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!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Pizza Getti Leaves the "H" and Oakland Behind

Pizza people have a wonderful devotion to family tradition. I was settling in at the PMQ Mothership here in Oxford, Mississippi, on the Tuesday after the July 4 holiday weekend when a Dallas pizza clan dropped by. Kyle Rotenberry is distantly related to Star Trek visionary Gene Roddenberry (Gene changed the spelling). Today Kyle captains a historic pizzeria, Pizza Getti, that has blazed a fast-Italian course in food-trendy Dallas since 1968.

Kyle and his lovely wife, Karla, docked at PMQ with their three young children during their self-described “foodie” trip from Texas to the Rotenberry ancestral homeland of Oakland. Not that Oakland! Not the hard-scrapping West Coast city across the bay from San Francisco, but Oakland, Mississippi, a laid-back, one-stopsign, off-the-highway berg 20 miles from Oxford with a minuscule population of 500 friendly souls. Folks in Oakland tend to favor collard greens and fried chicken over pizza, but that didn’t stop the Rotenberry brothers (Kyle’s uncles) from securing the tribe’s pizza business legacy.

But only after Bob, Dave and Dale Rotenbery left Mississippi in the early 1960s courtesy of Uncle Sam to experience the bigger world. Kyle’s dad Bob was a Marine stationed in Hawaii, when he met, and married, Kyle’s mom Vivian.  The couple ended up, ironically, in San Francisco, Bay Area sister city of the California Oakland where the Raiders play. Native San Franciscan Vivian found a successful, if unlikely, cultural and romantic mix with her country-bred husband. Bob was mixing paint himself for application on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge when a call came from his brothers in Dallas to come together as pizza selling paisons. The concept was spaghetti and pizza for dining in and carry-out. The name of the restaurant in East Dallas continues to be Pizza Getti.

“Yes, ‘getti’ is a typo, but when dad any my uncles had the sign made, it came back spelled that way,” explains Kyle. “When the signmaker said it would cost $600 to make a new one, my uncle said, ‘Looks good to me!’”

Errantly titled or not, Pizza Getti has been making spot-on pizza, spaghetti, subs and, sometimes, lasagna, since 1968 at three different locations in the same East Dallas neighborhood. “The community started out as an upper middle class neighborhood where families hung out after high school football games,” says Kyle, who grew up in Dallas and graduated from Baylor in 1993 while contemplating a career in technology. “It went through a down-in-the-dumps era and is now on the upswing.” In 2001, after accepting a buy-out package from his corporate dream job, Kyle got an offer from the family he couldn’t refuse. “My brother said, ‘Why don’t we buy out Dad and be Pizza Getti partners?'’’
With his dad retired, Kyle bought out his brother in 2011 and stood, temporarily, as the only Rotenberry left carrying forward the proud, if misspelled, Pizza Getti name. In 2014, Uncle Billy Rotenberry proved you CAN go home again when he returned to his roots in Yalobusha County, Mississippi. Billy asked for permission to go for the Getti, opening his own version of the family franchise in Water Valley, a short drive from Oakland. The Southern outpost of the Mississippi-ready Pizza Getti micro-chain was popular, but shortlived, with Billy’s passing ultimately closing PG’s Mississippi doors in 2015.

Growing up, Kyle’s family made frequent trips back to the Magnolia State. With the demise of the Water Valley Pizza Getti, Kyle’s surviving Oakland South relatives urged him to gather the family and experience Mississippi hospitality firsthand during their 2016 summer vacation.  Kyle planned the Rotenberry pilgrimage around America’s birthday with a stop in Greenville, in the Mississippi Delta, to sample the famous hot tamales his family had touted for decades. But another nearby Mississippi hot spot beckoned—an advanced pizza civilization where no Rotenberry had gone before.  “I’m a long-time subscriber to PMQ Pizza Magazine,” Kyle says. “I check out the web site and I thought, 'Since we’re so close to Oxford, why not stop in?'”

We’re glad Kyle and family could fit us in. We even took advantage of the visit to videotape this interview with Pizza Getti's skipper. Below he shares some valuable insights about running a historic pizzeria in the midst of an evolving, cutting edge restaurant market like Dallas.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Make a Video, Earn $1000, Trigger the Pizza Singularity

This is for all you would-be Scorseses out there.  Or just the operators who want to sell more pizza. PizzaTV has a great opportunity—and a $1,000 check with your name on it. All you need to do is send us a video about your pizzeria (30 minutes or less, and preferably, much shorter and sweeter) and your friends at PMQ will screen it and conduct our own Pizza Academy Awards evaluation. The best entry, based on the careful evaluation of our panel of experts, will earn one of you aspiring movie auteurs the "dough" and a feature posting on Relax, Star Wars-level CGI isn’t required, just solid story-telling and watchable images. Hint: At PMQ we find closeups of delicious pizza fresh out of the oven sexier than the movie Nine and a Half Weeks. Now that’s hot!

