12 Gourmet Toppings To Give Your Pizza An Upgrade

Making pizza at home is fun for the whole family, but it can get boring after a while. After a lifetime of eating the same old toppings, it's natural to want to branch out and try something fancier. Fortunately, there's a whole world of ingredients out there that are perfect gourmet pizza toppings.

To help us come up with the perfect list of unique toppings, we sought out the help of some experts. We spoke to the team behind Slim & Husky's, a pizzeria chain founded in Nashville by three Tennessee State University graduates and former football players. The chain has quickly expanded across Tennessee and now operates in Atlanta and Sacramento as well, with more locations on the way. Fans love the restaurant's inventive pizzas with fun flavor combinations, so we knew CEO EJ Reed, CMO Clint Gray, and Chief Development Officer Derrick Moore would be the perfect people to get pizza inspiration from.

If you want to try doing something different with your pizza and don't have the cash to ship Slim & Husky's to your house from Goldbelly, these toppings are a good place to start. And even if you're not making your own pie, you can keep your eyes peeled to see if you can find these ingredients on pizzeria menus when you're ordering out.

1. A drizzle can kick things up a notch

Just because your pizza is finished baking doesn't mean that you've run out of opportunities to add more flavor. As anyone who's dunked their crusts in ranch knows, dipping sauces can elevate the pizza experience to a whole new level.

Slim & Husky's offers a range of drizzle sauces that you can pour over the pizza or dip your slice into at the last minute. While all of the sauces bring something special to the table, one member of the team said "My favorite is probably the mayo-honey-Sriracha dipping sauce ... I get that sweet, savory, spicy fix with that dipping sauce."

For your at-home pizza nights, you can try to replicate one of Slim & Husky's offerings or go your own way. Just think of what your pizza is missing and try to come up with a drizzle that completes it. Want more savoriness? Try making garlic butter. Are you craving something creamy? Homemade ranch might be just what the doctor ordered. After something sweet and tangy? Then barbecue sauce is your friend. Let your palate and your culinary imagination guide you.

2. Fresh arugula lends a touch of green

If you like eating your pizza with a little salad on the side, have you ever thought of combining the two? We're not talking about dumping a whole entree salad on top of your pizza — rather, just try tossing some lightly dressed raw arugula on when the pie is fresh from the oven.

The key is to add the arugula after the pizza is baked, not before. While you can cook arugula (as we do in our wax beans and arugula recipe), it's best if it's lightly wilted, not cooked to death. A stint in a hot pizza oven is too much for this delicate green. Your piping hot pie will likely wilt the arugula slightly anyway. As for the dressing, go with something light and simple that complements your pizza like olive oil and lemon juice. Even just a simple oil, salt, and pepper dressing will work wonders. Don't over-dress; you want the arugula to still have some crisp snap and not sog out.

While arugula is our favorite green for this application, it's far from the only acceptable choice. Anything that's good to eat raw and has some peppery bite would work. Watercress is another great option, as is frisée.

3. A white sauce base can expand your possibilities

Although some people might consider red sauce to be a crucial part of the pizza experience, a white sauce can be a better accompaniment to some toppings. Slim & Husky's uses its white sauce as the base Smoking Herb pizzas with chicken or salmon. The mild flavor of a white sauce can be a good alternative to red sauce if you're trying to not overpower mild toppings like fish or chicken.

There are a few different ways to make white pizza sauce. Per the restaurant's team, "Our white sauce is kind of like a gravy." This is one common way to do it — not to make Thanksgiving gravy, but to create a milk gravy or bechamel-type sauce that's thickened with flour. If you want to add extra flavor, cheese and garlic can liven up the milk mixture.

If you'd rather not cook up a batch of milk gravy, there are simpler ways to make white pizza too. You can spread ricotta over the crust and then top it with other cheeses. You can also make a simple Parmesan cream sauce by blending together Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and heavy cream.

4. Smoked salmon is a refined touch

But what to top your white sauce pizza with? As we alluded to above, fish is a great choice. At Slim & Husky's, they go with smoked salmon. As they put it, "The smoked salmon has a saltiness that just brings everything together ... Our smoked salmon is cooked a little more because it goes through the oven, and the juice from the salmon spreads into the cheese ... It's a good bite."

Smoked salmon has a lot of the same attributes that are great about porky pizza toppings — it's cured, smoky, and super savory — but in a slightly lighter, fishy form. As the Slim & Husky's team notes, cooking the salmon with the pizza has the advantage of infusing everything with the fish's essence, but you can also add the salmon after the dough is baked. That's how Wolfgang Puck's famous salmon pizza from Spago is made. First, the crust is baked by itself, then it's spread with herby crème fraîche, thinly-sliced smoked salmon, and for that Wolfgang Puck touch of luxury, caviar. Doing it this way preserves the texture of the smoked salmon and gives you an end result that's like the fanciest bagel with lox you could imagine.

