Flashy dough throwers come a dime a dozen, but few can spin the skins between their legs and behind their backs -- especially while blindfolded -- as smoothly Joe Carlucci, owner of Carlucci Restaurant and Pizza in Bethel, Conn.

Carlucci's sightless shtick won him first place in the U.S. Pizza Team trials, held during the Western Foodservice Expo, Aug. 2-4, in Los Angeles. It also netted him a trip to Salsomaggiore, Italy, where he'll compete in the World Pizza Championships March 29-31.

"It's great to be going back," said Carlucci, who competed in the best gourmet pizza segment of the world championships in 2003.

When asked about his chances against the Italians in the acrobatic competition, Carlucci laughed sardonically: "I know what my chances are. ... (The Italians) are really good."

A second U.S. Pizza Team spot was filled by Michael Shepherd, who took top honors in two categories: largest dough stretch and fastest pizza maker. Shepherd owns and operates Michael Angelo's Pizza in Kenton, Ohio.

Like Carlucci, Shepherd's visit to the upcoming championships in Italy won't be his first. Twice he has competed Salsomaggiore in both the pizza skills and pizza-tasting categories. Qualifications for the two pizza-tasting categories -- Traditional and Gourmet -- will happen during the Pizza Pizzazz, held during the North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show (registration instructions will be posted on this Web site soon), in Columbus, Ohio, Feb. 8-9.

In winning fastest pizza maker, Shepherd slapped out five, 14-inch pizza skins on screens in 1 minute, 53 seconds. The gap between him and second place finisher, Brian Edler, was an astonishing 18 seconds.

Sweetening Shepherd's victory was the fact that Edler, a four-store Domino's Pizza franchisee in Findlay, Ohio, is not only his former boss, he's the former U.S. champion.

Michael Shepherd's 35-inch dough stretch earned him a spot on the 2004 U.S. Pizza Team, which will compete next March in the World Pizza Championships in Salsomaggiore, Italy. Shepherd also locked up the fastest pizza maker spot on the team.
    
-- Photo courtesy of U.S. Pizza Team

"No, I wasn't expecting to beat him, and certainly not by that much," said Shepherd, who bunked with Edler on the Los Angeles trip. "He's really good at this and he's been competing a lot longer than I have."

Blinded him with guidance

Carlucci tweaked his overall dough twirling and juggling routine twice to gain his spot on the U.S. team. During team trials held in January during the Restaurant & Foodservice Show of New York, Carlucci planned a pyrotechnic performance using flaming dough (soaked in lighter fluid). The fire marshal, however, poured water on the incendiary idea, and Carlucci simplified his routine.

While in California, however, U.S. Pizza Team Coach Tony Gemignani (a five-time world champion [see related story Who's Who: Tony Gemignani]) saw the ease with which Carlucci ran through his drill, and suggested he add a blindfold. That blind guidance tipped the balance toward Carlucci in a first-place tie between him and pizza maker Siler Chapman in the Los Angeles trials.

"Tony always says that the more you think about doing this stuff, the harder it is to do it. So with the blindfold, I wasn't nervous because I couldn't see anybody," Carlucci said.

But will the blindfold keep the nervousness away in Italy? Not likely Carlucci said. The Italian contestants are pretty much the best of the competitors. "But at least I learn from them by watching, and I know I'll get better."

Shepherd's pies

Shepherd believes the U.S. team has an excellent chance to win the fastest pizza maker and the largest dough stretch contests. In the latter, competitors get five minutes to see how wide they can stretch a 14-ounce dough ball, without tearing it. His own 35-inch stretch this year is just an inch short of the winning stretch at last year's world championships.

And despite his qualifying time of 1:53 in the speed contest, he's confident he can shave nearly a minute off that time in Salsomaggiore. His own best there last year was 1:09, but the quickest was around 50 seconds. The quicker times, he said, come from a much more pliable dough used in Italy.

"The flour they use gives the dough a whole different texture," Shepherd said. "It's extremely easy to work with and it can take a pounding. It doesn't tear as easily as what we've used here."

Joe Carlucci's blindfolded dough tossing routine earned him a spot on the 2004 U.S. Pizza Team.
    
-- Photo courtesy of U.S. Pizza Team

The contest is seven months away, but Shepherd is already planning his training regimen. Until he leaves, he's scheduled himself as the Friday night point person on the make line at Michael Angelo's, and at about six weeks out from the competition, he'll slap and stretch his way through about 10 trays of dough a week. At two weeks out, he'll ratchet that up to daily workouts grinding through three to four trays of dough. He'll supplement his training with regular viewing of last year's world championships as well.

"My wife keeps asking me why I'm watching that same tape over and over," Shepherd said. "I'm doing it to learn more, to get better. And if I can shave a second off here and there, it'll be important."

Fringe benefits

Besides the expenses-paid trip to the Italian competition, Shepherd and Carlucci said the added publicity their pizzerias get makes good use of the time and money invested in going to the contests. Both said the local TV and newspaper coverage they receive drives more customers through the door. It's led Carlucci to teach dough tossing tricks to kids who come to his restaurant and even sales of the same rubber dough circles he practices with.

"Everybody is interested in us being on the U.S. Pizza Team, and they ask about it when they're in here," said Carlucci, whose Chicken Marsala Pizza was entered in the world championships last year. "It increases your business a lot, so it's definitely worth doing."

But according to Amanda Johnson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Pizza Team, few actually try out for the skills and acrobatic spots on the team. Eleven signed up in New York, and 12 in Los Angeles. The culinary competition, on the other hand, draws as many as 100 entries for its two categories.

Shepherd said he's surprised more operators don't compete, but that if they don't, it's their loss.

"Some (operators) say they don't care or that it's a waste of time. They think, 'Why pay to go to Los Angeles or New York and spend the money on a hotel room when I need to be back in store making money?'" he said. "But the word of mouth it creates goes a long way, and the whole competition is fun."

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