Your next question: What’s Powered by PMQ Pizza Magazine, the Wall Street Journal  of the international pizza industry, PizzaTV is an app, a website and the official online video home of the Pizza Universe. Click on right now and you’ll find our developmental site highlighting pizzeria profiles, news about the U.S. Pizza Team and pizza culture, along with some of the most colorful characters in the restaurant world.

Ultimately, with your help, as you claim your own channel, you’ll discover dynamic tools to reach a wider audience of pizza consumers. That’s right, imagine an up-to-date nationwide coordinated pizza marketing network where you can increase online orders, post social media messages and offer loyalty rewards programs. Not to mention live-streamed interviews with pizza chefs and marketing experts, and instructional videos on industry must-knows like dough-mixing targeted to your mixers and flour options.

The video you’re going to submit to PIZZATV for this $1,000 contest—whether you win or not—can be the pilot plug-in to an online connection with PMQ. One that can boost your worldwide visibility with your favorite videos, pizza specials and personal story. Once registered with, you’ll be empowered to list your business hours, accepted credit cards, regular and special diet menus and delivery options. Even participate in coordinated regional and national pizza promotions. Claiming your channel is one click away. Go to PizzaTV com and click on the top-left “Claim Your Channel” button. You’ll be taken to our registry page for step-by-step instructions on how to join the PizzaTV team. The first 1,000 participants receive a free premium listing.

I know signing up for stuff is a pain, but wrap your head around these bottom-line numbers. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but video scores 1.8 million of them, according to Forrester Research. Get the picture? OK, visualize the fact that 85% of companies say video has helped them achieve their marketing goals. Can you look into the camera and say “Cheese.” says 100 million internet users watch online video every day, and adds U.S. adults spend 1 hour, 16 minutes watching videos on their digital devices.

So, we’re excited to see what you’ve got in your camera bag. Send us your video by July 1 and we’ll announce the winner on Aug. 1. And even if you’re not ready to send a video right now, visit, look around and make yourself at home. Claim your channel and start your video journey toward the pizza singularity. I made that part up about the Pizza Singularity. Just sounds cool. But I’m serious as a Jedi light saber dissecting a loaded veggie pie when I say, in the words of Rick (Bogie in Casablanca if you’re not really an auteur), “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.”


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

I’ll take a Liver With That Pepperoni--A Pizza Rebirth

I’ve been thinking about the power of pizza to heal the soul and the body. In a story for May’s PMQ Pizza Magazine, I had the privilege of writing about a remarkable leader from a one-stoplight town of less than 2,000 residents. Don Van Zant reflects exactly what it means to have your tenuous mortality green-lighted. 

The owner of Cardinal’s Pizza in North Lewisburg, Ohio, says be careful not to blink or you’ll miss his 40-seat restaurant 45 minutes northwest of Columbus. Don found out he had terminal liver cancer in July 2012. His doctors said a transplant was his last, best hope, and in October of that year he received a donor liver at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center from a young man who had been critically injured in a truck crash only hours earlier. So, you ask, wasn’t it Don’s team of oncologist and skilled transplant surgeons who saved his life? Yes, technically it was medical science and the selfless gift of a young organ donor named Drew Mason from Owen County, Kentucky, and Drew's family, who returned Don Van Zant to his beloved Cardinal’s Pizza. Don refers to Cardinal’s as North Lewisburg’s info center, adding, “Townsfolk seem to have my place on speed dial.”

But pizza played a pivotal role in Don’s recovery—and the lives of many people he touches. Here’s how.

Since buying Cardinal’s in 1994, his pizza restaurant had been the focus point to Don's dynamic existence as a successful businessman and tribal elder. Cardinal’s is North Lewisburg’s unofficial civic center for community advancement—the gathering spot where little league teams and seniors and church groups and families and the Kiwanis Club convene—and The Donald (This one doesn’t have much hair) holds court. But after Don got a new, unexpected, chance to keep doing the only job he had ever wanted, his life’s purpose, as well as his liver, was reborn.  After meeting his donor’s family in 2013, Don established the “Drew Mason Memorial Scholarship” at Owen County High School in Kentucky, where Drew graduated in 2004. Since presenting the first scholarship gift of $2,500 to Drew Mason’s sister, Don has followed up that pay-it-forward gesture by expanding this year’s annual award to six $1,000 grants.

