A taste for low-calorie pizzas

Eating pizza as part of a calorie-controlled diet was not a familiar concept until Pizza Express came up with the Leggara range.

For restaurant chain Pizza Express, innovation is directed by the brand’s knowledge of and commitment to an Italian-style love of food. It considers the perfect recipe for good brand management to be a balanced mix of ingredients with a healthy pinch of innovation, delivering an authentic taste and an exciting twist on the staple offering.

Launched in 2009, Leggara is a food range designed for those who want to enjoy eating out without putting on weight. Leggera centres around a ring of authentic Italian pizza with tasty toppings and a fresh salad replacing the dough in the centre, delivering a pizza of around 500 calories, which has approval from leading diet brand Weight Watchers.

“We understand that most women live with a constant struggle around a desire to eat delicious things and also a desire to manage their weight,” says Pizza Express marketing director Emma Woods. “Leggera has been developed to provide an amazing eating out experience without compromising on taste.”

After in-depth discussions with the Food Standards Agency and a consultant nutritionist, Pizza Express came up with the notion that a pizza for a customer who is watching their weight should contain no more than 500 calories.

“I remember an amazing brain storm where someone started talking about the classic Fiat 500 car and how it was small but beautifully formed. From there our development chef Antonio Romani came up with the idea of the freselle base,” says Woods. “We then had to work out how to deliver that in restaurants, source ingredients and put in place a chef training programme to make them properly.”

The Leggera innovation has a primary target of upmarket ABC1 women aged 45-plus, who eat out twice a month and watch their weight. Many of these diners are likely to be mums dining with female friends, partners or children. The low-calorie approach taken by Leggera is also aimed at weight-conscious younger women, who like dining out with friends.

These customers had not necessarily been thinking about sticking to a calorie-conscious lifestyle when out and about. “The typical customer is currently either stay at home and eat healthily or go out and ’blow out’,” says Woods. “In the restaurant sphere, customers are obsessed by both taste and generosity and we have to work on how to deliver on those things.”

Enter “The Gustosa”. Italian for “tasty”, this pizza combines hand-torn prosciutto cotto ham with Portobello mushrooms, yellow peppers, light Fior di Latte mozzarella and fresh thyme. Next to it on the menu is the Vitabella, meaning “good life”, with asparagus spears, chargrilled vegetables and red and yellow peppers on a base of tomato sauce and light mozzarella.

Woods came to the pizza brand from a background in health marketing at Unilever, where she worked on the SlimFast brand. “When I came into the restaurant world, I was surprised to discover that chefs are trained on delicious tastes rather than healthy eating,” she says.

To market the new range of products, Pizza Express joined with Weight Watchers to draw attention to the low-calorie aspect of the meals. It invited people into restaurants for meetings and food and highlighted the nutritional content of the menu, aiming to give dieters an almost-too-good-to-be-true mixture of slimming advice and a pizza.

The innovation was not without risks, however. Pizza Express had to strike a careful balance between calorie control and style because its audience is trendy, young at heart and intelligent with aspirational lifestyles. These people regard eating out as a carefree treat and they don’t necessarily want to be reminded of dieting. It was essential for Pizza Express to introduce the concept to the audience in an imaginative way.

To create ownership of the Leggera concept and name before competitors could copycat it, Pizza Express launched a national media campaign dividing its budget between print, digital escalator panels, Facebook ads and social media for three months between July and September 2009.

The ad campaign was based around the insight that “Pizza Express and Leggera allow women to go and eat out again, guilt-free”, with the creative strategy “Leggera is more than a pizza. It’s an opportunity to lunch again”. In addition, it encouraged online conversations about Leggera through the social media campaign.

The Leggera range, based around enjoying tasty real food rather than “diet” food, includes two starters, a dessert and a range of lighter soft drinks. The name has been trademarked and Pizza Express can demonstrate the concept’s success by pointing to the fact that one in every nine adult customers is ordering a Leggera pizza across its chain of restaurants.

There are four flavour options of the light style of pizza and a further two are in development. At launch, the Leggera Gustosa ranked as the second best-selling pizza on the menu and more than 1.7 million Leggera pizzas have been eaten so far.

Woods says the brand went through a rigorous development process before Leggera was added to its menus. “The thing I am really proud of is that it is distinctive and memorable and it solves the eternal ’shall I order a pizza or a salad?’ conundrum,” she comments.

“The reason it is memorable is the process that we went though to get there – I am a firm believer in creative processes leading to creative solutions.”




“I am Italian and that is key to how I approached this innovation. We had a brainstorm to develop a pizza that was no more than 500 calories and I was shocked because that contradicts the concept of the dish – a pizza is a pizza after all.

Then I realised that most of a pizza’s calories are within the dough, so it was the dough that I needed to concentrate on. How would altering the dough component change the taste?

I grew up in the south of Italy eating typical food from that region. One of the local specialities my mother would make was a dry bread brushed with garlic and made slightly moist by dipping it briefly in a mixture of water and wine vinegar. The interesting thing about this bread, freselle, is that it has a hole in the middle.

My thought process, triggered by this local knowledge, was to take 60-70g of dough out of a Pizza Express pizza, create a hole in the middle and fill it with fresh salad. It is a tasty, authentically Italian dish using Italian ingredients.

I have 20 years’ experience innovating for Pizza Express and the thing that continues to drive me year after year is a passion for food.”

Highlighted innovators: Antonio Romani, executive development chef at Pizza Express, and Emma Woods, marketing director at Pizza Express


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