A flavor-packed Mexican-themed pizza earned grand-prize honors and $15,000 in cash for Bill Crawford, owner of Righteous Slice in Rexburg, Idaho, in the recent 2023 Real California Pizza Contest. Meanwhile, two members of PMQ’s U.S. Pizza Team also stood out in the competition, winning $5,000 each for the Plant-Forward and REAL California categories.

Crawford won the Cal-Mex pizza category and the overall grand prize in the contest, which was judged by pizza industry luminaries in a live bake-off held on August 2. That means a single pizza recipe won him $10,000 in cash, plus $5,000 as the category winner.

The California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) sponsors the Real California Pizza Contest, an annual national search for the best pizza recipes that feature California cheeses. Competitors from around the country submitted recipes, and the finalists convened at the Culinary Institute of America’s Copia campus in Napa, California, for the bake-off.

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Crawford won the contest’s top prize with his El Pollo Borracho recipe in the Cal-Mex category. The pizza packs a punch of fresh, zesty flavor by marrying tequila-lime chicken, elote corn, jalapeño peppers, and Tajin seasoning with California oaxaca and queso fresco cheeses and creamy California crème fraîche.

Taking high honors while representing the U.S. Pizza Team were Giovanni Labbate, owner of Tievoli Pizza Bar in Palatine, Illinois, and winner of the Plant-Forward category, and Vincent Sbarro, owner of Vinnie’s Pizzeria & Forno di Sbarro in Concord, California, who dominated the REAL California category.

Labbate won the Plant-Forward competition and $5,000 with a pizza called Sunset in Sonoma, a colorful ode to Northern California’s wine country. He made it with a garlic confit cream sauce, sharp cheddar, purple potato slices, caramelized onions and mushrooms. It was topped with pesto-whipped ricotta and Parmesan cheeses.

Sbarro, meanwhile, received $5,000 for his Cali King pizza, which paired four unique California cheeses with tender eggplant, fire-roasted red bell peppers and sliced Castelvetrano olives.

The nine other chef finalists each received $500 for reaching the bake-off competition finals.

Related: These six versatile cheeses will improve your pizza’s flavor profile

“This year’s pizza contest showcased the use of California dairy at its finest,” said Mike Gallagher, business and market development consultant for the CMAB. “The judges were impressed by the variety of California cheeses and how chefs used them to elevate their recipes, such as a pesto-whipped ricotta featured in one of the winning pizzas. There was a clear recognition by our finalists of the quality these products bring to the table.”

A record number of participants entered the 2023 contest, which led to the most competitive finalist selection in event history.

The panel of renowned judges included Tony Gemignani, owner of 22 culinary concepts in California; certified pizzaiolo and award-winning executive chef Glenn Cybulski; and professional chef and 2022 Real California Pizza Contest Grand Prize Winner David Jacobson. Judges based scores on a range of factors, including taste, texture and the inventive use of cheeses made with Real California Milk.

“As the country’s No. 1 producer of milk and mozzarella, a big percentage of our dairy products go into pizza,” John Talbot, CEO of the CMAB, said. “A healthy pizza industry is important to our California dairy industry. Maintaining our standing as a national leader in the pizza category is essential to our business.”

A recipe book with all 12 final pizzas, as well as exclusive videos from the contest, will be released online in September.

Food & Ingredients