Pizza dough-throwing contests need less flash, more respect for the craft

 
Nov. 30, 2004

* Ed LaDou is the owner of Caioti Pizza Café in Studio City, Calif. As the first pizza maker at Wolfgang Puck's celebrated Spago restaurant, LaDou is widely regarded as the founder of gourmet pizza. He later authored California Pizza Kitchen's original menu.

For a number of reasons, I've been interested in the recent controversy regarding the pizza throwing competition (read A slice of New York and Pizza dough duel ends in Big Apple brouhaha) at the recent New York Pizza Show, primarily because I've been tossing pizza for 30 years.

Ed LaDou, owner, Caioti Pizza Cafe.

Let me share my observations, as I feel strongly on the subject.

Pizza tossing or throwing has always been an integral part of the pizzaiolo's job. What is fairly recent is pizza acrobatics.

Let's not lose sight of the fact that pizza is a food. I've spent 30 years trying to validate pizza as a culinary form. Pizza making needs to be respected, and the industry should be mindful of this. I do not buy into it as a sport.

Competitive pizza tossing can be a thing of grace and beauty, but I believe strongly that it should be afforded the same consideration as that of any other food arts or skills that are competitive. When pastry chefs construct elaborate architectural structures from chocolate, spun sugar and marzipan, the judges nevertheless insist that all material be edible.

Now as I watch pizza-throwing routines integrate handstands, headstands and other feats of physical agility, I see a departure from the pizzaiolo's craft. I believe strongly in the the following:

* The dough should not be tossed on the tosser's head or foot, or touch any surface one would not want to eat from, such as the floor.

* While tossing, the pizzaiolo should not touch his nose or his head.

* At the conclusion of the tossing routine, the dough should be in a condition that it could be cooked, i.e., clean, round, fully stretched and relatively undamaged. (When I used to compete in the 1970s, the judges would always factor in the condition of the dough at the conclusion of the routine as part of the overall scoring.)

* Competitors should wear working clothes, not costumes or Hawaiian shirts as is typically the case. Competitive routines now do not speak to pizza as a culinary form as much as a window for media attention.

* Modern routines should represent actual tossing done in pizzerias. Flipping the dough out into the crowd, ripping one's clothes off during a routine, using stage props ... what's next, bikini-clad models for assistants, as are seen in a knife throwers act? Pizza makers in athletic tights spinning from trapeze bars?

* Putting tears or holes in the dough should cost a performer points. If a behind-the-back catch misses and strikes the person's head, subtract points. When a dough hits the ground, routine over. Laying down on the floor while spinning a pizza may be entertaining and dramatic, but is this is a food craft? C'mon. If you went to a pizzeria and saw someone doing that, would you want to eat there?

Fun without the flash

Synchronization with music is fine, but would anyone want to eat a pizza that the chef was bouncing off his shoe, as was done in Tony Gemignani's routine, or was handled by someone who just did a barehanded handstand, like in Juan Hermosillo's? (I know my hypotheticals sound far-fetched now, but are they really so far away?)

Pizza throwing has many moves that can be utilized that don't involve contaminating the food, or as I see it, disrespecting it. The high throw is beautiful to watch. Spinning twirling, back catches, juggling ... there are many tricks available and many more yet to be explored -- tricks that only involve contact between the hands and the dough.

Pizza tossing can be beautiful and highly stylized without resorting to theatrics or acrobatics. Acrobatics never really entered into the picture until recently, and I believe a lot of this had to do with the subtle change brought about by plastic "throw-dough." It allowed for an unlimited range of practice.

If you want pizza to move into acrobatics, think of where it will end up. Think of what a professional juggler or gymnast might do, and think about how that will color the public's perceptions of the pizza craft. For those who are so inclined, use a plastic dough, develop a routine and enter into the 2008 Olympics as an event like ribbon dancing or Frisbee tricks.

My 2 cents on the contest ...

It is obvious to me, despite my criticisms, that Tony and Juan are extremely talented, and have practiced extensively. Tony's routine had a lot more grace than was apparent in Juan's, but complaints that his control should factor in the scoring more than Juan's more extensive routine and tricks seems to ignore the very direction Tony has championed in acrobatic throwing. Perhaps Juan didn't know control of the dough was important, but felt an entertaining routine was.

Tony took pizza throwing in this direction to the point where the routine, acrobatics and props mattered more than whether the dough fell on the floor. In a classical competition, Tony would have been the winner. If Tony had known "new tricks" would have added to his score, sure he would have used them. But this isn't something Juan knew and Tony didn't. I thought Tony would have assumed new tricks would have impressed the judging.

I appreciate Steve Coomes' suggestions for standardizing the criteria for judging such contests (read Pizza contest rules need tightening to remove vagaries), although I disagree with his assessment of using the table as a prop. The table is essential to the dough throwing process, as dough forming traditionally starts and ends on a table. If it is a prop, it should be the only one. But if the dough falls on the table or falls on the floor, it should still be a fall. Once the dough leaves the table, it should only come in contact with the pizzaiolo's hands or arms.

As the Harlem Globetrotters are to basketball, I believe acrobatic pizza throwing is a caricature of real pizza throwing. If there is a place for it, it should be solely for the entertainment value, not as a representation of the art of pizza tossing. There are some masterful pizza spinners and throwers out there probably willing to compete if the contests were not staged like circuses.

LaDou will be a featured panelist at the upcoming North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show, Feb. 26-28, 2005

* The opinion expressed in this piece is that of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the owners or editors of PizzaMarketplace.com.

* Have your say by responding to this commentary via e-mail to senior editor Steve Coomes at stevec@pizzamarketplace.com.


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