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Competitors stretch limits of dough at Pizza Expo in Las Vegas

Updated March 6, 2019 - 9:42 pm

It was much too warm for any of the moisture falling from the sky over the Las Vegas Convention Center on Wednesday to turn to snow, but plenty of white stuff was flying around inside.

At the World Pizza Games — part of the annual International Pizza Expo — you might say contestants were rising to the occasion, and flour coated them, the stage and competition tables. There was so much flour an employee with a push broom took to the stage between heats, the effort mostly in vain.

There were two competitions Wednesday, each with a top prize of $1,000. And people had come from as far as Finland and Brazil to take part.

First up: The Pizza Triathlon, in which contestants had to fold a pizza box and stretch two 22-ounce balls of dough to fit circular pizza screens, one 16 inches in diameter, the other 24 inches. The contestant who accomplished all three tasks fastest was the winner. This is not child’s play; the dough had to completely cover the screens, with no holes larger than a No. 2 pencil, and times were recorded to the hundredth of a second.

Several Finns competed in the triathlon, two of them barefoot. Maria Karjalainen and Katja Korkko — who represented Koti Pizza, reportedly the largest pizza chain in the Nordic countries with 1,700 employees — removed their shoes, Karjalainen said, because “The floors are so slippery.”

Korkko took the preliminaries but was bested in the finals by Mitchell Rotolo Jr. of Rotolo’s Pizza of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, who won a dough-stretching event last year and was, it seemed, just pacing himself in the earlier round.

Then it was on to the Largest Stretch, in which each competitor has five minutes to stretch his or her dough as large as possible, using the floor for the last 20 seconds. Like the triathlon, the rules for this one are clearly stated.

“You can’t use weird body parts to make it work,” cautioned master of ceremonies Michael Shepherd, explaining that only hands and arms are allowed; a contestant couldn’t, for example, use a foot to stretch that dough down to the floor. And the “lick and stick” practice is strictly prohibited, which means a contestant wouldn’t be allowed to lick the edges of the dough and stick them to the floor. Which, apparently, had been tried in the past.

What the contestants could and would do is stretch the dough until it was nearly translucent. The winner would determined by judges measuring the diameter of the pizza’s largest expanse while it’s on the floor. Jumping up and down at the completion of a heat or stomping one’s feet to shake off the flour were prohibited because the vibration could cause a competitor’s dough circle to contract.

Excitement picked up during the Largest Stretch, which brought more than a dozen competitors, many with their own cheering sections. In this pizza-centric crowd, the theme was evident, showing up on T-shirts with slogans like “Death Before Deep Dish,” the familiar skull-and-crossbones illustration replaced by a slice of pizza and crossed pizza cutters, and pants made of cow-printed fabric, worn by employees of a cheese company.

Some cautioned their friends to keep quiet, because “You’ll distract her.” Others were more vocal, with one exhorting returning champion Matt Hickey of Caliente Pizza and Drafthouse in Pittsburgh, “Holy mother, keep going, baby, keep going.”

It was all for naught, though, as Hickey was beaten by Nathan Wilson of 600 Downtown in Bellefontaine, Ohio, whose dough measured 103.95 centimeters, nearly 41 inches in diameter.

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at Hrinella@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0474. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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