Best Cheap Pizza Chains

Americans certainly love their pizza: More than nine out of 10 scarf it down at least once a month. On average, the total amount of cheesy goodness consumed each year comes out to 46 slices per person, according to Statistic Brain. To honor this perennial favorite and commemorate National Pizza Month, we organized a taste-off to determine the best cheap pizza chain among the biggest national brands: Pizza Hut, Domino's Pizza, Papa John's, and Little Caesars.

Pizza Chain Comparison

We gathered a panel of 11 self-proclaimed pizza aficionados to sample a basic cheese pie and one with toppings -- half pepperoni and half onion and green pepper -- from each of the four chains. At the outset of our blind taste test, panelists were asked to name their favorite pizza of the four. Most proclaimed that Papa John's would win hands down, although a few stood up for Pizza Hut and Domino's Pizza. In an unexpected upset, Pizza Hut cleaned up in all pizza categories. To no one's surprise, every variety of Little Caesars fell flat.

We chose the candidates for our taste-off based on a list of the top pizza chains generated by the trade magazine Pizza Today. Data from 2014 place Pizza Hut as the largest, both in total stores and sales revenue. Domino's Pizza is second, Papa John's comes in third, and Little Caesars places fourth. We excluded Papa Murphy's, ranked No. 5, because it sits so far behind the big four, at fewer than 1,500 stores and a fraction of the others' revenue. It's also a different pizza experience, being primarily a take and bake operation.

The pies we sampled from the top four pizza chains fell into a relatively cheap price range, costing as little as $5 and as much as $11.49 for basic large (14-inch) cheese pizza. This variety was the least expensive all around and cheapest at Little Caesars, known for its $5 Hot-n-Ready cheese pizza. That compares with $10 at Pizza Hut and $11.49 at Papa John's and Domino's Pizza. The topping prices confirmed Little Caesars as the all-around cheapest pizza chain, at $1 for the first topping and $1.50 for each additional topping. Papa John’s and Domino’s both charge $1.50 per topping, while Pizza Hut demands $1.79 per topping. Although all the pizzas were relatively cheap, it's rarely necessary to pay full price at any of the pizza chains we sampled. For example, a promotion at the time of our test brought a Papa John's pie with two toppings down to $10.

Another factor to consider when choosing among cheap pizza chains is pickup versus delivery. Delivery costs more because it's a good (and kind) practice to tip the delivery person. (We tipped each driver $5, which amounted to 10 percent to 20 percent of the total bill.) Little Caesars is carryout only, which saves money on the tip but not on fuel for your car.

Delivery times vary by location. For our pizza chain taste-off in Columbus, Ohio, the delivery time for each store was stated as 35 minutes. All met that commitment with ease. Papa John's was fastest, at just 15 minutes; Domino's was one minute slower; and Pizza Hut sauntered up 25 minutes after we placed the order. Little Caesars estimated a 10-minute timeframe for pickup and the order was ready when we walked in 10 minutes later. That said, we sat on hold for 10 minutes before placing the order. The three other pizza chains were far more prompt on the phone.

Pizza Taste Test

Personal preference obviously plays a role in determining the best cheap pizza, but our judges were quick to specify what they were looking for in their pizza reviews. Crust, sauce, and cheese were the star players, followed by pepperoni and assorted toppings. A balance of components was also important. The sauce-to-dough ratio, for example, determined how dry or soupy a pizza was, and neither quality was desirable. Tasters also asserted that the amount of toppings shouldn't overpower the pie; toppings should complement or enhance the other flavors.

Crust is the foundation on which pizza rises. Our judges craved a crust that was a combination of bready, airy, fluffy, and a little crisp on the outside. Doughy crust was derided as a no-no. Tasters also wanted a crust that lent some flavor to the pie; rich and slightly garlicky seemed to go over well. Pizza Hut scored here with what one taster described as a "buttery, flavorful, bready crust."

Cheese was judged by the quantity and how it melted. Mushy cheese was deemed repulsive, and any pizza short on cheese failed to make the grade. Sauce held everything together. The judges were looking for a sweet and spicy flavor that wasn't bitter, tangy, or assertive. They also wanted a fair amount of sauce. One reviewer said Papa John's lacked adequate sauce, while another declared that Little Caesars had too much on some pies and too little on others.

Finally, the toppings on a cheap pizza needed to be just right. Panelists expected the toppings to augment the flavor, not overwhelm it. The vegetable toppings had to be fresh and somewhat crispy and the pepperoni had to show off some punch. How the toppings were cut also factored into the judges' assessment. One was not impressed with the stringy cut of the onions and peppers on the Papa John's and Domino's Pizza pies. Tasters preferred the diced veggies on the Pizza Hut and Little Caesars offerings.

Cheese Pizza.

Pizza Hut won the cheese category with flying colors, garnering seven of the 11 votes for best cheese pizza. This pie had "a good amount of cheese and a great taste," one taster said, while another termed it "very cheesy." Still another panelist described a "crispy crust; a really, really savory flavor; and lots of cheese -- the perfect combination." Domino's Pizza took second place here. Those who favored this offering said it had a good sauce-to-cheese ratio, tasty cheese, and an overall good flavor. The Papa John's cheese pizza flagged. Almost all of the judges said it had plenty of cheese but not enough sauce. The taste also seemed a little bland compared with the other three. Little Caesars scored only one vote for best cheese pizza by a judge who favored its "abundant flavor and slightly thinner crust." Most other tasters didn't like it at all. One person dismissed the "tangy" sauce, another deemed the garlic flavor overpowering, one reckoned that it "tastes like a frozen pizza," and still another opined that "this one has too much crust -- the crust is half the pizza."

Pepperoni Pizza.

Again, Pizza Hut creamed the competition in the pepperoni category with seven votes. Those who savored this exemplar agreed that the pepperoni was slightly spicy and tasty. According to one reviewer, "The pepperoni flavor mixes well with the other flavors." Several panelists decided that the pepperoni made the crust a tad greasy, but only in the best of ways. Papa John's was tossed into second place on the strength of what one judge declared the "best pepperoni and spice component." Another attributed its success to the "excellent cheese, pepperoni, sauce, and dough ratio." Domino's Pizza nailed one vote from a taster who lauded the "pepperoni with a great kick." Little Caesars wasn't playing in the same league. One judge echoed many others in declaiming, "All I can taste is the sauce!" Added another: "The pepperoni flavor is just OK, at best."

Pizza With Vegetable Toppings.

In yet another lopsided vote, Pizza Hut reigned supreme with its onion-and-green-pepper pie. The judges appreciated the crunchy texture and melded flavor of the vegetable add-ons. Pizza Hut also stood out as the only pizza maker that used red onions. "It has a lot of toppings and cheese, which is good," stated one reviewer. "Plus, I like that it is red onion instead of white." Another tester concluded that "the toppings don't take over; instead they are well blended." Papa John's scored a second-place finish again. Fans of this offering said the vegetables were cut to a good size and tasted very fresh. Domino's Pizza failed to garner any votes for best pizza in this category, even though some liked the "chunky, crisp veggies." Several announced that the size of the string-cut veggie pieces was too large and some concluded that the green peppers were less flavorful than the onions. Panelists described the onions on the Little Caesars pie as raw, a taste sensation that actually sat well with one judge. Another panelist was clearly put off by the ingredient's dominance, exclaiming, "Holy onions!" The majority argued that this pizza held way too many toppings and one reviewer summed it up as simply "gross."