For the gentleman of Verona, the first time was the charm.
In his initial effort, Federico De Silvestri of Verona, Italy, took the top prize — Pizza Maker of the Year — at the culminating event of the International Pizza Expo on Thursday at the Las Vegas Convention Center. His prize: $5,000, added to the $7,500 he’d already won through the preliminary events crowning him winner of the non-traditional pizza category, which led to the finals. Plus he got a trophy, bragging rights and a heck of a marketing hook.
The five finalists — also representing the categories of traditional, pan, pizza Napoletana and Roman — knew beforehand that they’d need to incorporate a secret ingredient in their pizzas. That ingredient was unveiled as Grande Prima Dolce Ricotta, a new product that has a more cohesive consistency than most ricotta cheeses.
To it, they could add items from pantries on the competition floor. The available ingredients included apples, chives, roasted garlic, arugula, eggplant, burrata, pepperoni, pancetta, bacon, steak, cilantro, mint, basil, banana peppers, pistachios, carrots, hot peppers, walnuts, dates, scallions, artichoke hearts, asparagus, edible flowers and goat cheese. The pizzaiolos also were offered a variety of oven types, heated to varying temperatures. They provided their own dough and revealed details about it at judging.
Throughout the competition, de Silvestri used an interpreter. Through her, he explained to the judges that his dough was a mix of six flours with 40 percent biga (a fermented mixture of flour, water and yeast) and 75 percent hydration, and that he rolled the dough out on semolina to provide texture.
He made a crema of ricotta, cream cheese, mushrooms, chives and parsley, also topping the pie with mozzarella cooked with sausage, eggplant skin sauteed in oil with lime and salt, apple skin, toasted pistachios and radishes.
Each contestant showed the judge the bottom surface of his pizza, prompting co-master of ceremonies Theo Kalogeracos to comment that the cellular structure of de Silvestri’s dough was so complex, “it’s like a spider web, almost.” De Silvestri cut his pizza with scissors, so as not to compress the crust.
The pizzas were judged on taste (crust, sauce, cheese, toppings, overall and creativity) and appearance (bake and visual presentation). Kalogeracos said the judges also would look for a “gum line,” an undesirable line of raw dough.
As each contestant put the final touches on his pizza before presentation to the judges, Kalogeracos pointed out the attention to detail.
“That’s something you wouldn’t see in a competition 10, 15 years ago — garnishing it,” he said. And he noted that contestants could find anything they wanted in Las Vegas. “The food scene in Vegas is the best it’s ever been.”
Three of the five judges on the panel were longtime Las Vegas chefs. South Point executive chef Christopher Johns, in his sixth year of judging at the expo, said he’s interested in the level of creativity and gets ideas for the hotel. Flemming Pedersen, chef/owner of Chef Flemming’s Bake Shop in Henderson, in his seventh year as a judge, said he enjoys the intensity. “It just shows so much effort and pride.”
And Heinz Lauer, executive chef of Centennial Hills Hospital, in his 12th year as a judge, said he likes the international nature of the event.
“And,” Lauer quipped, “who doesn’t want to try the best pizzas in the world?”