The Italian job

Muhammad Ali once said, “Champions are made from something they have deep inside of them—a desire, a dream, a vision.” Ten pizzeria owners and managers put their lives on hold with the need to prove something to the pizza world. They traveled far and wide to satisfy that competitive desire. Here’s their story.

Last year, a team of seven American pizza athletes earned a little international respect when they showed the Italian-dominated World Pizza Championship what the American dream is made of. George Giove and Brian Edler brought home three titles. The admiration earned in 2003 clung to the air as the 2004 team stepped up to plate. The Americans had a few secret weapons they were about to spring on the competition.

A brother and sister from small-town Ohio stepped off the plane ready to put some medals on their plates. The brother had a huge weight clinging to his shoulders—the words of his wife. “You can’t go back if you don’t win,” she says before he steps in the car to leave. The sister had her own burden to shoulder. She was to be the first American female to compete in the acrobatic competitions, and she had her big brother as competition and critic. The brother and the sister went in to compete as if it were a practice at their store. The sister was up first with curious crowd watching as she gracefully stretched the fragile dough. Could a girl have a chance in the male dominated competition? She finished up her large pie not really sure how well she did.

The bronze dough stretching medalist, Brian Edler was back to claim the gold. It looked as though he was on his way as he began flipping it in the air. You could hear the collective shudder of the crowd as the dough tore suddenly. Brian hesitated for only a second. He continued stretching and repairing like a true sportsman, although he knew the title was out of his reach. He had the fastest pizza maker challenge left to claim.

The three went on to the fastest pizza maker contest making clouds with the flour as the quickly and expertly slapped out five pies. The speculation started that the brother, Michael Shepherd, and his sister, LeeAnna may have placed. Brian again has dough drama. He says there were visible bubbles in the dough balls lending to the same tearing he ran across last year and earlier that day. His finish is still a good time at 1:27.

Michael’s name was the last called to stretch. He stepped up for the third year going for the gold. There wasn’t a nervous bone in his body as he flawlessly went through the motions of spinning and whirling the gigantic pie. As he pats his final patch of dough to the floor, he looks up humbly, but the shine in his eyes hints at victory.

More Acrobatics

The acrobatic tossing team’s Italian western skit almost scored them a medal with a fourth place finish. Now, we are getting calls from all over to have them perform. That night, Tom Boyles, our fearless editor and known Italian car-killer added another vehicle to his record. He smacked a tree in the crowded parking lot of the hotel.

Joe, Siler Chapman, Chris Green, and Michael all competed in the freestyle event. Joe, tired from traveling and competing, was up first. He started his routine and seems to have a few problems, but he pulled off the blindfolded portion of his routine without a hitch. He told me after the competition that the dough was rather soft, making it very hard to handle. Siler, dressed in his thug clothes that had earned him the nickname “Hammer,” was ready to bust a move to MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This.” As he heard the first beat, he hesitated. They were playing the wrong music! A puzzled expression came over his face for a second, and then he just went with it. Chris was up later spinning doughs like records and juggling his way through a few slips of the dough.

Michael tossed immediately after stretching at the other end of the arena. The fatigue was starting to wear him down, but he went through the moves. He says he was unable to attain his goal in this contest. “I tied for second to last!” Michael says. “A bit disappointing, since I was actually trying to get Dead Last.” The other guys agreed with Joe on the consistency of the dough. They learned that they would be able to make their own dough next year. After watching the other contestants for a while, I realized that our guys have a lot to learn when it comes to freestyling. They’ve got the concept down, but they need a little more flair.

Roger McColly, a newcomer to the team, competed in the largest stretch. I couldn’t help but giggle as he began pounding his dough, and saying, “Come on, baby. Work with me.” He was in the zone. I was really impressed with Roger’s performance, after seeing him win a spot in Milwaukee with never seeing the competition. He relied on emailed tips to prepare for the contest.

Culinary Notes

Sean Brauser was back with the same pizza he entered two years ago. He had a better game plan this time around. As he walked to the judges table with his Butcher’s Shop pizza, people gathered to watch this hulk in red, white and blue wearing a wrestling belt practice his right hook as his posse of American flag wavers and trainer followed in his mighty footsteps. The Europeans who gathered to watch this spectacle all suddenly wanted a picture with the Apollo Creed impersonator.

