Making the best Non-Traditional Pizza
“Toppings are easy. The base takes a lifetime.”
— Domenico Crolla, Restaurateur and Pizza Judge
Competitive pizza making always brings out the best in people, but the non-traditional category of the International Pizza Challenge at Pizza Expo is where both heart and soul meld together to craft a pizza masterwork. There is no room for second-guessing because you are going up against the best of the best. As world champion Bruno di Fabio once said, “You’ve got to go like a Viking. Show the judges the confidence and skill that make THIS the best pizza they’ll ever eat in their lives.”
I have been Master of Ceremonies for the past several years (with pizza champion Theo Kalageracos) and have competed since 2003. During this time, I have witnessed the evolution of creative competition first-hand. And yes, I have come in last place, fought with oven judges, tap-danced while presenting and even dressed as Godzilla.
It was 2004 when I watched my General Manager, Brynne Humphreys, bake our pizza named Godzilla at the World Pizza Championships in Salsomaggiore, Italy. Brynne was dressed in a green sequined dress and flowing bright green wig. I danced next to her with my rug-like costume of claws, paws and a 15-pound Godzilla head as she prepared to present the pizza to the judges. The Godzilla was one of our most popular pizzas with slices of roasted chicken under several rings of spinach and goat cheese with a bullseye of sun-dried tomato in the middle. The crowd was on their feet yelling “Rocky, Rocky” because our teammate, dressed as Rocky Balboa, was presenting his pizza as the loud soundtrack of the Rocky movie filled the stadium. As he finished up with the judges, it was show time.
Pizza legend “Big Dave” Ostrander pushed me toward the judges table because I could not see in the claustrophobic Godzilla head. Immediately, the Blue Oyster Cult song “Go, go, Godzilla” reverberated across the stadium and the crowd cheered. As the song ended, Brynne cut some slices for the judges and Big Dave abandoned me. I made my way awkwardly toward the crowd, fell once as little kids cried and adults grabbed at me for photo opportunities. From what I could tell, Brynne nailed it — but we would not find out for a few days that she had won Best Pizza in the USA.
In any pizza competition, you must read the rules…really read the rules! If you think you have gone over the rule guard rail, always ask because you do not want to get disqualified. Here are the rules for Non-Traditional.
- Taste: Crust, sauce, cheese, toppings, overall taste and creativity.
- Visual presentation/Appearance: Bake and Visual presentation, (pleasing to the eye, true to flavor pairings, creative culinary look and textures.)
One of the first things you are likely to see when your competition pizza hits the judges table is a judge using a pen to lift and look at the bottom crust of the pizza for “leoparding” (dark spots.) Other judges may check the “Bounceback” of the cornicione (crust) by pressing their finger into it. Domenico Crolla, Italian Master Chef and owner of Oro in Glasgow, Scotland told me, “My favorite part of the pizza is the taste and texture of a yeasty crust. I also enjoy seeing pizza makers flavor this often-neglected part of the pizza. Some brush it with flavored oils or sprinkle magic over the crust like toasted coconut or sesame seeds.” Chef Crolla has also seen the emergence of different toppings once only found on California pizza but says, “I reckon most of the winners in recent years have won due to the mastery of the base rather than the toppings. Some of these crusts stand out with flavor and texture not normally associated with traditional pie.” He continues, “Baking skills and flavors of pretzels, croissants and bagels are now on the pizza palate…it’s all about flavor.”
Here are some newer flavor profiles that can make anyone say “wow”:
Old Italian sauces: Sicilian Passata, Colortura di Alici, Salmoriglio, Sardinian Sapa or wine sauce, Piedmontese Honeybee Sauce, Gremolata, Florentine Savore Sanguino or blood sauce.
House-cured meats: Impressive cuts like duck pastrami, chicken sausage, lamb neck sausage, beef or wild boar bacon, and pork lardo add a distinctive flavor to any pizza.
House-milled grains: Spelt, Kernza, Einkorn, Emmer, Kamut, Buckwheat, Amaranth, Millet, or even Grano Arso, the burnt wheat from Puglia or charcoal infused blends are impressive.
Obscure cheeses: Bitto Storico from Lombardy, Vacca Rosa Parmigiano Reggiano, Caciocavallo di Cimina from Calabria, house-made Ligurian-style Prescinseua, Telleggio from Veneto, and even local, U.S. cheeses are abundant.
Greens: Baby kale, purslane, New Zealand spinach, bolted arugula, chive flowers, bulls blood, and other microgreens all add a zip to your pie as well as add eye appeal.
Hall of Flame
Here are a few non-traditional competition pizzas that stood out for me in the past four years:
Audrey Kelly from Audrey Jane’s Pizza in Boulder, Colorado, made The Green Mountain Vegetarian Pie with piles of spinach, ricotta, garlic, Castelvetrano olives, basil and shaved Parmigiano Reggiano.
Simon Best from Mooloolaba, Australia, with squid ink-infused dough, ocean trout sashimi, red onions, avocado-wasabi mayo and panko for crunch.
Claudio Vicano from Disentis, Switzerland, made a sauce of oven-roasted Piennolo tomato which flavored even the cornicione, filet of beef, chili, arugula and pecorino.
Lars Smith of State of Mind Pizzeria in Los Altos, California, with a foie gras, black garlic crema, California Toma, duck confit, smoked duck breast, sour cherry relish, mustard seed ‘caviar,’ pickled cherry and pecorino.
Umberto Fornito won with his naturally fermented dough without refrigeration, (probably the lightest dough I have ever seen) San Marzano tomato, fior di latte, pepperoni, chive, truffle oil, Pecorino Romano and basil.
Jay Langfelter of Jays Artisan Pizzeria in Buffalo, New York, with his star-shaped pizza with foir di latte, pancetta, truffle pecorino, truffled ricotta-stuffed points, sweet picante peppers and truffle honey.
Giovanni Landi from Naples, Italy in made a lobster pizza with minted stracciatella di buffalo, black truffle and gold leaf.
Andrew Scudera of Goodfellas Pizza in Staten Island, New York, and his lobster atop a Makers Mark cream sauce, mango, strawberry and a stencil-sprayed crust with Chamborde reduction.
Derek Sanchez of Mia Marcos Pizza in San Antonio, Texas, made a Roman-style pizza dough made with naturally fermented apricots, spicy apricot preserves, smoked-peppered bacon, mozzarella, Fontina, 48-month old Bonatti Parmigiano Reggiano, toasted pecans, sun-dried apricot, rocket and basil.
Fredrico De Silvestri from Verona Italy won it all with seven different flours, fresh kale, wild boar, onion chips, gorgonzola mousse, corn-poppy chips and Amarone wine gelee.
John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio.