is not accepted, we have no choice but to throw the pizza away," Becerra says. As a result, various pizzerias, including Pizza Hut, are now calling back to verify home delivery orders.
Endless combinations are another reason for pizza's popularity, according to Kevin Peters, an employee at Me-N-Ed's in Garden Grove, where the house special is the Pizza Supreme. At $15.53, it comes with salami, pepperoni, mushrooms, olives, bell peppers, sausage, meatballs, ham and extra cheese.
"It's amazing what you can do with a dozen or so ingredients, Peters says.
Indeed, pizza has infinite variations. From the wide range of standard and exotic toppings, to the crust itself, which can be thick or thin and in a round pan or a deep dish.
Yet, with all these options, pizza has remained relatively affordable.
"Pizza is great for my pocketbook because I can split the cost with my friends," says Arme Caballero, a senior at Santiago High. "Pizza and people are practically inseparable, no matter where you go."
Becerra says heavy competition among pizza chains has kept prices low. At Pizza Hut, a small or personal pan pizza runs from $1.99 to $2.59. A medium runs from $9.04 to $11.69, and large pizzas top out at $11.29 to $14.99.
In our health-conscious society, a growing number of teens watch what they eat. For them, the vegetarian pizza is a healthful alternative. Once limited to a handful of ingredients, the list has grown to include ancho-chilies, chicken, shiitake mushrooms, radicchio, fennel, squash, black beans, eggplant, squash, feta cheese and organically grown herbs.
The sales of vegetarian pizza have risen steadily over the past year. At his Round Table franchise, Cruz reports a 15% increase in vegetarian pizza orders, while Becerra cites an increase of 5% at her Pizza Hut establishment during the summer.
Eric Sternlicht, a nutritionist at Simply Fit Nutrition and Exercise Consulting in Orange, says teens ordering pizzas should order ones with lots of vegetables and little processed meats, such as pepperoni.
"Teen-agers should not be bound to vegetarian pizzas, but I suggest low-calorie cheese and a greater amount of fresh ingredients." says Sternlicht, adding that a 5 1/2-ounce serving of pepperoni pizza is the equivalent of 410 calories and is 40% fat.
The pizza is thought to have been originated by the Greeks and Etruscans more than 2,500 years ago. The name comes from pecia , which were the ashes that covered the pizza's bottom.
The tomato sauce-covered pizza did not appear until the 16th Century, when explorers brought the tomato to Italy from Peru.