Alaska: a land of jagged glaciers, towering mountains, wildlife the size of SUVs — and great pizza, according to Evan Vogl. The pizza maker from Fat Olives Restaurant in Homer, Alaska, is traveling 20 hours to Columbus, Ohio, to prove his point in this year's Pizza Pizzazz contest, Feb. 27-28.
The annual contest, held in conjunction with the North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show, will feature about 100 competitors in what is the largest pizza contest in the United States. Two finalists (one each in the traditional and gourmet categories) will win expenses-paid trips to Salsamaggiore, Italy, to compete in the World Pizza Championships.
"Yeah, it's a long way to come, but it sounds like fun," said Vogl. "We think our pizza's great, and we want a chance to go to Italy, too."
Vogl's not the only one making an extraordinary trek to Columbus. David Ianni, owner of Pazzo Woodfired Pizza, is coming from Flower Mount, Texas. Fellow Texan Eric Lippmann, owner of EJ's Neighborhood Pizzeria & Italian Eatery, is flying in from Cypress.
"I think I've got a pretty darn good pizza, and there's no competition like that even close to here," said Lippman. "I wouldn't mind winning that trip to Italy either."
By comparison, Dominic Tedesco's 6-hour drive from Bowling Green, Ky., is a mere cruise around the block. But according to Pizza Pizzazz organizers, the number of contestants
"For people to come that far, I think it proves how well respected this contest has become," said Bradie Rice, director of marketing for the Ohio Restaurant Association, which manages NAPICS. "A lot of people drive several hours — five or six, not just a few — to get here. They really want to compete."
Experience is sweet
Tedesco loves pizza contests and has traveled to multiple states to compete. Not only does it force him to jack up his creativity and hone his skills, the chance to meet other pizza makers year after year ensures the tense competition is still a lot of fun.
"The people involved in these are great to be around because you make friends and learn from each other," said Tedesco, owner of The World Famous Sicilian. Though he's made it to the finals in a couple of other pizza contests, he hasn't brought home the big prize from Pizza Pizzazz. To get it, he knows his pizza has to be good -- and seasoned with a little luck, perhaps. "That's the thing about these contests, when it's your time to shine, you do it. Hopefully mine's coming."
Tedesco said past trips to Pizza Pizzazz have taught him some lessons on what judges like, and about being well prepared to perform. "I've really worked on some things this year and spent more time on my recipes. I've learned not to try getting it all together the night before."
Many contestants driving to the show will bring prepared dough, but those traveling long distances will lean on pizza operators in Columbus for help. Lippman found one operator, who is also a competitor, to let him use his dough mixer.
"We've also had to figure out ahead of time where we'll get our ingredients," said Lippman. "I don't think (the authorities) would like it if I tried to carry a 50-pound sack of flour onto the plane."
Lippman has entered a basic sausage and pepperoni pie in the traditional category, but his customers and employees convinced him to enter the "EJ's Choice" in the gourmet round. The recipe includes an Alfredo sauce base, marinated grilled chicken, mushrooms, garlic, artichoke hearts and mozzarella. "There were like five that I wanted to enter, but everybody said, 'This is the one you're known for, you've got to enter it.'"
While everyone will have to adapt their cooking styles to unfamiliar ovens, contestants like Vogl and Ianni will be particularly challenged. Both use wood-fired ovens in their personal shops, and a conveyor oven and an air-curtain deck oven are the only options for baking.
"We've never used a conveyor, so we're going to take our chances with the air curtain," Vogle said.
Ianni said he was assured the air curtain oven could be heated to 550 F, so he's chosen that one as well. "I think that will work out for us. And we have a really good product, too, so I think our chances are good."
Since traveling from Alaska to Ohio is no cheap feat, Vogl is hopeful that a win will help offset the cost. The bragging rights and accompanying publicity will bring added business, he said, plus the chance to see the world's best pizzas in Italy will broaden his creative horizons.
And if all else fails, at least the weather in Columbus will be warmer than in Homer.
"It's been about zero here lately, so we're looking forward to 30," he said. "That's a warm-up for us."
** To register for the Pizza Pizzazz, click here.