The envelope please … and the winner is …
Another long, but very interesting day. We arrived at the competition venue at 8 am to register Keith for the fastest dough stretch. The competition began mid-morning and Keith was to compete toward the end of the category which was helpful for us so we could watch to see how others approached the contest and maybe get some idea of how easy or difficult the dough might be to work.
The techniques used varied considerably. Some very skilled pizzaiola used traditional techniques, slapping the dough around and finishing it with a very fast spin on the end of their finger (like a basketball). Others slapped the dough back and forth with such speed that it was impossible to understand how they were not ripping it to pieces. The times were all over the map, and prior to Keith going up hardly anyone had broken 1 minute.
We saw no one using Keith’s method, which was good since we knew it was very fast, but bad, because maybe it had been used in the past and found not to work. About 10 minutes before Keith was to try, a fellow came up to the table and moved very quickly flattening all five dough balls into hand sized discs, then stacked all five on top of one another and stretched all five at once – it was Keith’s method, he was using Keith’s method and he was going really fast. The stop watch recorded his time at 48 seconds, by far the fastest stretch thus far, and he had used Keith’s method (n hindsight I have no doubt he copied this technique after seeing the video clip of Keith practicing on our blog before we went to Italy – no one else at the competition used this technique. I know we have no one to blame but ourselves, but it is clear that he saw that clip, changed his technique to give himself a fighting chance against us).
Keith was up. I was assigned the very critical job of video taping the fury of activity that would last less than one minute; we wanted to capture this moment for everyone at home, but we had also been instructed by the more cynical veterans of the competition to record the performance and get a video record of the time in case any disputes arose. That seemed like it would be unlikely, but prudent since we were certainly contenders and so should there be any monkey business we could defend our victory with video footage.
Now, notwithstanding my earlier blog entry where I explained that our technical prowess with electronics helped us set-up our GSP without even having the instructions in english, it probably should have read “Keith’s technical prowess…” Okay, so I am not the technical whiz that I may have led you to believe; I can set my PVR to record a program and I am using a computer right now to write this, but cameras have never been my strong suit. So let me just break the news to you right now; I missed Keith’s entire performance and as such we had no way to dispute the final standings with our video evidence.
So here is how it kind of played out; when Keith finished his stretch and caught his breath he asked to see the video. We found the end of the last clip we had recorded and waited for the beginning of his dough stretching performance to begin. It opened with a shot of the floor and our voices, obviously me starting the video, but the shot of the floor was a very long piece of footage. We could here the conversation Keith and I had leading up to his stretching, discussing how the flour should be piled and where he would ask them to place the dough and how he would arrange the five 30 cm round screens that he would have to cover with the finished dough to prove they were all stretched to the regulation size. After a few minutes of the floor shot the camera was brought up and there was Keith standing, in focus and poised to begin this monumental performance with the judge standing right beside him, stop watch in hand. Seconds before the judge says go the video cuts to another terrific floor shot and we hear Keith’s breathless voice asking, “Did yo get that on video?”
Keith is not one to hold a grudge and he does not have room in his full life for regret. He took it all perfectly in stride (boy I wish I knew what he had really been thinking) and we agreed we would never again talk about this incident. We will not live in the past and so we will not spend endless evenings talking about what if, or theorizing about how the stop watch used to record Keith’s time could have been faulty, and back to, “if only we had the video to show”; no we are not going to do that, we are simply going to move on and relish the experience for what it was.
We spent the balance of the day in Salsamaggoire, waiting for the awards banquet to start that evening. We had a terrific lunch at a small hotel with many locals – fresh made ravioli with basil and ricotta in a butter sauce and their hand made parmesan cheese. A great lunch! With a couple of hours to kill we went to the local public pool that is fed by a natural hot springs and enjoyed a nice float while lamenting the dough stretching event from earlier in the day (he just won’t drop it).
Having become almost completely fluent in Italian since arriving here last week, the four hour banquet was not too bad. If we did win a major award last night we are sitting here in the hotel this morning still waiting for someone to tell us.
In the pizza classico category which Keith and I both competed, we did well. One of our pizzas was our mushroom marsala, which we knew would either be loved or not so much and the judges went for not so much. It is a very rich pizza and I guess they decided it was not their favorite. The other pizza was our Margherita, the very one we serve at Pomodori every day; we really wanted to know how the pizza would stack up in this venue. More than 260 competitors were entered in this category and scores were out of 1,000 points; the winner of the category scored 804, with several others scoring in the 700’s and our Margherita at 619! We need to review all the results, but it appears that gives us a top 100 finish, putting us in the top third of competitors which was the kind of result we were hoping for. Our first time here competing with some of the best in the world and we stacked up pretty well.
