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.