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Domino’s tried to sell pizza to Italians. They said ‘no, grazie’

The American pizza chain flew too close to the pepperoni sun.

When Daedalus gave his son Icarus finely made wax and feather wings in the popular myth, he told his son to follow his path: not too close to the sea and not too close to the sun. In his flightful glee, Icarus ignored that advice, making his mode of transportation melt by soaring too high, too fast, meeting his doom in the sea below. While this myth is set in Greece, it offers an analogy into what happened in Italy, the country next door, and the pizza chain that, like Icarus, flew much too close to the sun. 

Domino’s Pizza Inc. closed the last of its 29 branches in Italy, the country well-known as the spot where pizza as we know it was first created. According to a report by Bloomberg, court documents show that the country’s Domino’s franchise had sought protection from creditors in April after running out of cash and falling behind on its debt obligations, adding that the pizza retailer had 10.6 million euros, or about $10.9 million, of debt at the end of 2020.

Domino’s, a company which first started in Ypsilanti, Michigan in 1960 before expanding to more than 85 countries around the world, wanted to add Italy to its portfolio, and did less than a decade ago.

The Italian company ePizza S.p.A, doing business as Domino’s Pizza Italia, started operations in the country in October of 2015,  in a move that was met with immediate backlash by Italians on social media and beyond. Of Domino’s expansion into the birthplace of pizza at the time, one Italian commenter social media said it would be like “selling ice to Eskimos.”

Unabated by critics, Alessandro Lazzaroni, who owned the franchise rights to the chain in Italy and previously worked for McDonald’s Italy as a business insights manager, started by planning to open a trio of branches in Milan, Italy, before expanding the pizza chain’s footprint elsewhere in the country.

“We’ve created our own recipe, starting from the original pizza recipe, with Italian products, like 100 percent tomato sauce and mozzarella, and products like prosciutto di Parma, gorgonzola, grana padano and mozzarella di bufala campana,” said Lazzaroni, who owns the franchise rights to the chain in Italy, in a statement in 2015 when operations first began.

Still, in recent times, the company was known in Italy for selling American interpretations of the dish, including cheeseburger pizza and other flavor innovations. The title of Domino’s press release, by the way, was “Domino’s Pizza in Italy? Oh Yes We Did,” perhaps signaling that it knew the kind of impression such a business move would leave on folks in Italy.

Domino's Pizza Inc. Leaves Italy as Traditional Margherita Wins
A "For Sale" banner outside a closed down Domino's Pizza Inc. store in Rome, Italy, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022.Alessia Pierdomenico/ / Bloomberg via Getty Images

In 2020, Lazzaroni said he aimed to expand big on Domino’s in the country, wanting to open 880 new stores by 2030. He also earlier said he aimed to leverage Domino’s ability to operate online delivery “as nobody else,” since at the time food delivery apps were virtually nonexistent in Italy prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The closings in Italy seem due to a multitude of factors, including the boom in Italian food delivery via digital app usage during the country's lockdown, seeing Europe-based food delivery app JustEat joined by competition from Uber Eats, Glovo, Deliveroo and others.

Also looming over Domino’s closings is the perception that Italian culture is so deeply connected to their food traditions that failure was perhaps inevitable. That a company who wanted to sell pineapple pizza — controversial even outside of Italy — to the people who invented pizza in the first place was thought by many from the start as much too hard a sell.

“Domino’s isn’t like McDonald’s which came into Italy as American junk food,” Kristina Gill, an Italy-based food editor and co-author and photographer of the award-winning cookbook “Tasting Rome,” told TODAY Food via email, adding that trying to open in Italy made her wonder how it would adapt its product to local standards to be competitive for the long term. “How would Domino’s compete with perfection with an imperfect product?”

“Domino’s came in with PIZZA which is an Italian culinary sweetheart, especially in places like Rome which is known for its pizza,” Gill continued, adding that the bar that Domino’s set for itself was really high, first and foremost psychologically. “I bet the majority of Italians wouldn’t try Domino’s on general principle! And those who did, well... we know how it ended,” she said. “I’m surprised they lasted seven years!”

On the other hand, Gill said the criticism of Domino’s that she’s read by some Italian customers is a bit harsh in that it always ends up calling the product an “American abomination,” amongst other more colorful terms we won’t translate for you. “As if there aren’t also comparably, if not identically awful ‘homegrown’ pizzas being made and served by Italians to Italians around Italy,” she said.

For its part, Domino’s did actually have some Italian fans, including one on Twitter who proclaimed they were disappointed that the chain was ceasing operations in Italy. “I loved their four cheeses,” they tweeted (in Italian, of course).

Still, Domino’s failure in the country can be summed up by the response to that very tweet by another Twitter user, when they said in Italian, “Really?”

Domino's did not immediately reply to TODAY's request for comment.