5. Plant-based pepperoni means you'll never miss meat

Vegetarian and plant-based eaters with pizza cravings no longer have to settle for a garden pie. Not that there's anything wrong with veggies on pizza (you'll find some good tips for veggie pies below), but sometimes you just want the salty, fatty, slightly spicy feeling of a good pepperoni pizza whether or not you eat animal products.

The good news is that vegetarians (and even vegans) can now enjoy plant-based pies that almost perfectly mimic ones made with real meat and cheese. Pie dough and red sauce are usually plant-based to begin with, so no changes are required there. Vegan cheese has come a long way in the last few years as well, with some options that melt well and taste pretty convincing. Even more impressive is plant-based pepperoni, which can be good enough to fool even the most dedicated carnivores.

Slim & Husky's Nothin But a V Thang pizza features plant-based cheese and pepperoni. When you follow the founders' suggestion to pair it with a plant butter dipping sauce, it becomes a truly decadent, meaty experience. It doesn't matter what it's made of; whether you're plant-based or are just looking to cut down on your meat consumption a little bit, meat-free pepperoni is worth a look.

6. Add Nashville hot chicken for some regional flair

Slim & Husky's takes pride in representing its home city of Nashville. Nowhere is that more evident than in the chain's Hot Chicken pizza, which pays homage to the flavors of the fiery fried chicken dish that Music City is famous for. As one of the founders told us, "If I want to step outside the bounds of a regular red sauce-based pizza, I'll definitely dip into the Nashville Hot."

This pizza combines a couple of the techniques we've already discussed. It uses an alternative sauce, in this case, a spicy jalapeño cilantro ranch. It's finished with a hot honey drizzle for even more spice and some sweetness. As if that weren't enough heat, there are sliced jalapeños and banana peppers too. Rather than traditional fried hot chicken, the poultry comes in the form of pulled chicken. Instead of being a direct recreation of the dish it's inspired by, this pizza remixes hot chicken, delivering the spice you expect along with some crunch from the hot peppers.

If you're making hot chicken pizza at home, you can follow Slim & Husky's route or you could put actual fried Nashville-style chicken on your pizza. If you don't feel like adding frying chicken to your list of cooking tasks on pizza night, feel free to get a couple of pieces of takeout chicken, chop them up, and add them to your pie.

7. Chorizo brings a Mexican touch

Italians might blanch at putting nontraditional meats like hot chicken or chorizo on a pizza, but we don't have to be boxed in by tradition. After all, Mexican chorizo has all the things we want in a pizza topping: It's fatty, porky, and highly seasoned, typically with a spice mixture that includes chili powder for some heat.

Slim & Husky's uses chorizo in its Fiesta pizza, which reinforces the Mexican flavors with beef, bell peppers, and a post-bake drizzle of nacho cheese. At home, you could take it even further by making a variation of Iowa-style taco pizza with refried beans, shredded lettuce, and taco sauce, subbing out the ground beef for cooked and crumbled chorizo.

We should note that these tips apply specifically to Mexican-style chorizo, which is a fresh sausage that needs to be cooked before eating. This isn't to say that Spanish-style chorizo, which is a dry cured sausage somewhat similar to salami, wouldn't be a good pizza topping as well. In fact, if sliced thin, it would make for an intriguing alternative to classic pepperoni.

8. Pesto is a great pairing with veggies

The California Love pizza at Slim & Husky's is one of the chain's freshest vegetarian options. It pairs a selection of vegetable toppings with a spinach pesto base to create a light, but flavorful, green pie.

Pesto is an underutilized pizza sauce. If you're stuck in the red pizza/white pizza dichotomy, consider branching out and seeking greener pastures (and pizzas). While pesto can certainly work well with meat (it would go great with a chicken pizza), its combination of herbs, olive oil, nuts, and garlic is particularly perfect with fresh veggies. Veggies need the fat, salt, and zip from a zesty condiment like pesto to really sing on a pizza.

Another virtue of pesto is its customizability. While basil and pine nuts are standard in classic pesto, your only limit is your imagination. Pesto is more of a method than a specific dish, after all. You could follow Slim & Husky's lead and go with spinach, try some arugula, or branch out with alternative herbs like mint and parsley. A variety of nuts can be used as well, from walnuts to pecans (or you can go nut-free if serving people with allergies). If you don't want to escape the tomato paradigm fully, a sundried tomato-based pesto rosso is a novel alternative to classic red sauce.

