Thursday, May 25, 2017

This Was NOT Part of the Plan! (feat. Kenny G)

Here’s the scene: I’m sitting in a crowded but quiet airport lounge in Portugal (Lisbon, to be precise). Dan Uccello has passed out on a chair. His brother, Davide, indicates Dan is not feeling well. Their associate, Alex Garcia, just looks happy to be out of an airplane momentarily. Meanwhile, Michael LaMarca is concerned about our baggage. As well he should be. Even 12 hours prior, none of the five of us had the slightest idea we would be sitting together in a foreign country we had never been to. I never thought when I left the house that I’d end up in Portugal (which is beautiful, by the way). This was NOT part of the plan.
There’s greater concern about our baggage than if we were just on vacation. For me, the contents of my suitcase could mean the difference between doing my job effectively or possibly not at all. For them, the entire purpose of their visit is in jeopardy. Everyone in this party is part of the United States Pizza Team. They have entered themselves as competitors in the 26th annual World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy. A town we’re having a great deal of difficulty getting to. If the baggage is lost, it means they don’t have many of their primary ingredients and none of their tools, with only one day prior to the start of competition. Currently, in this scenario, I am in good shape. On a whim, I packed most of my clothes in carry-on bags. LaMarca did not. He has no underwear for tomorrow.

The primary cause of our dilemma is one of those things that cannot be controlled (nor adequately predicted, despite all our technology). Weather. Due to inclement weather in New York, all our flights have been delayed and diverted, resulting in us meeting in Atlanta and collectively missing our flight to Milan. So we remain in Lisbon, waiting for a flight.

A post shared by Daniel Lee Perea (@elbebopkid) on

Dan doesn’t know it yet, but he will eventually rally from these setbacks to end up being honored at the World Pizza Championship awards ceremony. I will switch my coverage to a DSLR camera for the cheese factory tour that I do not at this point know I will even be going on. Alex will continue to look just happy to be wherever he is. And LaMarca will buy some underwear at a street market. (They may not fit right. He’s built like a Maytag washing machine.)

And, ultimately, that is the point of this week’s Pizza Perspective. If I’ve learned one thing in my almost four decades on planet earth, it’s that nothing EVER goes 100% according to plan. What is most often the differentiator between success and failure in any venture is how you handle the adversity that is created when things go off track. 

Just like LeBron James in last year’s NBA Finals, Dan Uccello of Flo’s Pizzeria in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had to dig his team out of a hole and find a way to win. That’s exactly what he did, coming back from an ingredient and tools deficit to take the top score of any U.S. competitor at the World Pizza Championship. 

Photo: Sarah Beth Wiley Smith

How did he do it? Not alone. Several of his additional U.S. Pizza teammates, already on the ground in Parma, obtained a list of the ingredients he had packed and lost. They took it upon themselves to go to the markets to get them. By the time Dan finally arrived in Parma, he found he had almost everything he needed. When the U.S. Pizza Team said his win was a team win, it wasn’t just hyperbole. Mr. Rogers once said that when times get tough, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” If there’s a cheat code for getting out of a jam, that might just be it. After all, no man is an island. 

As an added bonus, sharing the situation as a collective actually gave me a chance to get to know the Uccello brothers and Alex and served as a bonding experience. It also gave Dan time to pick LaMarca’s brain for marketing advice. This served as another reminder in my many life lessons that there’s always a silver lining to every cloud. (Additionally, I decided to create one of my own silver linings by lining my messenger bag with beers from the airport lounge. Sshhh.)

As an added bonus, we even got to meet legendary saxophonist Kenny G in an airport! Really!

Kenny G!

And what of LaMarca’s underpants? Well…  some questions are probably better left unanswered.


With age and wisdom, I’ve gotten a lot better over the years at handling the times things don’t go according to plan (although admittedly, I’m a slow learner.) There’s certainly always room for more improvement, however. There's an old prayer that goes something like this: “Grant me the ability to change the things I can, the grace to accept the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

I’m not a religious person, but I have found this to hold a great deal of truth. And somebody once said, “The truth shall set you free.”

Monday, May 1, 2017

The Mother Road

©All photos unless otherwise noted by Daniel Lee Perea. 

I'm sitting in a motel room that dates back to the late 30s. There's a period bakelite rotary phone on the nightstand that looks as though it may ring at any moment with a Raymond Chandler mystery plot on the other end. (It even still works. So I'm told.) I'm merely one of countless thousands that have stayed in The Blue Swallow Motel on their quest to chase a slice of Americana. It is a well-preserved piece of history along Route 66.