That’s six lives changed. Six futures improved with a helping hand in a part of the industrial Midwest hit hardest by economic dislocation. Six youngsters picked up by the love of pizza. All the money for the Mason Scholarships, you see, is raised at Cardinal’s Pizza hot-ticket fundraisers. Don, who swears he never met a slice of pizza that wasn’t his best friend, keeps an olive jar tip stasher on the front counter. His still successful transplant means Don can no longer eat his favorite food—as much. But he happily conducts pizza sampler donation parties throughout the year at Cardinal’s and multipurposes the occasions to educate patrons about the vital importance of organ donation. In the end, the example of Don, his Ohio Cardinal’s team and the good folks of North Lewisburg is a case study in how running a pizzeria dedicated to making good pizza and reaching out to neighbors can enrich the human spirit. Those magical ingredients of compassion, dough, sauce and cheese go a long way toward a better world.  But you pizza guys already knew that.

Monday, April 18, 2016

For Dough-Spinning World Champion, Victory at Last

In the pizza business, where margins of profit and loss are tight and often unpredictable, the difference between success and shutting down can be elusive. Small things, like the weight of the toppings you put on your pizza or cutting an exactly sized dough ball, can have a huge cumulative impact on the bottom line. In 2016 at the World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy, Gold Medal winner Jammie Culliton used precise dance moves and a heavy helping of dough-spinning sleight of hand—and feet—to claim his first freestyle acrobatics title after two frustrating years of second-place finishes.

The St. Petersburg, Florida, pizza chef and entrepreneur was narrowly bested last year by Japanese techno-dance virtuoso spinner Takumi Tachikawa. With two consecutive near misses on the pizza world’s biggest stage, Culliton went back to work last spring in sunny St. Pete with one consuming mission. He would push his dance-infused, high-speed behind-the-back, between-the-legs and flat-on-the-floor dough juggling antics a notch higher. He even kicked in a couple of signature hand-stand dough boots. When the purple-striped shirt and trademark fedora-decked pizza athlete concluded his performance April 13, the dial on the fans-go-crazy noise machine read “11.”

Leading going into the freestyle acrobatic finals, Culliton refused to buckle under the pressure of being within a floury grasp of his life’s ambition. He never seemed to break a sweat during his five-minute routine, but after the announcement that he had finally tasted victory, emotion set in. The tension of two straight years of tantalizing runner-up anticlimaxes washed away in the excited screams of spectators and his ecstatic American teammates. They hoisted him on their shoulders and paraded him around the Parma arena in a scene that carried similar emotional intensity as the iconic moment when the World Champion Green bay Packers shouldered legendary Coach Vince Lombardi on the frozen tundra. Culliton beamed broadly and, perhaps, shed a tear or two of happy relief as his exhilarated Groupon U.S. Pizza Team colleagues shared the release they had all waited for. When asked how it felt to finally hit paydirt, Culliton said simply, but profoundly, “Feels pretty damn good!” He added, “This was a long-time coming—12 to 13 years working on this skill and my seventh trip to Italy.”

The new World Champion may have found extra motivation from two years of razor-thin second banana angst. But he wants future dough-spinners to know victory, in competition and running a pizzeria, is built on the hard-working shoulders of perseverance and teamwork. "In my first competition, I came in last," he admits. “If that can be an inspiration to anybody....if I can start from last and win gold, you guys can, too. But it's not about being the champion. It's about being part of a team. I couldn't have done any of this without each and every team member who has been supporting me all these years."

Jamie Culliton knows better than anyone, “Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose.” Authentic winners, in the pizza business and life, understand the secret to success is what you do after you lose.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

U.S. Pizza Athletes Pursue Italian Dream

The Groupon U.S. Pizza Team is preparing to compete in the international pizza equivalent of the World Series, Super Bowl and Olympics all rolled--and stretched and spun--into one. Seventeen pizza chefs representing pizzerias from New York City to Tucson, Arizona, will journey next month to Parma, Italy, and the World Pizza Championship April 11-13. The Viale dele Esposizioni will be the arena bustling with the sounds, movements and many languages of 600 competitors from around the world. They'll test their cooking and dough-handling skills in three days of intense pizza combat.

In this 25th edition of the world's most prestigious gathering of pizza virtuosos, and the 16th year that PMQ Pizza Magazine has organized a competitive U.S. team, the Americans are bringing something fresh to Europe besides the dough and ingredients in their bags--a roadmap to success.