9. Artichokes have a pop of acidity

This is another idea cribbed from the California Love pizza at Slim & Husky's. You won't find artichokes on the menu at your local Domino's but they're perhaps the greatest non-meat pizza topping. In addition to their unique flavor, they have a satisfyingly meaty texture and they go well with the other Italian-ish ingredients you're likely to find on a pie.

But what type of artichokes to use? Sure, you could start by cleaning and cooking fresh whole artichokes, but that's a huge chore that you probably don't want to tackle in the middle of preparing homemade pizza. Frozen artichokes are a great option if you want to get close to the taste of fresh ones, but they're not always available in regular grocery stores. No, if you want artichokes on your pizza, the best option for most people is canned or jarred ones.

Jarred artichokes, particularly the marinated ones, have some advantages beyond their convenience. They're heavily seasoned, which is great because some veggie toppings can be bland when compared to meats like pepperoni or sausage. The marinade is usually a little bit sour, which can help cut through all the richness from the cheese and the starchiness from the crust. No matter how you slice it, artichokes are a winning topping.

10. Calabrian chiles are perfect for heat lovers

There's no shortage of ways to bring spice to your slice. Just about every pizza place on Earth seems to have a shaker bottle or little packets filled with dried red chile flakes. Some people are into using fresh or pickled jalapeños on pizza as well (they really help cut the sweetness of pineapple). But for our money, the best spicy pizza accouterments are Calabrian chiles.

These little red peppers, known as peperoncini in their home region of Calabria, Italy, are serious spice bombs. Heat levels can vary, but Calabrian chiles tend to be more than twice as hot as jalapeños, if not even hotter. And the burn is just the beginning of what they bring to the party. Calabrian chiles are super complex, with fruity and savory notes that can help complement the flavors of a wide variety of other toppings. It's a big step up from the one-dimensional heat you get from red pepper flakes.

Calabrian chiles can be used fresh or dried, but our favorite type to use on pizza is the jarred kind preserved in olive oil. With this product, you get two different ways to enjoy the chiles. Real spice fiends can add whole chiles to their pizza, while people who want a milder burn can sprinkle a little bit of the chile-infused olive oil on their pie.

11. 'Nduja brings a whole new meaning to sausage pizza

'Nduja is another Calabrian specialty, and it's a common topping on Calabrian-style pizzas. As is typical for this heat-loving region of Italy, 'nduja is usually spicy, with plenty of Calabrian chiles added to the mix. It's a type of pork sausage, but it's not like the so-called "Italian" sausage you'll find at most American pizzerias.

In a normal sausage pizza, you typically cook the relatively dry, crumbly sausage on the pizza while it's in the oven. In the case of Chicago-style deep dish, the pizza is in the oven for so long that you can actually add the sausage to the pie raw; it will fully cook as the pizza bakes.

In contrast, 'nduja is ready to eat right out of the casing (or in some cases, the tub). It's a spreadable, pâté-like mixture with a hefty fat content that makes it incredibly rich and almost creamy. Its natural curing process lends it an incredible depth of flavor. To add it to a pizza, plop some dollops on the pie after it comes out of the oven. The heat from the freshly-baked pizza will melt the fat and turn the sausage into a spicy, soft meat sauce. You can go classic Calabrian with your pizza and pair the 'nduja with olives, but this versatile topping can pair well with anything that tastes good with spicy, fatty pork.

12. Fresh mozzarella is a creamy twist

Low-moisture mozzarella is the classic cheese for American-style pizza, and for good reason. It melts beautifully and has a salty yet neutral flavor that goes well with just about any topping. However, there's no reason to limit yourself to the old standby. At Slim & Husky's, the pizzas are topped with a secret four-cheese blend that amps up the flavor of the pies. Per the Slim & Husky's team, "We are a Southern-based company, so we are huge on flavor, and just enhancing flavor as much as we can, so we decided to do the four-cheese blend."

If you want to go even further, the chain gives you the option to add a fifth cheese to make a "Got Five On It" pizza: fresh mozzarella. The fresh stuff is wetter and creamier than low-moisture mozzarella and has a gentler flavor. It's traditionally used on Neapolitan-style pies as its high moisture content is suitable for the wet texture of this kind of pizza. On its own, it's not as good for American/New York-style pizza where you want a crisp crust. However, if you use fresh mozzarella as just one of several kinds of cheese instead of using it by itself, you can get its delicious flavor and soft texture without flooding your pie with too much moisture.