I spoke to the proprietor, a man with a background in the corporate world, and asked what brought him to the remote desert vistas of Tucumcari, New Mexico. We spoke a few feet from the gleaming curves of the '51 Pontiac Chieftain that stays parked beneath the beautifully glowing, world-famous neon sign. He answered "I couldn't go back to another white collar office job. I just couldn't do it. My wife and I stayed here on a road trip, and it happened to be up for sale, and we decided to just go for it!"

This is the sentiment of many a budding entrepreneur. The day you can no longer continue working for someone else and feel compelled to chase your own dream. (I can relate. I started publishing Arcade Bar Scene in a bid to follow my own muses.)

Many times, I've criss-crossed the country along Route 66 (officially discontinued in 1986, and paved over by I-40 in the modern era, thanks to President Dwight D. Eisenhower.)  "The Mother Road." "Main Street of America." It's both a literal and symbolic pathway to economic opportunity. From the earliest agricultural settlers, miners, and cowpunchers who moved west in a bid to control their own destiny, to the destitute hoardes chronicled in "The Grapes of Wrath" to the beat generation who pounded out poetry while they were "On The Road," to the paranoid "Fear and Loathing" of Hunter S. Thompson; Route 66 is a literary constant and primary touchstone of American culture.

On my trips out west, I like to muse and wax poetic about the nature of the American Dream. Like Hunter S. Thompson, I was chasing it for a while, not entirely sure what I was looking for. Is it in the sun-baked antique automobiles, gleaming in the sun off the highway? Is it in the trashy, run-down trailers and little league baseball fields that frame and contrast the the kitschy Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma?

Is it in the old west ghost town of Cuervo? The ruins of Arizona ranches? In the meek hovels of maverick desert rats who find the company of humankind so incompatible, they move as far away from urban civilization as possible to be one with the wide-open sky and sprawling vistas of solitute? Perhaps some combination all of the above? What IS the American Dream? How does one define it?

Eventually in Las Vegas, at a pizza event, I found what was (at at least for me) AN answer if not THE answer. Reconnecting with a certain Persian acquaintance in the cavernous Las Vegas Convention Center as he demonstrated his innovative pizza equipment wares, it struck me. Here was a guy who grew up in a war-torn nation completely ripped apart by the questionable foreign policy of western powers. At some younger age, he managed to escape his battle-ravaged homeland and make it to America. Working his way up through the ranks of pizzerias, he hit upon a market niche or two, made a leap of faith and developed a company and some technological inventions that would fill some needs in the pizza industry. He built an entire company out of it, and became a jobs creator, while partnering with others to create innovative products. 

In short, he crossed the seas to come to the Land of Opportunity and seize his own bit of it. Self-determination and opportunity. That's been the American story for as long as there has been an America. It's the immigrant story in an immigrant nation. The stories I find in the pizza world are often exactly this story. And despite the Italian origins of the dish, there is, on a fundamental level, nothing more American than pizza; and the folks who make up the industry. What starts somewhere else comes chasing opportunity on a journey to melt in the pot here; and in the process, transform America into something more than the sum of its parts.

Is that the answer to "What is the American Dream?" Perhaps not to everyone. But it's enough for me.


Photo: Brian Hernandez

Now, a bit further down the road and a bit of a detour off Route 66, my colleague Brian and I are standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. We stare down into the vast, gaping maw of the crevasse. It is almost beyond comprehension. The size is so titanic, it's difficult for the brain to even process what you're looking at. I've experienced this sensation exactly one other time: when I was looking at the gargantuan interior of St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.

The Grand Canyon is one of the most cherished national treasures and landmarks of America - to the point of being almost synonymous with Americana. The irony being that is has been here for MILLIONS of years before Amerigo Vespucci (another Italian connection) ever even thought about setting foot on a boat of any sort. The Grand Canyon is beyond any nationality. It predates us by millennia and will outlive any of us by more.  It makes one feel as small as they do when staring into the starry night sky in an area far from city lights. Small. Where the infinite meets the infinitesimal.

Route 66 has come and to some extent gone. Humans will come and go, and one day be extinct or perhaps replaced by another species. By staring into the ageless canyon, one is reminded that they are but a very tiny link in an extraordinarily long chain.  And so we press on. Down the road a bit further to see where it will take us. One mile at a time, perhaps better understanding with each stop and detour that there is never TRULY a destination. Only waypoints. So enjoy the ride while you can.

