Surprise winners claim final spots on U.S. Pizza Team

Feb. 25, 2003

They make hundreds if not thousands of pizzas a week, but ask even the pros to make just two pies alongside several peers in a competition, and you're building toward a Maalox moment.

Such is the tension stirring the stomachs of about 75 pizza makers during the ninth-annual Pizza Pizzazz. The contest is held in conjunction with the Mid-America Restaurant, Soft-Serve and Pizza Show in Columbus, Ohio, running this year ran from Feb. 23-24.

The morning of the 23rd, past champ Jodi Aufdencamp is a picture of preoccupation; poised with arms akimbo and biting her bottom lip, her sharp blue eyes scan the distance as she waits for her turn to bake her pizza.

Before her is a partially made Mama's Favorite Chicken pizza, a menu regular at three-store Mama Mimi's Take and Bake Pizza, the Columbus company owned by her and husband Jeff.

Despite finishing first in 2001 and second in 2002, pre-competition jitters roused Aufdencamp from bed at about 5 a.m., more than four hours before the start of the contest.

"Oh, yeah, complete nerves this morning," said Aufdencamp, who'd just spent five minutes under the gaze of a camera and sound crew from the Food Network. "Jeff and I couldn't even talk to each other we were so nervous. No coffee, no food, nothing."

A few spots away, a frustrated Joe Carlucci disassembles his entry: a Chicken Marsala Pizza shaped in the likeness of the "boot" of Italy, and surrounded by rose petals and a colorful Italian scarf.

"It's no good," said Carlucci, owner of Carlucci's Restaurant in Bethel, Conn. "The judges say it can't be presented that way, so they want me to put it on a regular pan."

The intensity is both palpable and understandable. The winners from this weekend's competition will get the two remaining positions on the U.S. Pizza Team, spots reserved for winners in the category of best gourmet pizza and best traditional pizza.

The team's three other slots -- best dough acrobatic routine, largest dough stretch and fastest pizza maker -- were filled during the International Foodservice and Restaurant Show of New York in January.

In April, the five-person team will travel to Salsamaggiore, Italy, to compete in the World Pizza Championships.

Though he's already won a spot on the team for the largest dough stretch, 30-year-old Michael Shepherd, owner of Michael Angelo's Pizza in Kenton, Ohio, is entered in the gourmet competition with his Louisiana Cajun Chicken Pizza Pie. And at noon, at the conclusion of the preliminary round, it's announced Shepherd's pie is one of five finalists.

About two hours later, when a crowd of about 125 learns that Shepherd's pizza won first place, U.S. Pizza Team organizer Steve Green finds a quandary on his hands.

"Michael already has a spot on the team, but we want five different guys on the team," said Green. "I think we're going to have to move the second place guy up, which is pretty funny when you think about it."

Ironic, actually. In the New York competition, Shepherd twice finished second to Brian Edler, a four-store Domino's Pizza franchisee in Findlay, Ohio: once in the dough stretch category, and once in the fastest pizza maker category.

In that situation, Green chose to elevate Shepherd to the top dough-stretcher's spot and leave Edler -- who slapped out five perfect dough skins in a blinding 20.37 seconds -- in the fastest pizza maker's spot.

This time Green makes a similar decision by moving second-place finisher Michael Speck, owner of Sloopy's Pizza Express in Brunswick, Ohio, into Shepherd's spot, while allowing Shepherd to keep his trophy and $600 cash prize.

"I didn't even expect to get second, so this is great," said Speck. Looking at his daughter, Jennifer, also a competitor but not a finalist, Speck crowed a little about his good fortune.

"Now I guess I've got bragging rights in the family," he said, smiling.

"I still think I had the best one," she shoots back.

"Well, it's OK for her to think that way, but I'm still going to Italy."

Weather or not

The morning of Feb. 24 sees a fast-moving storm dump three inches of snow on Columbus in five hours. Traffic in and around the city slows to a crawl and keeps nearly half the competitors from arriving at the 9:30 a.m. start time of the traditional pizza competition.

