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Coping with big cheese costs Rising expenses are forcing some pizzerias to increase prices

Pizza prices are rising like dough. Some local pizzerias are adding 50 cents or more to the price of a large pizza, as the cost of cheese has gone up almost 67 percent in the past year.

Analysts say the price hike comes from increased demand for corn -- as cattle feed and as a newly popular ethanol fuel source. This, in turn, drives up the cost of milk and dairy products.

Some national chains now price cheese as an extra ingredient, such as pepperoni. At Papa John's 3,000 stores, with nearby locations in Rochester, the increase in the past month and a half has varied from 10 to 12 percent: A large cheese pizza may now cost $10.99 instead of $9.99.

At some local pizzerias, price increases are in the same range. At Casa-di-Pizza, a large cheese pie went up a week ago from $12.15 to $12.60, said owner Joe Jacobbi, who now spends $900 a week on cheese.

"We have to be a little more careful about waste. . . . It's like gold," Jacobbi said of the mozzarella he now reminds employees to measure carefully.

Other pizzerias, such as Bocce Club Pizzeria with two stores in Amherst, said they were preparing to raise prices. The large 18-inch pizza, with a little more than a pound of cheese, will not stay on the Bocce menu for $14.40, as it has for a couple of years.

"I don't think we can wait much longer," said Jim Pacciotti, owner of Bocce's.

Jacobbi said cheese prices started going up around Super Bowl time. They are now 66.6 percent higher than they were this time last year: The price for a pound of cheese closed this week at $1.95. A year ago it was $1.17.

For Sorrento, the South-Buffalo-based Italian cheese maker, pizzeria customers' worries are understandable, as cheese accounts for about 42 percent of the cost of making a pizza, said Jim Binner, Sorrento's marketing manager.

Sorrento, which is one of the nation's largest soft Italian cheese makers, follows commodity cheese prices and modifies its prices to mirror the market, he said.

"We'd love to keep our prices as low as possible, but we are in business," Binner said. "We hope that the milk price subsides, and things will come back to normal . . . But we don't know for sure."

Town of Tonawanda food wholesaler Latina Niagara Importing Co. has been counseling its pizzeria clients. They have been fretting about the need to raise menu prices now that cheese costs are higher.

Chuck Marazzo, president of Latina's, said people should be reminded that pizza remains a bargain -- even at 50 cents or a dollar more.

"We still think pizza is undervalued," he said. "For four bucks, you can feed a person . . . A large pizza for 13 bucks is still going to serve four or five people."

Pacciotti is a Latina's client who talked to Marazzo about how to handle the extra expense. Between Pacciotti's two pizzerias, he uses about two tons of cheese a week to make more than 3,500 pizzas.

"It's just crazy," Pacciotti said of the cheese price. "It's never jumped this high this fast."

Still, Western New York pizza has long been a good deal, he said. When he leaves town for vacation, prices always seem higher elsewhere.

On a recent trip to New Orleans, Pacciotti said, he paid $21.50 for smallish "large" pizza with a skimpy amount of cheese. "Buffalo's got a lot of good mom-and-pop pizzerias," he said.

The international chain Papa John's uses 100 million pounds of cheese a year and tried to compensate for its higher prices by adding extra cheese. Now that a cheese pizza costs 10 or 12 percent more, it comes with almost a cup more cheese than before.

"So the customer is getting something of extra value," said Chris Sternberg, Papa John's senior vice president of corporate communications.

At Destini's Take Out pizzeria at 900 Main St., near Allen Street, low prices are a point of pride.

Yet manager John Childs said Friday that the extra $55 he must now spend on cheese each week led him to call other pizzerias, such as Casa-di-Pizza, to check how their prices changed. The range of increases seemed to go from 10 to 15 percent higher. His said his research confirmed that it was time for his prices to go up, too.

Childs said he could not continue selling large cheese for $10.75. He expected to stay below the competition and settle on something close to $11.50.

"I'm making changes on the menu as we speak," he said Friday.

It seemed to Casa-di-Pizza's Jacobbi that higher pizza prices are here to stay.

His regular habit of calling the Chicago Mercantile Exchange every afternoon to hear the day's cheese price has led to regular news that the price is climbing faster and staying higher than he said he can remember since he started checking the market about seven years ago.

"The price hasn't changed in weeks," said Jacobbi, who runs the restaurant his father founded on Elmwood Avenue in 1953. "I'm just really worried about cheese right now."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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