Hall of Flame
“Everything starts with a solid foundation. The stronger it is, the longer you last in competition, business and life, because only the strongest survive.”
Chef Que Wimberly, The Missing Brick Pizzeria, Indianapolis, Indiana
The 2021 pizza showdown in Las Vegas was spectacular in that it really highlighted the camaraderie that makes this profession more of a family than an industry. We all deeply missed all the competitors from Europe, Africa, South America, Asia and Australia, (especially MC Theo Kalagarokos, who was detained at customs with smuggled sheep.) This year, the competitors in all the different pizza categories shared the same space together. It was heartening to see so many more female competitors than the previous years. My pizza radar made me smile when I spotted the contestants in Napolitana STG next to a Detroit Pan pizza maker discussing oven temps with a New York style pizza maker.
Pushing with Purpose
“Being okay outside your comfort zone adds to being a great competitor. Being comfortable when things go wrong and unexpected is when greatness happens.”
Laura Meyer, World Pizza Champion, San Francisco, California
This year’s competition was coordinated during an ongoing worldwide pandemic with supply chains frayed and broken and some flights cancelled. Even with all these distractions, this competition was as
intense, competitive and innovative as I’ve ever seen mostly because of the fabulous crew who coordinated every aspect of the competition. Drew Richards, Vice President, Pizza Master and certified pizzaiolo, assisted 75 contestants all three days says: “The ’21 competition really opened my eyes to the elevated dough handling processes along with incredible baking precision. Techniques that were only being used by a few top Pizzaiolo in the past are now commonplace with these chefs.” He elaborated, “I enjoyed seeing a lot of the pan division revert back to lower density dough per square inch. I saw rounds with 75-percent hydration and pans with 100 percent. The true beauty was that the chefs weren’t pushing the boundary to go as high as they could, they were pushing with purpose.”
Trending flavor bombs
New trends this year at the International Pizza Challenge were several takes on hot sauces, especially curried and sweetened. Plant-based ingredients were big this year showing that it is profitable to maintain a vegan menu. Detroit-style pizzas were represented in force with some high frico crusts and even split in half and stuffed. Multiple grain pizzas were entered and added to the complex mix. Creative after-oven finishes like crispy proteins, luxurious cheeses and brushed oils also contributed to a lot of flavor bombs this year.
Competition manager Jayme Pittroff saw a lot of hot honey either drizzled on the pies or brushed on the crust. There were some fabulous takes on Barbacoa, homemade pork charcuterie and sauces made from sweet peppers and fermented fruit. Because of the strong emergence of lifestyle diets like keto-centric pizzas, there were several non-gluten crusts with proteins. I was impressed to see so many house-made cheeses, vegan cheeses and cheeses transformed with in-house smoking. Chef Richards commented, “I saw a lot of high-hydration grandmas with great lift and body…with the perfect amount of dough density to toppings.” Tavern-style pizzas made their mark this year, even though Lenny Rago introduced it in competition in 2018. He hopes they’ll make it a competition category soon.
Here come da Judge
Jayme Pittroff highly recommends new contestants need to appeal to a wide range and remember that judges have differing palates. Pizzas that are too spicy never do well. “Come with an open mind, learn and experiment a little. Take advantage of the wealth, knowledge and contacts you will meet at the show,” he says.
Judge Chris Tricarichi, said he saw a lot of figs and spicy jams being used this year as well as house-smoked meats, but noted that sweet toppings, like spice, can be overpowering. “Having a pizza that stands out, with quality ingredients and not overcomplicating things with too many toppings is what I look for,” he says.
It’s Game Time
“I go into a competition with reverence for my fellow competitors as well as the art form because I would rather lose amongst the best than win amongst the mediocre.”
Anthony Scardino, Professor Pizza, Chicago, Illinois
Pizza maker of the year, Nick Banker says; “The best way to win and make an impact is to combine premium flavors with a creative twist to shock the eye. I’ve seen a couple of avocado-salmon recipes online so I thought it would be fun. I used a ricotta-tomato puree, red onion, mozzarella, pre-cooked salmon, fresh avocado, capers, dill, Peruvian pepper drops, arugula and ricotta swirls and a white and mild cheddar for a cheese crust bed.”
Laura Meyer crushed it with her innovative, long pan-style with a Roman crust. Her pizza was baked with crispy jalapeño bacon, whole milk mozzarella, candied figs in hot honey and topped with a delicious avocado crema.
Alfredo Pappalardo wowed the crowd with sophisticated simplicity using both tipo 00 and tipo 0 flours with an autolyze bulk fermentation at room temperature then forming his dough balls five hours to elevate his Napoletana pizza to the finals.
Anthony Scardino from Chicago chose to compete with a New York-style crust supporting an Al Pastor inspired pizza because both styles, the New York slice and the Al Pastor street taco, are both icons and he married them to celebrate the two worlds together.
One of the most impressive pizzas in Las Vegas this year came from 18-year-old Carmela Cataldo. (Yes, the daughter of World Champion Paul Cataldo who owns Antonio’s Italian Restaurant in Elkhart, Indiana.) The pizza was made with a 72-hour cold fermentation, light mozzarella atop a pomodoro sauce made by her sister, Gemma. It was topped with house-made and thin-sliced honey hot sausage, grilled red peppers and seasoned extra-virgin and cupping and char pepperoni.
Chef Eric Von Hanson, blew several judges minds with his pizza that was inspired by all the wine-tasting dinners he hosted. It included an IPA-infused crust, black truffle-foie mousse, vanilla bean poached pears and bison filet carpaccio, and finished with a black currant balsamic with orange-champagne vinaigrette.
Ed Barbeau, who really impressed me years ago – going first in the competition with a chicken and waffle pizza — entered a magnificent Pacific Northwest inspired pizza with Hood River cherries, duck bacon and some local goat cheese.
Enzo Palombino says, “I look at the simplicity vs complexity and see if I can combine those two to have a perfect balanced pizza.” He brought on a fantastic Green Chili Chicken Pizza that bowled the judges over. He paired his cream cheese based Tuscan cream sauce with his invention — green chili jam and chicken for a real winner but he didn’t stop there. All this was happening on airy fried pizza dough.
Que Wimberly brought seafood on with The Trap Pizza: A long pizza with shrimp, lump crab meat, mozzarella, green onion, parsley drizzled with a combination of OG Trap Buttah and sprinkled with Young Bae seasoning, (as opposed to Old Bay,) made in house by Chef Oya.
Ali Haider made a spectacular star-shaped pizza called “The Pride of Dubai,” a honey-infused, spicy Dakoos tomato sauce with three types of beef, Emirati Akkawi cheese, fresh mozzarella, onions, roasted sesame, fresh basil with the point of each star as the dessert with dates and date syrup.
Tore Trupiano, who has been competing since 1995, decided to create a pizza that screamed California. “Our kumquats caught my attention — sweet in the middle and tart on the outside. So, I paired them with my own cherry wood-smoked pork shoulder finished with a peach preserve glaze. My base was a white cream and cream cheese with the peach and jalapeño dry rub I used for the pork.”
Chef Eric Von Hanson really sums up all it means to be in this industry. “If you put love into everything you do, it will pay off one day.”
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.