Sometimes you bend, sometimes you stand
Sometimes you turn your back to the wind
There's a world outside every darkened door
Where the blues won't haunt you anymore
Where the brave are free and lovers soar
Come ride with me to the distant shore
Life is a highway; I want to ride it all night long
- Tom Cochrane
©All photos unless otherwise noted by Daniel Lee Perea. 

Monday, March 20, 2017

Your Symbiotic Relationship with Customers

Control. To call one's own shots. To be the master of your own destiny. That's part of the American Dream; part of the entrepreneurial dream.  

Every entrepreneur has worked for bosses somewhere along the way that they didn't see eye-to-eye with. You may have had your own ideas about how things should be run.  And one day you knew you'd eventually be the head honcho.  This is a theme in an old Roy Oribson song, "Workin For The Man."
Oh Well I'm pickin em up, and I'm layin em down
I believe he's gonna work me right into the ground
I pull to the left, heave to the right. I wanna kill the man but it wouldn't be right
Cause I'm working for the man, working for the man
So I slave all day without much pay, cause I'm just bidin' my time
Cause the company and the daughter, you see, they're both gonna be all mine
Yeah, I'm gonna be the man, gonna be the man.

But will you REALLY control your own destiny, even when you become "The Man"? What IS control? In The Matrix Reloaded, Councillor Hamman poses the question to Neo who insists the machines in Zion are under their control:

Councillor Harmann: Down here, sometimes I think about all those people still plugged into the Matrix and when I look at these machines I... I can't help thinking that in a way... we are plugged into them.   
Neo: But we control these machines; they don't control us.  
Councillor Harmann: Of course not. How could they? The idea is pure nonsense. But... it does make one wonder... just... what is control?  
Neo: If we wanted, we could shut these machines down.  
Councillor Harmann: That's it. You hit it. That's control, isn't it? If we wanted we could smash them to bits. Although, if we did, we'd have to consider what would happen to our lights, our heat, our air...  

Sure, you might have developed five of the most perfect pizza recipes of all time....but what if the general public won't buy them at a price that generates a profit point? Can you afford to keep them on the menu? Do you call the shots, or does the consumer? The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Just as the machines in the Matrix can't survive without humans who also can't survive without machines, a boss is in a symbiotic relationship with her/his customers.

Consumers respond to a number of factors. Taste, perceived quality, price point, service, atmosphere and experience, and sometimes even human relationships. These factors also exist in a symbiotic balance.
Finding the sweet spot requires tweaking and fine-tuning.  It also requires information from your customers.

Now that I've got you thinking about symbiotic relationships and communication, maybe it's time to take stock of yours. You may be doing enough communicating on your end, but how do you improve your listening skills when it comes to the consumer?

Fortunately, in the information age, it's never been easier. Your consumers live on their smartphones and in their social media spheres. Go where they live! I'm going to leave you with this tip today: Twitter polls.  If you're not on Twitter - get on it. But if you are, and have a lot of followers, you can take advantage of surveying specific questions with a twitter poll.

You can make a poll about anything you want. Whether people like a particular dish, how they feel about items you're thinking about adding to a menu, what to name a new product, what area you should expand to, even who they think is going to win the big game if you just want to have fun creating interaction with a poll.

To learn how to set up a Twitter poll, here's Twitter's article explaining it:

Hope I've given you some food for thought. Until next time, take the red pill.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Lights, Camera.....Wait, Let's Re-Cast The Lead!

"You were expecting someone else?" - James Bond
You may have found yourself here at Pizza Perspective by way of our editor-in-chief's column in the March issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine. Although he cited my colleague Andy Knef as the author of this blog, Mr. Knef informed us mere days after the issue went to print that he’d gotten a great offer in teaching that it would be almost criminal of him to pass up. And so Andy left in pursuit of new opportunities.

But have no fear, the Pizza Perspective blog will continue under the penmanship of Yours Truly.

"Allow me to re-introduce myself." - Jay Z

It's actually fortuitous timing that I take over this blog during the March issue. The cover story is “Lights! Camera! Pizza!” A feature on the importance of video content in marketing. For the past six years, I've served PMQ and the pizza world as the Senior Media Producer. That's a vague title, because I wear many hats here. But the heavy lifting in my responsibilities is video production.

