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A Piadina Lover Walks Into a Papa John’s...

Papa John’s is entering the lunch space with the Papadia, inspired by Emilia-Romagna specialty, the piadina. So how does it compare?

Several Papadia sandwiches stuffed with meat and cheese on black backdrop with dipping sauces and a pepper. Papa John’s

Papa John’s recently announced that it was “entering the lunch space and challenging the boring lunch routine” with the Papadia, a new menu item inspired by the piadina, a flatbread sandwich typical of Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region.

While we’re still wrapping our heads around the idea that Papa John’s pizza was hitherto outside the lunch space, let’s take a look at the history of the dish: Piadina dates back to at least 1371, when Cardinal Anglico de Grimoard included a description of it in a statistical report he prepared for Pope Gregory XI on the Romandiolæ province, which is part of modern-day Emilia-Romagna. Its dough is prepared simply with five ingredients — flour (especially “00”, or doppio zero), salt, baking soda (can be subbed for yeast), water, and lard (can be subbed for olive oil). It’s cooked on a griddle or a flat top, giving it the appearance of something between tortilla and naan, though it tastes like neither. The lard gives the finished product a slightly flaky characteristic.

Piadina is traditionally eaten both in the lunch space and beyond. After the dough is cooked, it is folded around any number of ingredients, like mozzarella and mushrooms, mozzarella and sausage, gorgonzola and roasted vegetables, or grilled anchovies, red onions, and arugula. The most traditional piadina, however, is made with prosciutto di Parma, squacquerone (a soft, creamy cheese), and arugula. This last version is what we typically conjure when we think about piadina.

I was curious to see how Papa John’s version measured up, so I ordered an “Italian Papadia” for lunch recently. As a self-dubbed piadina aficionado, I can tell you that the dough was all wrong — it tasted and chewed no differently than Papa John’s regular old pizza dough — and it was folded over approximately two pounds of salami, sausage, banana peppers, alfredo sauce, and rubbery mozzarella, essentially an unsealed calzone. It was accompanied by a small container of room temperature marinara sauce. When I sent my friend in Rimini an image of the Papadia over WhatsApp, he replied, “If they’re just folding up a pizza, I don’t know what they’re doing.”

What they’re doing, I realized, is essentially folding a mediocre meat lover’s pizza in half. It tasted good in the same way that a crunchwrap supreme tastes good after you’ve had, like, 11 beers. Which is to say it was wholly enjoyable.

But it’s definitely not a piadina, and of course, that lack of sameness (or even nebulous similarity) is working in Papa John’s favor. Papa John’s senior vice president of product development briefly mentioned in a press release that the Papadia is inspired by piadina, but if you didn’t read it and if you haven’t travelled to Emilia-Romagna, you’d have no idea that the new menu addition is inspired by the Romagnolo treat, and you could enjoy it from a place of blissful ignorance. The piadina isn’t even referenced on the Papadia product page. Instead it’s described as a flatbread-style sandwich and a pizza-sandwich. All that matters to the company and its core consumers is that Papa John’s is disrupting lunch — whatever the hell that means.

Introducing a traditional dish as something novel is a common tactic of chain restaurants. The chain pays vague and quiet homage to the culinary specialty (through a press release on a corporate website that no one is likely to read, for example) and soon enough, American diners are quick to singularly associate the food with the chain that popularized it. Piadina wasn’t invented at Papa John’s HQ in Kentucky any more than Mission burritos were invented by Steve Ells in Denver. Gorditas definitely weren’t introduced to the world by the Taco Bell chihuahua, but this kind of marketing has a sanitizing and homogenizing effect. And American diners tend to buy into it.

Papa John’s has thousands of franchises worldwide and is the fourth most popular fast-service pizza chain in the U.S. It’s come a long way since it was founded as a one-man operation by “Papa” John Schnatter, who resigned from the company in 2018 after he allegedly used a racial slur on a conference call and was separately accused of sexual misconduct. A behemoth chain, it’s no longer in the business of paying homage as much as it’s in the business of co-opting and claiming. The Papadia — a doughy, meaty, cheesy revolution to be enjoyed between the hours of noon and 1 p.m. — is the first of its name. To Papa John’s fans, there doesn’t need to be a piadina.

And maybe that’s fine! Those who seek the authentic piadina will eventually find it and, besides, I actually sort of enjoyed the “Italian” Papadia. Pizza folded in half is still pizza, after all, and pizza folded in half and then stuffed with pounds of cured meat, pickled peppers, and cheese is even better. While it’s probably a bit of a dumb stretch for Papa John’s to model its latest product on a very specific food from a region that’s famously beloved for its countless culinary contributions, it’s just as dumb for me to expect an American fast-food chain to give a singular fuck about the traditions of Emilia-Romagna. Papa John’s doesn’t care about authenticity — it cares about appealing to connoisseurs of fast food. And by that measure, I have little doubt that the Papadia will be a success.