Loading down your pizza with countless toppings may create the appearance of value, but are you actually missing out on the whole experience? U.S. Pizza Team Premiere member Daniel Saccone says absolutely. Owner of Saccone’s Pizza in Leander, Texas, and a veteran competitor, Saccone has been in the competition game long enough to have seen numerous fads come through the arena, all the while thinking his cheese pizza could beat those crazy creations. Little did the rest of the world know: He was right. 

Beginning his competitive career in 2005 with a third place win in the Largest Dough Stretch, Saccone was immediately hooked and wanted to jump into the culinary side of competition. He has competed consistently over the last 19 years and officially became a Competing Member of the USPT at the U.S. Pizza Cup in 2018. Most recently, he has earned four first-place titles, including Tandem Pizza Makers (with Saccone’s Pizza co-owner/partner Jon Garland) and Best Pasta, and making it to the the Non-Traditional Semi-Finals at the Galbani Professionale Pizza Cup. Saccone gained USPT Premiere member status—and earned the team’s coveted black chef coat—in 2023 by winning America’s Best Cheese Slice at an event in Atlantic City. Always using recipes pulled right from his menu, Saccone is a firm believer in competing with what you do every day. 

Brian Hernandez: Tell us about your push to bring the Best Cheese Slice competition into existence. 

Daniel Saccone: Competitions have gotten a lot more competitive, and, as the years go by, I think the competitors are better and better. It’s more nontraditional now. When you put seven different kind of mushrooms or six different pepperonis on it…it’s just really gotten to be a gourmet category. I always thought cheese levels that playing field because everybody’s competing with the same thing. The only difference is their blend of cheese, their sauce, theirdough. It’s still the same ingredients. Whereas if you’re doing the traditional category and somebody uses pepperoni, sausage or mushroom, it changes the playing field and becomes more of a flavor profile. But the cheese pizza flavor profile is limited to the same ingredients for all the competitors. We all use different cheeses, we all use different tomatoes, we mix our sauces differently, so it makes for a very unique category, even though it’s just cheese.

Hernandez: How long have you been advocating for a cheese-only event?

Saccone: Probably since I started doing culinary. That’s traditional to me. That’s the main pizza we got when I was growing up. I remember, as a kid, chipping in from my paper-route money just to get mushrooms on a pie. One topping was a big deal when I was growing up.

I pushed hard for the last 15 years for this event, and I’m sure I probably pissed some people off because I was so adamant. Luckily, the right people were listening and thinking the same thing. I think the showrunners managed that competition right. I mean, there were 60 competitors there. 

Hernandez: You won that event with the cheese pizza on your menu. Did you change anything from your menu recipe for the competition pizza?

Saccone: Nothing. My ingredients are always right out of the walk-in at the shop. I’ve always just run to the store the night before and grabbed my ingredients for the competition.  

Hernandez: Why did you choose to compete with a cheese pizza at the Galbani Professionale Pizza Cup in Orlando?

Saccone: Knowing this was an open category and a USPT event, I wanted to come support the team and show that [a cheese pizza] can stand up against the field. It was mainly for the camaraderie and fun of the event. My best pie is cheese, so that’s what I brought. 

Hernandez: Isn’t that kind of like bringing a knife to gun fight?

Saccone: When you have true traditional judges, they appreciate that small knife in the gun fight—the true traditionalism of a cheese pizza. 

Hernandez: How can competitors stand out in a cheese-only event?

Saccone: I believe in quality. That’s part of the equation, but it’s also a balance of everything. Measure your cheese. I always tell my employees it’s not about the cost. To me, it’s about consistency. And when you can put just the right amount of cheese on a pie…it’s that blend that comes together. 

It’s like any other recipe—trying to get that right balance, cheese, sauce and dough. I’ve always prided myself on the way we do our dough now. I switched to Italian flour. It doubled my flour cost, but I felt, after seeing the quality of the dough and flour in Europe, that I wanted to change. There’s a complex flavor in the dough, and that’s always important to me. I’ll give up a little bit of the firmness and the crust for that flavor, but it comes down to that balance. I think that’s what really makes it.

Hernandez: Has there ever been a competition where you wanted to do a cheese pizza but didn’t end up doing it?

I learned early on that there are different flavor profiles for different regions. Chicago and New York have different flavor profiles as well as styles. Sometimes you have to play the fiddle to the crowd. I’ve reluctantly gone with cheese out of stubbornness, and other times I will go off the rails with my recipes, like the rest of the crowd. It all depends on the region, but you miss all the chances you don’t take.

Hernandez: Does the rarity of a cheese pizza in competitions help with the judges?

Saccone: From my own judging experience, you’re seeing all these off-the-rails pizzas coming through. Crazy combinations with drizzles, garnishes…all the bells and whistles. Then, they get that one flavorful, well-executed traditional pie. I think that stands out because you got away from all the extras. 

Hernandez: What is one thing you learned from competitions that changed your game, both in competition and at the store?

Saccone: Proofing your dough. Letting it relax and get to room temperature before you use it, softening it up a little and getting that good rise out of the dough. That’s really helped me in the shop and competing.  

Hernandez: Are you going to compete with a cheese pie in a non-cheese category again?

Saccone: Absolutely. Every day and twice on Sunday. I do believe that is traditional pizza. The win in Orlando was in front of the right judges, but I think it always has a chance. 

Hernandez: What else do you want to tell people about competing in general?

Saccone: It’s not always about those first-place wins. It’s about consistency and getting out there. There’s something to be said for placing but still working towards it. I can’t tell you how blessed and humbled I am this year because I won three times. I boast of those as “world championships,” as everyone there does, and it’s an honor. 

Food & Ingredients