If you've taken even a cursory look at the modern world, you've probably noticed how often people check their phones (I've even watched Cleveland Indians playoff games and pro-wrestling pay-per-views on mine.) There's a slew of social media apps, and every single one of them utilizes video (some more than others.) From subways in Shanghai 

that project ghostly, holographic video ads onto the tunnel walls, to the sensory overload of Times Square, to custom ad screens on gas pumps all across Middle America - there is nowhere you can turn to avoid seeing moving images. It's kind of the reason I have a job.

"Video killed the radio star." - The Buggles  

With video so prevalent, you can't afford to be left behind when it comes to promoting your products and brands with video. Fortunately, there are a LOT of different ways to use video and no single “right way.” Even if all you’ve got is an outdated iPhone, there's a marketing avenue for you. Our March 2017 issue will help you learn how to get in the game of video. 

But just because I've taken over Pizza Perspective in March doesn't mean it will become a blog about video. Pizza Perspective will continue to cover a wide variety of topics, subjects, ideas and cultural zeitgeists. 

In my experiences with PMQ and Pizza TV, I've trekked across this continent chasing the American Dream, delved into the cradle of pizza in Napoli, and explored the next frontier of pizza in Asia. If I've learned one thing in the process, it's what noted poet Maya Angelou wrote so eloquently: "We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike."  I hope, with this blog, to share new perspectives with you, that you will in turn share your unique perspectives with me, and together we'll share our perspectives with the readers. That's a win-win-win.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Australian pizzeria owner finds hangover love

Blake Pendlebury's Facebook "sick" letter captures kudos from impressed slackers 

We’ve all done it. Just like the pizzeria owner from Queensland, Australia, whose no-bull sick note charmed the Internet, we’ve called in sick when the only thing really wrong with us is one too many brewskies from the night before. Now usually the creativity that’s required for a remotely believable “under-the-weather” call-in or email is so daunting that we just suck it up and show up anyway, bravely battling our hangovers while we produce at roughly 47% of our normal work output, which is down from the solid 85% most of us put out on a good day.

But if the shindig was really rocking, you might try: “Listen…I seem to have (voice cracks pathetically) come down with The Cccrruuuuudd,” as you prop yourself up in bed still wearing last night’s go-to-party shirt and slacks.

“The Crud” is a great non-clinical catchphrase. It covers all the symptoms you’re trying to convey along an unspecified range—from the sniffles to open, oozing wounds. “Infection,” by the way, also works equally well to describe a snuffy nose and a flesh-eating bacteria.

Back to your Monday morning morning Oscar bid: “It’s really kickin’ (emphasis is effective on either the verb or adverb) my butt and I’m just afraid if I drag myself in, the whole building’s gonna get it.” Remember to say “gonna” with the same urgency JFK conveyed pronouncing “NOT” in his “Ask NOT What Your Country” speech. The same excuse, as an email or text, gets the job done. But it’ll probably demand a couple more details in lieu of your near-death-emoting live performance. If you’re well enough to hit the keyboard, co-workers figure you can find a way to cover those deadlines.

Just like Sex Panther Cologne, 60% of the time, that routine works every time. But wouldn’t it be sweet if we had the job security or authentic intestinal fortitude—not the fake intestinal flu—to really be real. To just say, “I lost track of my Budweiser count about the same time the damn Steelers were forgetting how to play defense. Then I chased down my misery at the thought of Belichik and Brady hoisting another Super Bowl trophy by hoisting a giant Long Island Iced Tea made out of what was left in the liquor cabinet—which was pretty much a bottle of Jack.”

Well, Blake Pendlebury, the awesome Aussie owner of Gaslight Pizza made his country, and slackers worldwide, proud when he posted his bracingly honest Facebook post. Lose that splitting skull scalder, my fellow revelers and anti-patriots, and you can read it yourself. It’s a masterpiece of candor, combining brutal honesty (no adequate backup) with a tone of heartfelt appreciation for his customers. Mr. Pendlebury, with major pizzaiolo chutzpah, admits he has come to the “bittersweet” conclusion that his restaurant, absent his cooking skills, is not worth opening. See what he’s done there? Old Blake has turned the ultimate work screwup—drunken irresponsibility—into a gesture of loyalty, true love and professional integrity to his customers.

Blake Pendlebury tied one on. And they ate it up! One customer replied to his post with a Facebook high-five: Claire Stachurski: That's possibly the very best "sick note" I've ever seen! Congratulations on both fronts!

Pizza guy Blake Pendlebury tied one on.
Here’s another: Jodie Adams: Like & appreciate your honesty. Congratulations! 👍🏼😊

Talk about the benefits of being your own boss! Somehow, I know my version of Pendlebury’s get-out-of-work free request wouldn’t be received so empathetically.

