Nothing is more challenging than competing in the traditional pizza category in the International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas. As a Pizza Expo competitor, your culinary perspective and craftsmanship is judged by chefs and professionals by comparing your pizza against hundreds of others made of the same basic ingredients. Drew Richards has led hundreds of contestants through the baking process of the competition. He says, “True masters of the craft excel in this category because there is nothing to hide behind.” Jeremy Galvin, International Pizza Challenge Lead Coordinator, says “The biggest mistake competitors make in the Traditional Category is overdoing their pizza. If you look back, the typical winning pizzas are super simple.” Domenico Crolla, Chef/Owner of Oro in Glasgow, Scotland ,has won numerous competitions and judged hundreds of pizzas. He says, “The first thing about the traditional category is that it is the traditional American pizza. It is a difficult category to win. In other competitions you can shine and stand out with something original. But in traditional, you are all using the same ingredients, so it is down to your crust, sauce and bake.”
In the Las Vegas Pizza Challenge, traditional does not mean mediocre. Pizzas in this category must have that “Something,” that wow factor. Be it in the crust, the way it is cooked, the quality, mix and melt of the cheese or the freshness of the tomato sauce. Let us delve into the rules first.
Use your own dough.
Use your own cheese blend.
Must be a red sauce.
Must be 12-18 inches only.
No more than TWO of these toppings: pepperoni, sausage, bacon, ham, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, onions and olives. (Note: TWO kinds of the same ingredient will be judged as ONE topping. (Example: green and red peppers.)
Only extra virgin olive oil is allowed after the oven. No other finishers are allowed including cheese, herbs or sauces.
These rules seem very straightforward. But every year people get disqualified or scored low because they push the rule limits. While competing, you must know what you do not know. You do not know the judges or how strict their interpretation of your pizza will be. After six years as Master of Ceremonies for the Traditional Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas, I have some secrets and musings that I would like to share that could mean victory or defeat. Here we go…
Some judges may think that your fabulous Duck Sausage is technically not sausage.
That flourish of basil across the top of your pizza will get it disqualified.
That spinach or cheese infused dough may be seen as a topping.
That mushroom mousseline may not be seen as appropriate by purist judges.
A plate presented with arugula, watercress, and 20-dollar bills is a “no no.”
That red sauce means tomatoes. Your red pepper-kidney sauce may be too much.
Your 12-cheese pile melting like a snow drift on your crust may be too much.
Your Prosciutto di Parma is ham, which is allowed. But are the judges from Italy? Japan? United States? Poland? What is their interpretation of “ham?”
Is your pepperoni top of the line with natural casings causing a nice cup, or is it a cheap flaccid pepperoni?
Does your pizza have a gum line?
Those anchovy-stuffed olives are delicious and guaranteed to put your pie in the disqualified category.
Will your slice stay straight and not flop when the judges hold it by the crust?
Behind the Curtains
Any sales manager will tell you that the first step to success is communication. The traditional competition starts with a blind tasting, meaning you will not see the judges. Your only communication lifeline is a written description on an index card. Here are some more tips to get your foot in the door.
Always send your pizza that is headed behind the curtains with a short, concisely written sales pitch.
If your handwriting is terrible, get someone else to write this.
This pitch should be as informative as possible.
Judges do not want to see sauce or cheese companies’ names used. They may sponsor you, but naming them is insignificant at best.
Good things the judges like to see are house-made sauce, in-house made charcuterie, preferments and artisan flours and techniques. (BUT ONLY if they follow the above-mentioned rules.) Chris Tricarichi, Managing Partner, Avalanche Pizza, and frequent traditional pizza judge says: “Even though many of the pizzas are made with all the best ingredients, a lot of them taste the same because they use the same companies. To elevate your traditional pizza, the quality, technique and seamless execution of the crust will make the pizza stand out.” Master of Ceremonies, Theo Kalogeracos, adds this: “Even in the traditional category, you need to be innovative to stand out.”
Shake and Bake
The bake. Year after year, I see the best professionals in the pizza business falter at the ovens because of nervousness. Rushing, distraction, over and under baking or allowing other contestants to open oven doors to release heat repeatedly ruins their traditional bake.
Be prepared. The best pizza competitors bring almost everything, going over all they need time and time again. Never, ever think you will find a slicer on the show floor or that a mixer will be available. The crew that you bring to Vegas must be detail-oriented and serious. I have seen some wonderful pizza people frantically running in the back for a spoon after their helpers wander away from the area to talk to others. This just adds to the stress of the whole situation.
Confidence: When you make it to the finals (and I truly hope you all do), you must confront the judges face to face. The confidence and communication you show to them will set you apart from the apprehensive rookies. Speaking clearly while showing your masterpiece to all the judges is especially important. This is where your game shines. This is the pinnacle of your profession. Your craftsmanship and your pizza must be the best in the world. 11-time pizza champion Bruno di Fabio put it perfectly when he said, “Go in like a Viking.”
A winning Sausage and Pepper Pizza
This pizza starts with the Pain a’ l’ Ancienne method for the dough. This cold and long fermented dough was first introduced to me by Master Baker Peter Reinhart in his book The Bread Baker’s Apprentice. The cold prohibits the yeast from activating and affords the enzymes a chance to break down complex carbohydrates into sugars. This creates a rich flavor and killer caramelization. The sauce is a house made chunky tomato sauce using the best sweet California pear tomatoes to be had. The cheese blend is designed to play with the fatty sausage and is a 50/50 blend of mozzarella and provolone with a touch of sour Asiago. The sweet fennel sausage is house made with no nitrates and has a spicy component; it is placed on raw to draw out the natural juices to cover the pie and meld flavors while the green peppers are cooking.
JOHN GUTEKANST owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.