We also were entered into the Neopolatana category where we followed the Italian’s strict rules for making the Margherita. There are far fewer competitors in this category because it takes a special something to allow yourself to make a pizza according to someone else’s rules and then have them criticize your effort, but hey, what the. A total of 28 competitors in this category and again scored out of 1,000, the top Margherita Neopolatana scored 725 (when I say strict, I mean they are strict) and we scored 672 for eighth spot (only 2 points off 7th and 25 points from 3rd). This was a great result for Pomodori. Here in Italy, where pizza holds a revered spot in the culinary arts, and where the Margherita just might hold the top spot, we placed among the top ten makers of that pizza on the world stage. We could not be happier.
The competition is over and it has been a tremendous experience. Everyone at Pomodori has worked so very hard to make the restaurant a success and the support of our customers have made that work worthwhile. As we approach our first anniversary we leave this competition with just a bit more validation for all the work we are doing to make Pomodori a great pizza restaurant. We are going to take a few days to travel south, eating pizza and visiting a buffalo mozzarella farm, but can’t wait to get home to make our favorite food.
Competition day! A whole lot has gone into preparing for this day, even the stuff done long before we even knew that we were going to open the restaurant, and for more than fours weeks we have been diligently practicing and preparing for this day. Trying to figure out the best recipe for hand mixing our dough, tweeking our Marsala Funghi topping, and practicing cooking at temperatures that could be as high as 900 degrees.
We arrived at 9:00 am, the time specified for registration and were given our first taste of what would be coming for the balance of the day: waiting. Registration started around 10:00 am and we were quickly processed; however, not wanting to be the first on the ovens, we were assigned competitor numbers 60 and 88 (I had to negotiate for the number 60, in the hopes that I might manage to remember sessanta versus something like cento-sedicenne).
Originally, we were told that Keith and I would both compete on Monday in the Classic Category and then I would compete on Tuesday in the Neapolitana; however, we met someone that told us that we might want to be prepared to do all our pizzas on Monday; so we had packed all our ingredients and extra dough just in case, into our cooler, packed up all our prep equipment, as well as our wine for the judges (the only bribe allowed and actually encouraged) piled and strapped to our little dolly ready for the unexpected – and yes we were told that the Neapolitana contest for us had been moved up a day.
The first few competitors through drew us up to the barricades to try and see what our competitors were presenting. Many of the competitors were also in a category for presentation; they would be marked on the display that accompanied their pizzas. Most would prepare some type of platter that showed the fresh ingredients used to make their pizzas, some were simple and tasteful, while others were elaborate to the point of distraction and even bordering on gaudy; and then there were the Americans. A six foot high Statue of Liberty made with pizza dough, carried behind the pizza by four very large men. The connection between their presentation and their pizza was lost on me (the freedom to eat pizza is not a protected right); in fact, I failed to see how making a replica of one of their most revered symbols from dough (a wet, sticky, amorphous blob) provides even a semblance of dignity or honour to their national symbol or the poor humble pizza. Hey, I love pizza and while I do not believe it gets the respect in deserves, you won’t see us building a statue of a tree felling rodent to highlight the virtues of our pizza anytime soon.
So we continued to wait well into the afternoon catching glimpses of our competitors pizzas and watching for clues as to how we would be watched and scored, not just on our pizzas, but our preparation and cooking techniques: did you wipe the counter before and after, did you sweep the oven, wash your hands, use the peel correctly to place the pizza in the oven, did you watch your pizza carefully and did you have the proper uniform on – oh yeah, the uniform. For those who have seen the very styling duds we were wearing, you should probably know they were the official uniform.
