Why We’re Obsessed with Lemon on Pizzas

On the right pizza, the brightness of citrus is everything.

herb and sea lemon pizzas pizza
Lemon mingles with fennel, sausage, and broccolini at San Diego-based Herb & Sea. | Photo by Kimberly Motos
Lemon mingles with fennel, sausage, and broccolini at San Diego-based Herb & Sea. | Photo by Kimberly Motos

Pizza can be controversial. There are purists who think pizza should just be dough, sauce, and cheese—toppings be damned. Some want to go all-out with sausage and pepperoni, peppers and olives, or slivers of onions atop a bubbling bed of mozzarella. There are pineapple enthusiasts (that’s me) and anchovy advocates (also me). And then, there’s lemon on pizza.

Although citrus might not be the first thing you think of when picturing a pizza, lemon has graced pies in many different forms around the world. For instance, white clam pizza, a signature of New Haven, Connecticut, is routinely served with lemon wedges.

And, along Italy’s Amalfi coast, where Meyer lemons are bountiful, you can find lemon juice within pizza dough or zested atop the cheese. This tradition inspired Los Angeles chef Evan Funke to serve the Amalfitana, a cheesy white pie with Meyer lemons, at his restaurant, Felix.

At San Diego-based Herb & Sea, quartered lemon slices mingle with broccolini, fennel, and sausage on one pizza. “We’ve had lemon on pizza since we first opened the restaurant,” Francisco Pieras, executive sous chef, explains. “It’s a great ingredient to play with because you can use lemon preserves, fresh lemon like we do, or add arugula and dress up the pizza. It adds another level of flavor to the dish.”

“That’s the beauty of pizza—there’s no orthodoxy to it.”

Preserved lemon and arugula top a pizza called the Rocket at Meribo, a restaurant in Covington, Louisiana. “We puree preserved lemon with Calabrian chilies and honey and call it a marmalade,” says chef Gavin Jobe. “When the pizza comes out fresh, we dress it with arugula and hit it with that lemon-chili condiment.”

For Jobe, it’s important that his pizzas feel harmonious and not too heavy. “For a white sauce pizza, it’s really good to have some form of acidity on it, just to help cut some of the richness,” he explains. The same goes for his Hot Pocket–inspired chicken broccoli lemon pizza. Without the brightness of lemon, the pizza can be overwhelmingly rich.

David Sturno, owner of the trio of Goat Hill Pizza locations in the Bay Area, turned to a Roman classic as inspiration for one of his dishes. “I was looking to make a saltimbocca pizza and, quite honestly, it needed some acid,” he says. “It had the garlic cream sauce and the chicken and the sage and all of that, but it was unbalanced.”

To remedy this, Sturno added thin lemon slices atop the pizza. It isn’t a typical ingredient for saltimbocca, but it made perfect sense on his sourdough crusts.

While lemon is available as custom topping on pies at Goat Hill, Sturno says it isn’t the most popular option. Nevertheless, he thinks people should be open to it. “Dough, in my mind, is a vehicle that contains whatever the heck you want on it, including pineapple, or lemon,” he says. “That’s the beauty of pizza—there’s no orthodoxy to it.”

Jobe agrees. “There’s a part of me that says, ‘Nothing should be sacred,’” he laughs. “If it tastes good, then you should do it... It’s one of the fun things about being a chef. We try really hard to think of stuff you would’ve never thought of—that’s why we do this.”

For his part, Pieras takes citrus a step further with a kumquat pizza that also features figs, onions, and dandelion greens. “Who’s to say what ingredients don’t belong where?” he says. “Food is something to play with—that’s how new dishes are created.”

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Kat Thompson is a senior staff writer of food & drink at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.