These are the last days of February, and we’re about a month away from the International Pizza Expo, the biggest pizza show in the world. In 2016 it drew nearly 500 companies and 7,000 attendees to the Las Vegas Convention Center, and this year, there will be some serious hometown participants in the expo’s International Pizza Challenge competition.
At Metro Pizza’s northwest location on Sky Pointe Drive, Chris Decker is getting ready to compete, making and remaking a Sicilian-style pie he calls the Americano. “The dough is a five-day fermentation, a very lengthy process,” explains Metro co-owner John Arena as Decker, his protégé, dishes it up. “It’s a very lengthy process. And he’s using Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes, which [James Beard Award winner] Chris Bianco developed for his pizzeria [in Phoenix].”
You can tell the Americano is different and special before you bite it. When I pick up my square slice, it’s not as heavy as you would expect a crispy-edged, thick-crust pie to be. The first bite is fantastic, crunchy but tender inside, light and airy, and full of flavor—far from the flatness found in your average neighborhood pizzeria’s dough.
“At the end of the day, it’s just a cheese pizza,” says Decker. About a month from now, we’ll see.
Most Las Vegans only think of Metro Pizza as a neighborhood family favorite, but Arena and his cousin Sam Facchini—who’ve been in business locally since 1980—have an immense industry reputation. They’ve been instrumental in the development of Pizza Expo, which began in 1985.
“It was fledgling but it was the first of its kind and the industry needed it,” says Facchini. “It really helped people that do what we do because we didn’t have a place to look for best practices, improvements, common solutions. It took a while.”
The expo was created by businessman Gerry Durnell, who owned an ice cream shop in Santa Claus, Indiana, and wanted to add pizza to his menu. He went looking for a trade organization to research and when he couldn’t find one, he started his own, along with Pizza Today magazine. A tiny version of today’s convention soon followed.
When he contacted Metro Pizza for a story in the magazine, Arena and Facchini hopped on a plane to see what they could learn from the founding president of the National Association for Pizzeria Operators. “We flew to Louisville, Kentucky, and had to drive across the border to Santa Claus, which is world-renowned as the place Tony Spilotro’s life ended in a cornfield,” says Facchini. When they finally got to visit Durnell’s “pizzeria,” they found the ice cream store, complete with frozen pizza shells in the freezer and a toaster oven at the ready.
“But the magic of this guy was his vision, he saw the tremendous need,” Arena says. And the expo eventually blossomed into the largest show of its kind and one of the most respected F&B conventions in the country. Durnell, who died in 2011, sold the expo and magazine for millions in 2000 and California-based Emerald Expositions acquired them two years ago.
It’s Tuesday afternoon, March 28, and I’ve made my first entrance into Pizza Expo, and it is not disappointing. It’s massive, stretching the length of the convention center’s north hall. Tons of business-to-business events take this space over week after week, but this one is full of delicious pizza ... and workshops, seminars, keynote speeches, panel discussions, demonstrations and so many products: tomatoes, sauces, cheeses and doughs, of course, but also signs and promotional items, refrigerators and freezers, pasta, ovens, mixers, flours, cash handling systems, breads, chicken wings, alcohol and so much more. I investigate the 24/7 Pizza Box, a new pizza vending machine that can be customized for any pizza brand. I sample Cali’flour, which is flour for pizza dough made of cauliflower. I marvel at a six-foot-tall cardboard pizza box and the Stanislaus Food Products booth, which is not so much a booth as a pop-up restaurant and exists at the annual expo not to generate new sales but exclusively to take care of its customers that visit Vegas every March.
“The only year I didn’t come since 2004 was 2006, when we opened our pizzeria,” says Jonathan Goldsmith of Chicago’s maybe legendary Spacca Napoli. “In the beginning, you’re just looking wide-eyed, going to seminars, walking the show, then you really start to understand it and start making contacts here and profiting from those relationships. Now I do some judging but I sort of do nothing.”
Like a lot of these respected pizza makers, Goldsmith is pals with Arena. They have a tradition of meeting for an early breakfast at the Peppermill before Goldsmith leaves town.
American pizza makers, especially New Yorkers, have a tradition of being more competitive than collaborative. “John is truly fostering the community and I try to do that as well,” Goldsmith says. “When other people would open, I used to have my angst about it and I’d immediately get in my car and go get a pizza to-go and eat it on the fire hydrant or in my car and decide if I had something to worry about. But the bottom line is you only have to compete with yourself.”
Perhaps ironically, it was Metro Pizza—the true collaborators—that helped develop the competitive aspect of the expo. After that Indiana meeting in 1986, Facchini helped the show’s organizers build the first version of the World Pizza Games—featuring spinning, throwing dough and other fun, skill-centered contests—based on Metro’s employee competitions. “We had this training program where employees would learn all the different positions and then we’d have contests for them to compete against each other: highest toss, biggest stretch, all these things,” says Arena.
Throwing dough is fun but the more culinary-focused International Pizza Challenge has taken over these days, where judges separate the wheat from the chaff in multiple divisions of pizza-making: traditional, Neopolitan and even gluten-free.
But today is March 29, the first day of the pan pizza competition, and Chris Decker is making the Americano. I find him right before he starts cooking and he’s not nervous but he will be once it starts. The competition is held in a sort of mini-stadium with overhead cameras, like on Iron Chef. “You know me, I’m a behind-the-scenes guy,” says the humble but dedicated Decker, another New Yorker making pizza in Vegas. He typed up all the info and ingredients detailing his pizza so he wouldn’t have to talk to the judges very much.
Decker pulls his competition pie out of the oven at 11:15 a.m., steaming and tall. I want to bite it. He shows it to the judges—one of them asks about the ricotta on top—and then takes it back to slice it up. Once the judges have their samples in front of them, he moves down the line grating romano, a finishing touch. Arena is floating around, kind of like a proud dad.
Michael LaMarca of Master Pizza in New Jersey and a member of the U.S. Pizza Team is the master of ceremonies for the competition, and he informs everyone samples of the Americano will be available. They’re gone before I can grab one, but that’s okay. LaMarca gets a bite and later, quietly, raves about it.
Arena reports to the bread seminar he’s leading. Decker makes the rounds on the expo floor, checking in on industry friends and exploring new products. I eat pizza with Alfredo sauce, peas and potatoes, taste different flavors of ranch dressing and take down a couple miniature Vienna Beef hot dogs.
It’s a sad day, the last day of Pizza Expo, and we Vegas people are waiting for the competition results. Decker isn’t feeling great about his chances; his oven was supposed to be 550 degrees but turned out to be only 500. He switched to a hotter oven quickly but it might not have worked.
He wasn’t the only pizza maker repping the 702. Naked City Pizza Shop and Downtown’s new Evel Pie both competed in the gluten-free division.
It’s after 3 p.m. when we finally get the results. The expo is supposed to be over and there are forklifts and other big machines waiting impatiently to tear it all down. But probably a thousand attendees are gathered in the rear stadium area to find out that Luciano Carciotto from Pizzeria 7+ in Sicily has won Pizza Maker of the Year. Evel Pie’s Vincent Rotolo grabs second in gluten-free.
And Decker places third in pan. He’s surprised and also seems relieved. Arena is beaming.
“Maybe I will come back next year,” Decker says. “Imagine if I talk next time.”