Joe Carlucci appeared again to take a stab at each realm of competition including the dough toss, stretch and the pizza classica. While Joe was headed to the judges’ table with his Gorgonzola cheese and tomato pizza, I noticed that the door to the rolling cooler his pizza was on was swinging open. I was walking backward snapping pictures and as I leaned in to close the door my foot caught the rubber matting. All eyes were on me as a hit my knees, skinning one. I limped off to the sidelines to nurse my war wound (which would last another two weeks) as Dominic Tedesco stepped up to bake. He prepared his pizza and started walking to the table. All of a sudden I heard a rich baritone rendition of “That’s Amore” over the loudspeaker. It was Dominic! Later, he told me that he sings while he bakes at his restaurant in Bowling Green, Kentucky. He’s earned the nickname “The Singing Sicilian.”

Chef Keith Yonker, an executive chef for Casa Restaurant Group in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, grilled up a specialty pizza that included a crust he had to grill before he left the States. As Brynne Humphreys came to prep for cooking, everyone was staring at the green-haired beauty queen, Signora Godzilla. The signora says she got her idea for green garb from her spinach and feta cheese pizza called “Godzilla.”

The Results

At the closing ceremony, we all waited anxiously to find out how the team did. After our quick finishes in the fastest and the strong stretches in the largest, we were looking at some very possible medals. Several pizza categories were announced before we heard the call for the fastest pizza maker. We were shocked that no one placed. As we speculated the rankings in the fastest, we heard the call for the best pizzas from other countries. Brynne’s name was called for Best Pizza in North America. Of course, all 32 loud Americans were on their feet cheering.

After the commotion died down, it erupted yet again. Michael Shepherd’s name was called for first place in the largest dough stretch. The cheering from our tables erupted. Michael had worked three years to get this title. He took the medal from Miss Italy like a true American, by punching the second place winner! Michael returned to the table extremely humble and very relieved. He says, “Now, I’ll be allowed to come back.”

Coincidences Abound

Last year, when Brian won third place in the largest dough stretch, he was the last contestant to compete. This year Michael was the last to compete in the stretch. We think this coincidence might have something to do with them winning, but Michael didn’t necessarily agree. He thinks skill played a larger part in him winning the gold. “The problem with going last in Italy is that the floor is covered in flour, and they don’t sweep it between people, which makes it a lot harder to stick it to the floor,” he says. “At the U.S. competitions I try to spend only one to two minutes in the air and the rest trying to stick it to the floor. In Italy, I spent three to four minutes in the air and the rest sticking it to the floor.” Maybe, the air’s the secret.

Michael tried out for the team in 2002 for the first time without seeing the dough stretch. His second year, he placed sixth. Now, he’s world champion. Roger McColly tied for sixth. Who knows, maybe he’ll win the gold next year!

The Snowball Grows

In the Spring 2003 issue, we mentioned the snowball effect created by the U.S. Pizza Team’s growth not only in size, but also in publicity for the industry. The snowball got bigger since those three world titles last year. Remember the Food Network following the team to Italy? Well, the special finally appeared one week before the team traveled to Italy. Also, CBS’s national morning news show, The Early Show, did a five-minute piece on Brian and LeeAnna.

George Giove has had quite a year since winning second best pizza in the world. He has been living in Italy helping his family at their restaurant, The Big Apple. He’s won several Italian pizza competitions including the title “Best Tasting Pizza in Italy.” He had an interview appear in The New Yorker magazine recently as well as a nationally syndicated interview on NPR. George secured a spot on the U.S. team, but was not able to compete due to family circumstances.

The U.S. Pizza Team continued its growth spurt this year with the increase to ten members. The team also added another mark of distinction to their record with the gold medal finish by Michael. Congratulations to everyone who competed and especially to Michael. Your years of dedication paid off. Going to Italy with such a dynamic group was a great experience that I will always remember. Thanks to Big Dave, Dino and Tony for working so hard to make our trip a little easier. Thanks to the sponsors for making this trip happen. Good luck to everyone. I hope to see you all next year.

  Sean Brauser preps his Butcher Shop pizza for the second year at the World Pizza Championship. He presented his pie dressed as Apollo Creed from Rocky IV.
  PMQ Senior Editor and resident car-killer Tom Boyles learned the hard way that trees don’t dodge cars.
  Brynne Humphreys won Best Pizza in North America with her Godzilla Pizza.
  Roger McColly tied for sixth in the largest dough stretch. He never saw the contest before he competed for a spot on the team. Roger relied on email tips for preparation.
  Chef Keith Yonker, who was sponsored by Sofo Foods, presents his Grilled Primavera Pizza. Everything on his pie was grilled, including the crust.