The tradition of the Pizzaioli is very cool here in Italy. It is considered an honest and hard working trade and has a uniform that generally consists of all white (since the flour that often covers us from head to toe is less noticeable) and includes a simple t-shirt, apron, and bandana or hat. Unpretentious and simple it reflects the output of the labourer. Many come to the competition with the uniform of their pizzerias, as we did with our black Pomodori shirts; however, we learned that extra marks are awarded to teams that wear the official shirts and hats of the competition (which makes perfect sense, because no one would have freely worn that shirt or ball cap without a worthwhile incentive). The t-shirt was made with 25 thread count cotton which I thought they stopped making years ago as I had not seen shirts of this quality since we last wore them for gym in grade 7 (although these were those two tone modeled look of baby blue or light green with the darker coloured cuffs and collar). And the hat; the billboard size display on the front was adorned with a sticker with the name of the competition. Enough said; suffice to say, we are serious about doing the best for Pomodori, for we wore those outfits, even with the knowledge that our pictures would be taken.
Now I do not want to give the wrong impression, for other than the wait and the uniform, this was a serious and well organized event; and even the wait times have to be put into perspective. Over 260 competitors were registered for the Classic category and with each taking 15 minutes to set-up, prep and cook and tidy up after, the organizers have done an incredible job. On Monday, more than 125 competitors cooked in one of three available wood fired ovens which were kept hot and ready for each competitor. They did a terrific job of managing an incredible evert. It was a fabulous and intense experience for both Keith and I.
And here is the good news: we won. Okay, the official results are not in until tomorrow, but it does not really matter at this point, because we both cooked the best pizzas we could have at the moment we were asked. Neither of us could have prepared a better pizza for the judges, even if the event had have been held at Pomodori. Not everything was perfect and, at least for me, the nerves kicked in big time the moment I stepped up to the prep table, but when our pizzas emerged from the oven, they were as perfect as we hoped they would be for the judges (and I will take a moment to boast a little, for I was quite worried about the amount heat for cooking the Neapolitana, but it was right at the sweet spot of 800 degrees for our Bufula Mozzarella Margherita and it looked terrific!)
The judges quizzed each of us about our pizzas and then while one of us cut the pizza for the judges, the other introduced the wine that was being paired to that pizza. So I gave my explanation for our choice of a terrific Amarone that we choose and I was asked if I truly thought it was appropriate for this pizza – to which I replied in a very confident manner, si! He then asked to see the cork, as it had been opened just prior to us arriving at the judges table; I removed it from my pocked and he snatched it from my hand and proceeded to practically shove it up his disproportionately large olfactory organ before allowing me to pour into his glass. A swirl and a sniff, a slurp and a gurgle did little to soften his expression as he reluctantly allowed me to fill his glass. In his broken english he said this 2004 Amarone needed at least 5 more years before it should be served and he dismissed me.
While the pizza Keith served them was outstanding,I began to worry about our wine choice, but nothing could be done now. It was some thirty minutes later that I returned to retrieve the wine glasses; we are not allowed in the judging area except while competing, so I had to ask one of the officials if they could get our wine glasses for us (we needed them for our next pizza, although with how the judge responded to our last wine choice, I was worried about serving our next wine and pizza combo). I watched the official approach his table and noted with interest that his glass was empty. The judge next to him had not drank any of our wine, but nor had she touched any of the wine that had been served to her; when the official went to remove our full glass of Amarone, he stopped the official and took the full glass of Amarone and emptied into on of his empty glasses, sat back and enjoyed his second glass of our “young” and “questionable” Amarone.
It was a great day of competition, a terrific experience and we could not be happier; so yes we won, but stay tuned for the official results.
Friday morning and we have to head out to get our supplies for the competition. We have decided to drive to Turin, about an hour away, to a gourmet grocery store called Eataly, which we have been told is the largest of its kind in the world.
First stop before we head to Turin, a department store to buy a GPS. The hour and half spent navigating the last 5km to our hotel in Milan on Thursday has served to alert us to the challenge we have navigating the streets of Italian cities. I have no idea how I managed to navigate during previous visits, but we are just two guys who refuse to ask for directions when lost, so the GPS seems to be the only option.
We find the perfect GPS unit, a brand name we recognize from home and although it does not say on the box, nor can the department store clerk tell us (mostly because he does not speak a word of english), we are absolutely convinced that the unit can be set to provide us directions in english. With the purchase made, we get back into our car, rip open the box and immediately consult the instruction booklet to help us access the english set-up.
My experience has been that when buying electronic devices, instruction come written in multiple language; I recently purchased an iPod whose instructions were provided in Mandarin, Hindi, English, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, Punjabi, French, Wu, Telugu, Vietnamese, and Korean; apparently those who put together packaging in Italy are unfamiliar with this convention. Still convinced that our unit would work in english, yet unable to confirm this with our Italian instruction booklet, we set out for Turin.