“Dear PMQ Publisher,

I regret to inform you that due to the NFL football-watching drunkfest I attended yesterday, I

will be unable to join you and my esteemed colleagues this morning for normal business hours. Unfortunately, unless this unprecedented episode of alcohol poisoning relents and my brain ceases its painful attempt to split in half and leak out from both ears, I may miss Tuesday as well. In this case, I highly suggest you cancel publication of the magazine and all new website posts pending my healthy return.”

With Best Regards and Sober Respect,
Your dedicated employee

Monday, January 9, 2017

I'll take two Garth Brooks tickets with that pizza, PLEASE

So this story about the Irish lady who ordered cold medicine, along with a pepperoni pizza from a Belfast Fish and Chips shop and, amazingly, got them to deliver her entire order, really got me thinking.

Not so much about the obvious observations:

A. Those Irish restaurant owners and delivery drivers must be super nice to actually agree to bring Fiona Cuffe her Benelyn Cold and Flu tablets from the drug store.

B. Since when do fish joints serve pizza, anyway?

Nope, you know my mo’, faithful readers. Got to go deep. I started pondering, in reverse order of cosmic significance:

1. She says in her online order: “…only ordering food so I can get the tablets. I’m dying sick xx.” She insulted their food…and they still brought her the darn meds! Must have been the kisses.

2. If I thought I was about to croak, and I truly believed my pizza deliverers would bring me anything I asked for in honor of my dying wish, I’d start with Super Bowl tickets, or maybe two front-row seats to the Garth Brooks concert coming up in Memphis.

3. OK I get it, we’re talking about items a delivery driver could reasonably stop and pick up on her way with the pizza. Stuff like razors and deodorant and toothpaste and ear swabs. If you’re like me, you’re always running out of toilet paper just when you need it most.

4. TMI? A rare blizzard (actually thin dusting) is panicking peeps here in Mississippi. Instead of me overcrowding the local Dollar General to stampede levels, the super nice pizza driver could bring me my bread and milk and keep my face off TV.

5. Overkill? Batteries are practical. They can mean the difference between life and death when you lose the electrical cord on your radio boombox.

6. OK, we’ve already stipulated these are really, really nice pizzeria owners and delivery drivers so I’m doubling down. In this utopian existence, they would surely do their best to make my final hours on Earth special. I’d ask for some 6-inch Angus fillets, king crab legs and a turtle sundae to top off my pepperoni pizza.

7. It’s true, I’ve got a nervous stomach. I know I’d be too rattled to eat one of those rich final meals if I was only a couple hours from taking my last walk to the lethal injection room before getting strapped in. Please, Fish and Chips Pizza Man, bring me a puppy, instead, (with big feet, not a snippy little yippy dog) to pet and cuddle before the lights go out.

8. Forgot about the lease. I’m a simple man with simple needs, in touch with my Emily Dickenson side. Just deliver some brilliant Red, White and Yellow roses in a deep crystal vase (long A) with an oversized card signed by my girlfriend that reads: “You deserve to experience all the beauty in the world. Here is just a glimpse of what reflects back to me when I look in your eyes.”

9. I know what you’re thinking, dear reader. “You’re frickin’ dying already. Why isn’t Miss Wonderful there to hold your hand while you give it up?"  Or maybe: “Did he really write that part about the reflecting beauty, or was it some Hallmark nerd?”

10. All mine and, no, my girlfriend hasn’t ditched me! She’s just super, super, really, really busy at work. And that’s why we don’t have time to go see Garth Brooks. The heck with it, we’re talking theoretical scenario, folks. My for-real questions are simply: Does Fiona look more like the ogre in the movie, or Cameron Diaz? And, did she even pony up a tip?

Monday, December 19, 2016

Open the Pizzeria Bay Doors, HAL

Zume offers human pizza makers retraining as robot partners take over

With the release of Rogue I, I got to thinking about robots…and pizza. I haven’t seen anybody eat pizza in that Galaxy far, far away, but I assume the Universe’s most popular dish has to be on the Cantina menu where Han used to hang out with his freaky pals. So C3PO and R2D2 are cute and helpful and all, but the sci fi nightbots of my scary dreams download more like the bad cop terminator with the morphing pointer impaler in TII; or maybe those nasty bug-looking contraptions in The Matrix that burrowed into Morpheus’ hovercraft and Neo’s navel.

