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Papa Johns’ new pizza bowls are bad execution of a bad idea

New bowls from Papa Johns feature just toppings, no crust. Clockwise from left: garden veggie, chicken Alfredo and the Italian meats trio. (Papa Johns)

You might have heard this already, but Papa Johns has introduced bowls to the menu. The chain calls them — what else? — Papa Bowls, which has a doting, avuncular tone to it, as if a beloved grandfather had handpicked each ingredient for the nourishment of your body and soul.

What arrives on your doorstep, packaged in a box within a box, like the junk food equivalent of Russian nesting dolls, looks more like a Stoner Bowl. Something that a teenager might have cobbled together from the Papa Johns prep counter after a 15-minute Bongkey Kong break in the parking lot.

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It’s hard to exaggerate how little thought seems to have gone into the Papa Bowls. I mean, aside from the packaging, which involves a rectangular paper tray sheathed in a cardboard sleeve tucked into a small pizza box affixed with an advertising sheet that trumpets said bowls: “No crusts. Just toppings.” The heat that Papa Johns feels? That’s Greta Thunberg staring holes into whatever is left of the company’s conscience.

All that packaging creates a secondary problem: It builds up a sort of tension. It’s a carnival barker promising a werewolf boy, a woman with four legs, fleas that can rotate a Ferris wheel, a pizza bowl without crust. When you finally peek behind the curtain, all you discover is remorse. For falling for the sleight of hand: a repackaging of available ingredients into something that the Papa Johns marketing team has the cheek to call “innovation.”

I ordered each of the three bowls on the new menu: the Italian meats trio, the garden veggie and the chicken Alfredo, $7.99 each. I was expecting something closer to a casserole. What I got were three trays, each with an emaciated layer of prep-table ingredients. You can’t even sink the tines of your fork into the bowl without hitting bottom. It’s as if Papa Johns scraped the toppings off a large pizza into a tray, covered them with a three-cheese blend, browned the thing in an oven and dubbed it a dish.

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The whole idea reminds me of the muffin top shop from “Seinfeld.” It’ll be just as viable.

This menu addition makes me wonder if Papa Johns even understands what a bowl is, at least as defined by contemporary fast-casual standards. A bowl, experts will tell you, begins with a base. Rice or greens or noodles or even the shredded cardboard from all those Papa Bowl deliveries. Something. The base of the Papa Bowl is, in fact, the bowl. There is nothing to mitigate the spice of the pepperoni and sausage in the Italian meats trio, nothing to mute the banana pepper bite of the garden veggies, nothing to cut the richness of the chicken Alfredo.

Every bite is a direct, uncut injection of Papa Johns toppings, a new extreme sport. Those who view Papa Johns crust as a crime against Neapolitan pizza — the base leans spongy and sweet — might take comfort in these bowls. Then again, if you hate on the crust, I doubt you even associate with people with a Papa Johns app on their phone.

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It takes no leap of imagination to understand why Papa Johns would ditch the dough for these new dishes. The chain is making a play for the anti-carb crowd or those with a gluten intolerance. But they’re trying to do so on the cheap, with products already on hand. Frankly, the company and its customers would have been better served with a good entree salad or two. But that would have required the chain to source new ingredients, train the staff, create new systems, and place managers at the mercy of the pandemic-era supply chain. Papa Johns clearly didn’t want to go to all that trouble.

So this is what we get: A pantry dump in a lot of packaging.