Fortunately, it took nearly half and hour to travel the first kilometre through heavy traffic from the department store and in that time our extensive experience and natural intuition with electronic devices, we confirmed our belief and figured out how to set up the unit to operate in English. For those of you who might find yourselves in a similar situation, here is a helpful hint that I wish I had known beforehand; when you turn on the GPS unit, the first question it asks is in what language do you wish to operate.
We arrived in Italy safely, but tired, with one small victory under our belt: all our luggage, including our ingredients and equipment had arrived! With some effort we made our way into Milan, although the last 5km took nearly an hour an half of back tracking, honking and a few choice words to get us to our hotel.
It was raining quite hard and we were tired, so we asked for a local restaurant recommendation that we could walk to quickly; we were sent to what they said was a great local restaurant, if not one of the best in Milan, and they might have been right.
Our first night in Italy and our dinner was outstanding. A cold plate of various salumi (prepared meats such as prosciutto and coppa) was my first course, then Keith and shared and exceptional risotto, better than any risotto I have ever eaten. It was a basil and brie risotto, done to a perfect al dente. This was an incredible treat.
However, the highlight of the evening just might have been my grappa experience. Grappa is grape based brandy, loved throughout Italy as a digestivo, or after dinner drink. I think I had grappa many years ago but did not have it in me to truly appreciate. So, with considerably more maturity in my palate and my soul, I ordered a very nice, if not slightly expensive, glass a grappa to celebrate and finish this incredible evening; I must admit that it took everything I had to appreciate the grappa.
The beautiful golden Sangiovese grappa had the nose of paint stripper and the very viscous 80 proof drink was difficult to sip; however, in very small sips, I could taste the very rich taste of sweet raisin grapes. With each sip the grappa burned my eyes and I tried to find the enjoyment in the experience; I started to think this was similar to learning to appreciate scotch, but realized the education process for scotch was a far more enjoyable experience in Edinburgh.
After a very appropriate length of time of casually enjoying my grappa (and I will admit that I did begin to slowly appreciate my grappa while Keith, who had passed on the grappa experience, took great pleasure in my education) I decided to discretely dispose of my grappa into the decanter left on our table, where a small amount of wine and sediment would hide my indiscretion. I executed the maneuver perfectly, with no one witnessing what I am sure would have been a capital offence if caught.
The waiter returned to our table to ask in his very broken english, “how was grappa.” I politely told him it was “very nice, thank you.” He grinned and with one finger held up in front of me, asking for my patience, he returned with the bottled of grappa; against my insistence, that any more of this tremendous grappa would be far too generous, he kindly poured me a double, and with a very big smile explained that this one was on the house.
I sat back and enjoyed my very good fortune; sitting in Milan, poised to compete in what will be one of the most exciting events of our lives, and realized that it did not matter whether it was grappa or the experience, but that I would forever appreciate grappa in a new way.
Salsomaggiore Terme is a town in northern Italy located in the Parma province. Population: 19,937. Elevation: 157m
Pomodori participated in this event and it is a great chance for all pizzaioli to compete and to increase their professional skills observing and learning from colleagues in a nice and amusing environment.
– Classic Pizza Dough
– Classic Pan Pizza
– Napoletan Style S.T.G.
– No gluten Pizza
– The fastest
– The Largest
– Free Style
– Acrobatic Team
and Special Award
*Monday, 6 April:
from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. cooking competitions and selections for the Heinz Beck Trophy
from 10.00 a.m. to 3.00 p.m. competition reserved for gluten-free pizza
following, selections for the freestyle competition
*Tuesday, 7 April:
from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. cooking competitions and selections for the Heinz Beck Trophy
following, selections for the freestyle competition
*Wednesday, 8 April:
from 8.30 a.m. skill competitions and final of freestyle competition
from 10.00 a.m. final of Heinz Beck Trophy “I Primi…in Pizzeria”
at 8.30 p.m. Pizza Grand Gala with Miriam Leone, Miss Italia 2008
Awards and Championship closing
Monday 9:00am - 9:00pm
Tuesday 9:00am - 9:00pm
Wednesday 9:00am - 9:00pm
Thursday 9:00am - 10:00pm
Friday 9:00am - 10:00pm
Saturday 9:00am - 10:00pm
Sunday 9:00am - 9:00pm