My future vision is definitely right-brain framed, so I tend to share Will Smith’s skepticism in I, Robot about his nemeses’ suitability to write symphonies, paint masterpieces and craft a really good pizza.

Julia Collins and her human business partner Alex Garden are the owners of Zume Pizza, a Silicon Valley startup that’s likely the first pizzeria in the world to partner humans with pizza-making robots. The pizzabots at Zume don’t really look like their movie star cousins. They don’t roll around the workspace warning, “Danger, Will Robinson!” They’re more like seamless, functional machines-in-motion, spreading pizza sauce evenly or hoisting dough with mechanical limbs to the tune of 288 pizzas an hour for delivery by oven-equipped trucks in an average of under 15 minutes.

Bot friendly Collins doesn’t see her automated pizzaioli as Robot Overlords. “We’re a co-bot environment,” she says, noting that, for now, Zume still employs humans. Air breathers, it turns out, are still too good at one vital pizza activity to hand over full control to their botmates. Humans hand-place toppings like pepperonis, mushrooms and peppers nice and pretty. But despite their aesthetic shortfalls, and limitations in other interpersonal pursuits like chatting up customers, robots have apparently advanced enough for Zume to schedule the Mountain View, California store for full automation in 2017. Zume’s ‘shrooms—and even their sausages and stuff—will be handed over to the pincers of hotbot pizza chefs with cool, friendly names like Bruno, Jojo, Pepe, Marta and Vincenzo.

To be fair, in an era when some fast food executives are threatening to automate traditional workers out of a job over minimum wage worries, Collins and Garden remain pro human: 1. They’re all about serving their nutrient-fueled customers great-tasting pizza with top-quality ingredients at an ever-quickening pace. 2. They’ve promised the roughly 30 flesh-and-blood Zumers, their jobs are safe. As the Mountain View site goes fullbotic and Zume zooms ahead on its way to San Jose and other Bay area delivery hubs, displaced human pizza makers will learn new skills in areas like tech support, engineering or web design. “We give them an opportunity to keep growing,” say Collins, a Stanford Business School grad and former analyst at Shake Shack. She adds: “Since the industrial revolution, the American workforce has been adapting to the advent of new technologies. The important thing is — for those who’ve chosen to be at the leading edge of automation, as we have — how can we think responsibly about our obligation to the people that come work for us?”

Zume is putting actions where its obligation is, offering carbon-based employees tuition subsidies, teaching-English-as-a-second-language opportunities and even some volunteers a chance to go to graphic design school. One Tweeter, whom I’m guessing never mastered InDesign, ain’t buying it: “Future story: Zume closes! No one can afford to buy pizza after losing jobs to automation.”

Still, automation, in balance, has surely improved the lives and economics of most people on Planet Earth, if not the entire Federation of Planets. And yes, I like my computer, even if I only use it to write and read and Siri and Alexa do remind me of 2001’s HAL in training. Balance IS always the ticket! That’s why I must agree with the CEO whose cutting-edge outfit has, ironically, pioneered the push to automate pizza ordering and delivery. Patrick Doyle, Domino's CEO, says “There is magic in hand-crafted pizza.” What?

I’ve interviewed dozens of elite pizza chef—all born to mothers and not created in labs. They might not be big Domino’s fans, but they fully back Doyle’s statement. Pizza maestros like Lee Hunzinger, Guilio Adriani and Gennaro Luciano, whose family basically invented the modern pizzeria in the 19th Century back in Milan, are on the same page. They attest passionately that love, training and mentorship—human interaction built upon years of attempts, successes and yes, failures—are the only reliable ingredients in pizza perfection. My friend, U.S. Pizza Team Lead Culinary Consultant Gino Rago, owner of Panino’s Pizzeria in Chicago, defines these terms in the original old-school Italian: “Passione and Fantasia.” The first translation of “fantasia” in the Italian-to-English dictionary is:

1. Music: A composition in fanciful or irregular form.

Maybe Will Smith got it right in that unsettling movie preview of our robotic destiny run amok. And maybe crafting memorable pizza and pizzeria experiences is more art than science. But then again, I’m a right-brain guy.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

3 college Towns, Sofo mojo and the High Priest of Yeast

You know, college life is on my mind lately. I teach a class at Ole Miss and I’ve become a fanatical devotee to the Rebel football team, who would be one of the best college football squads in the country if games only lasted two quarters. That, plus two months ago I took a week-long trip to Columbus, Ohio, for the Sofo Summit. No, not a high-level diplomatic confab with the Japanese prime minister, but a cool food distributor show. You pizzeria peeps know about Sofo, where this year pizza chef extraordinaire Ryan LaRose ruled in the culinary contest with his “Shroom Zoom” masterpiece featuring the elusive crack equivalent of pizza ingredients, White Truffle Oil. Listen to LaRose describe his big winner here.