Showing more mercy than the weather, contest organizers delay the start for nearly 45 minutes, which allows most everyone to check in.

Everyone except for the judges. The shortage of tasters leaves judging organizer Jim Reichle nearly tongue tied.

"It's going to be a problem if we don't have enough judges to taste all these pizzas," said Reichle. "We'll back up, punt, do something to get some people. With all the people coming to the show, surely we can get some judges."

But just like the contestants, the judges arrive gradually and in time for what again becomes another afternoon of surprises.

As occurred the day before, none of the five finalists named is a past champion, and once again, a Speck is in the finals. This time, it's 23-year-old Jennifer.

Without saying a word, Speck returns to her worktable to assemble an entry for the final judging. The redhead blushes a bit as the Food Network's camera crew closes in on the lone woman finalist.

With the finalists at work around him, Sean Brauser, the 2002 traditional category champion chats with other contestants as they prepare to leave. The owner of two Romeo's Pizza stores in Medina, Ohio, Brauser is disappointed he'll not return to Italy this year, but he's lighthearted in defeat.

"I'd preempted some radio stations and told them I was going back to the contest again, but now I have to come back a loser," laughed Brauser, forming an "L" above his head with a thumb and forefinger.

The pressure to repeat, Brauser said, is much greater than the pressure to win the first time because others automatically expect you'll do well again. But luck, he added, plays a large and uncontrollable role in the contest.

"You've got to have a good pizza to be here anyway, but then yours lands on a judges' table that either loves it or hates it," he said. "But at any other time, the table next to it might have loved it. You never know."

Either way, Brauser said, the contest is fair.

"Yesterday, the scores were unbelievably close; the best was a 165 and the worst was a 150," Brauser said. "And that's out of all 50 people in that category. That's amazing."

Though 2002 gourmet category champ Teresa Snider-Boring wanted another gratis trip to Italy this year, she's still happy for this year's winners.

"It's nice to see somebody else get the opportunity to go to Italy, too," said Snider-Boring, an elementary school principal who works at her parents' restaurant, Percelli's Pizza in McAuthur, Ohio. "They're going to have an incredible time."

More than a Speck of irony

Jack Atlas sits quietly among the crowd of about 75 show attendees lingering into the late afternoon for the announcement of the traditional category winner. The broad-shouldered Atlas, co-owner of Gahanna Pizza Plus in Gahanna, Ohio, holds little hope his name will be called as the winner.

And then it's announced he's going to Italy.

"We knew we had a good pizza, but I never dreamed I'd finished first," said a beaming Atlas, nervously smoothing his hair and adjusting the sunglasses on his head. "The whole thing is quite a surprise."

Asked about his chances for success against the Italians, Atlas shrugs.

"I don't know; I haven't thought about that yet," said Atlas to the Food Network's camera. "I've never been to Italy, but I know I'm going to have fun."

A few feet away from Atlas is the comparatively tiny Jennifer Speck, who, just like her father yesterday, has finished in second place. Clutching the pizza peel trophy marking her achievement, Speck mulls the odds of whether her father will take her or her mother to Italy for the world championships.

"Since I brought home a second place today I ought to be able to go," Speck joked. Referring to her $400 second prize, she added, "I have some extra money now from the contest, so maybe that'll help if I have to pay my way."

Speck said that even if she could swing the trip, she'd have to skip some classes at the University of Akron, where she's six months away from finishing her bachelor's in marketing and advertising.

Having equaled her father's finish (the weather, plus a large school contract pizza order Michael Speck needed to fill at Sloopy's that day, kept him from attending the traditional finals), she was asked who'd get the family bragging rights of best pizza maker.

"I guess he does, since he puts in the hours every week while I'm at school," said Speck, who works in her father's business Thursday through Sunday. "But we both came up with some of the ideas for both. I don't know, maybe we can share it."

Topics: Cheese , Independent Operation , Pizza Toppings

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