The happy young pizza virtuoso at Leone's Pizza in Columbus doesn't share that his lovely city is also the hometown of THE Ohio State University and the zoo where my favorite Saturday morning TV personality, Jack Hanna, reigns as director emeritus.

Anyway, I endured the 632.1-mile, 9½-hour (Google lies—more like 12-hour) drive to Columbus where my job was to cover the Sofo mojo and stop in for a story on Mikey’s Late Night Slice. Mikey’s started out as the quintessential college “drunk food” oasis fueled by contests, iconic pizza varieties like the “Cheesus Crust” and edgy pop culture décor that includes a fake bathroom door. That's the snare where unsuspecting patrons pull the knob only to stand nose to nose with a life-sized poster of Samuel L. Jackson looking more batpoop crazy than he did in the Pulp Fiction car scene where Travolta accidentally shoots the dude. Learn more about Mikey's here.

Before we arrived in Columbus we made a pit stop in my hometown, St. Louis. The Gateway City is home of Provel cheese-oozing square pizza. It's also headquarters for the company that makes the living organism, yeast, that activates both pizza crust and the perfect golden elixir to wash it down. The impressive urban headquarters of AB Mauri and Fleischmann Yeast offered us the chance to video capture some even more impressive, mostly young, professionals who specialize in blending a passion for baking with a keen understanding of the science behind yeast and other flavor enhancers. 

As a college town, St. Louis is home to St. Louis University and Washington University. The Billikens (think Munchkins) don't boast a football team (Wash U Bears are Division III), but both universities sport national powerhouse medical schools. At AB Mauri/Fleischmann's, I met a team of professionals who've taken their food science degrees to the next level. Equally comfortable in their fully equipped test kitchen or laboratory, this team is led by former Domino's operator, current AB Mauri Innovation Manager, and the man I like to call The High Priest of Yeast, Paul Bright. Our hosts downloaded their off-the-charts foodie intellects to treat our video crew. The payoff was homemade pizza with a yeasty kick in the crust. I successfully resisted the powerful urge to greet my collaborators with a hearty: “There's a fungus among us!” See the AB Mauri crew in action here.

Then the PizzaTV van pushed east to the home of the Boilermakers and Mad Mushroom Pizza. The Purdue Boilermakers of West Lafayette, Indiana, aren't named for their ability to down shots of whiskey floating in beer. Do these Big 10ers produce a plethora of portly opera majors? Haven't done the research. I do know they graduate a bunch of guys and gals who can engineer stuff, presumably like boilers and additional infrastructure that makes our economy hum. Purdue may rarely beat THE Ohio State in football, but they did educate the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong, and the talented entrepreneur who owns two Mad Mushroom pizzerias in West Lafayette.

U.S. Pizza Team mainstay Dave Sommers is currently expanding his Mad Mushroom brand to additional Midwest college towns, but 20 years ago he was a college kid trying to earn some spending money. Pizza sauce, flour and dough seeped into his blood and today Dave is one of the industry's sharpest pizzeria practitioners with a vision for marketing America's favorite food and crafting internationally acclaimed American Pies.

Friday, August 12, 2016

When in Rome – Or San Diego – NAPIZZA Rocks

Did you know that beautiful, laid-back San Diego is leading the charge (think Lightning Bolts) to popularize Roman-style pizza in the U.S.? Did you know that the home of Tony Gwynn’s Padres, Balboa’s Park and Coronado’s Island was discovered by the Germans in 1904, and is named for a whale’s private parts? No, that’s not right—the bit about the whale and the Germans, I mean. I was trying to impress you, faithful Pizza Perspective readers. But it’s true, I just got back from the city with the greatest weather in the universe (no exaggeration there). I swear, friends, countrymen, the Roman-style pizza at NAPIZZA in San Diego’s Little Italy (and another location) is the manna that passionate pizza lovers, and surfers, munch on when they open their eyes in Heaven.

My PMQ amigo Daniel Perea and I visited NAPIZZA last month to shoot a video. Our fortunate California mission was to highlight the gnarly by-the-slice pizzeria and top-shelf flour, Polselli, that infuses the dough foundation of NAPIZZA’s “Best-In-San Diego”-rated hunks of airy, crispy Pizza al Taglio. That’s the old-school name for pillowy pizza squares loaded with ultrafresh meats, cheeses, sauces and veggies aligned on flush rectangular pans. Like living, never-wilting edible museum pieces, the vibrant red, white and golden crust canvasses are enticingly showcased in NAPIZZA’s rapidly replenished glass serving shelves. Until a chosen slice is scooped up eagerly by smiling servers and handed over to hungry patrons. 

And speaking of hunks. The cozy gathering spot, featuring first-come seating inside and outside, right next to the Little Italy banner on India Street, is the life’s work of a couple of breathtakingly beautiful humans. Roman-bred Christopher Antinucci and Giulia Colmignoli are a real couple. They have real kids, in addition to their devoted NAPIZZA staffers. The day and night shifts function smartly—as tightly as any genetic clan, hustling and laughing, igniting pizza enlightenment in the New World. They’re building a thriving business slice by slice with an ambiance that feels almost like a chatty community market. The entire Little Italy neighborhood is an eclectic mix of traditional Italian merchants and eateries mingled with up-scale, trendy shops. Throw in the ship-lined waterfront, museums, parks, beaches and pro and college sports, and who could possibly disagree with the great Ron Burgundy? It IS a proven fact, Ron, and scholars agree: S.D. is the “greatest city in the history of mankind.”

Christopher and Giula agree with the fictional Anchorman that their adopted hometown is, really, a great place to run a business and raise a family. The copacetic coastal vibe and ocean-cooled natural landscapes perfectly match their health and fitness-focused priorities. They’re as passionate about the bountiful southern West Coast environment as they are about their fast-selling pizza and gourmet salads featuring wild-caught salmon and tuna. Giulia consulted with a Whole Foods nutritionist to develop the salad menu with an eye and a taste bud tuned to locally sourced produce and the fight against heart disease and diabetes. “San Diego is a city of fit-minded people who love to play outside in the beautiful natural resources and weather we enjoy here,” says Giulia, who is proud of NAPIZZA’s “Go Green” business model.  “We recycle as much as possible, use environmentally friendly building materials and even use a motor-assisted bicycle for deliveries.”

Conserving natural resources is top-of-mind for the NAPIZZA team, but their Roman-inspired pizza legacy cuts no corners . “As a native of Rome, my first impression of American pizza was that it tended to be heavy and overly greasy,” Christopher admits candidly. “Giulia and I grew up in Rome going to pizzerias where Pizza al Taglio was something light we could eat as a high-quality snack without feeling bloated. When we became partners, we looked around at pizza opportunities and we took a gamble on the pizza we already knew and loved. Our goal was to bring an ancient tradition from Rome to San Diego.” 

After studying the demanding pizza-cooking style themselves formally, from farm to kitchen, in Italy and the States, Christopher and Giulia hired a seasoned head pizzaiolo, Alessio Poli. For this skilled pizza chef, transforming flour, water and yeast into fluffy, chewy bliss, even in a steamy, cramped, deck-oven radiating kitchen, is an irresistible drug. Today, four years after the launch of the NAPIZZA flagship, San Diego has acquired an insatiable appetite for the wheat and cheese-based fuel that once powered the Roman legions. Modern Roman adventurers Christopher and Giulia have marched to success on the same source, opening another NAPIZZA in a San Diego shopping center. “We’re more confident than ever that Roman-Style presents the biggest growth potential of any pizza segment on the market,” Christopher says. “Along the way, I’ve learned that you sometimes have to accommodate the American pizza palate.” A palate, by the way, which Christopher discovered, doesn’t dig that European delight, potatoes on pizza. So, along with classic toppings and imported Italian ingredients, NAPIZZA has added American favorites like bacon and barbecue chicken among its 12 slice varieties.

During our short San Diego Roman working holiday, Daniel and I internalized (we chowed down on) the pizza heritage of two great cultures in one dynamic pizzeria. At NAPIZZA we experienced, simultaneously, The Eternal City and the city of Comic-Con, which, coincidentally, was spewing Superhero-garbed geeks into the streets as we drove to our hotel in the rental go-cart they classify as an economy car. We did make it to Coronado Beach, where it was 80 degrees, sunny and breezy. I documented, birds, waves, kids in waves, the most elaborate sandcastle ever constructed, a beach wedding with formally attired bride and groom, and a bikini model photo shoot. If you think I’m making that last part up, well…I love you Ron Bergundy.  Let’s agree to disagree.

Forget that! Check this out!