St. Petersburg's Jamie Culliton stars in acrobatics.
"We've always been serious about competing, but in the last few months we've implemented a leadership, coaching and advisory structure that can help us achieve the same outstanding results in the culinary events that we've earned in acrobatics," says Mike LaMarca, owner of Master Pizza, based in Cleveland, and a veteran USPT member. While acrobatics superstar Jamie Culliton of St. Petersburg, Florida, has earned second-place honors the last two years in Parma with his dough-juggling, tunes-pulsing dance routine, U.S. pizza makers haven't sniffed the top three award spots despite their kick-butt creations. That's the context for his peer pizzaioli picking LaMarca, the dynamic Ohio entrepreneur and innovator, as team captain The new skipper says his goal "isn't to stifle our guys' incredible creativity, but to align our overall approach  more closely with what the judges expect." Newly named culinary captain Gino Rago of Panino's in Chicago--and a frequent returnee to his home country--will further fine-tune USPT's recipe and presentation tactics. 

"Yes, our intention is to win, but the first metric of our upgraded USPT structure will be dramatically improved culinary scores," LaMarca says. "We're after an upward trend that leads to team growth and effective advocacy for this industry we all love." The second-generation pizza visionary (Mike's dad, Jim, is a cherished advisor) says his sights are aimed at accomplishing more than merely scoring more cooking points in World Championship events with Italian names like Classico, Pizza-In-Teglia (Pizza for Two) and Pizza en Pala (Pizza in a Pan). LaMarca believes passionately the USPT can be a vehicle to drive marketing opportunities, best-practice promotion and worldwide exposure for independent pizzerias and operators.

LaMarca, right, and Lenny Giordano of Mona Lisa Pizza.
While discussing the potential of the re-engineered USPT, LaMarca recalls a magical moment from his past when he stood in his first Cleveland pizza store on the eve of opening and knew, despite budget challenges, that his own hard work and imagination would lead the next day to the thrilling sound of happy customers and clanging cash registers. He thinks the hard work and example of USPT can inspire that same dream in the world's future pizzeria operators. "Those of us on the team understand that this effort is about something bigger than us as individuals," he explains. "We want to promote and support the pizzeria industry around the world in partnership with PMQ and, ultimately, be part of something that will last and have value long after we're all gone. A big element in that future success is constantly recruiting talented new team members (like this year's rookies Drew French, founder of Your Pie, and pizza acrobat Scott Volpe, owner of Fiamme Pizzeria Napoletana) while honoring and leveraging the wisdom of our veteran members." 

In an industry where independents are losing market share every day to the corporate pizza giants thanks to pronounced technology, marketing and social media shortfalls, the long view may seem like too little. But Parma, the gastronomical heart of Italy, is a great place to start.    

Monday, March 14, 2016

Pi to the Maximus for Pizza Lovers

If I had to list my 10 favorite things in the world alongside my 10 biggest bummers, pizza and math would line up at roughly parallel position in the bottom half of each group. I know that sounds uncomfortably close to a math problem—and math problems make my ears sweat. I stopped paying attention to math in seventh grade when Mrs. Anderson introduced that knee-slapper about John taking a train from New York to Chicago at 60 MPH while Jane jumped the AMTRAK from LA to Chitown going 90. She added some more facts I couldn’t follow and brought the whole damn travelogue together with a request to know how much quicker the obviously fake-named Jane would arrive in the Windy City. My elegant one-line homework response was uncluttered by numbers and cross-outs and algebraic symbols: “They should have taken a plane.”

To each her own, but I’d never conflate numbers crunching with delicious pizza hot out of the oven. I’m well aware, though, that you pizza operators have no choice but to do the math. In fact, geometry threatens to subtract from U.S. pizza profits thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s calorie-listing requirements on chain pizzeria menus. Unless the recently passed Common Sense Nutrition Disclosure Act, now awaiting Senate confirmation and President Obama’s signature (could be a long wait), stops this train, pizzerias specializing in “non-uniform” sectors, like the Chicago square-cut-style standout Rosati’s Pizza, might be forced to list calorie counts by the pie instead of the slice.

You know, the only course I ever flunked was high school geometry. I earned that F word legitimately with a semester’s worth of feckless fear tinged with frustration. Finding the value of angles in Isosceles Triangles on a test or homework, for my undiagnosed ADD-short-circuited teenage mind, was equivalent to finding my dad’s missing car keys (ALWAYS lost by me) before the short-fused Naval aviator blew his lid. The probabilities of a solution, in either case, hovered imperceptivity North of Absolute Zero.  Now the number 0, of course, is shaped like a circle—and a clear majority of pizzas—as you left-side brainiacs will so smugly attest.

Which brings me to National Pi Day and Pi’s mystical relationship to the common people’s beloved cheesy dough discs.  I know you thought I was angling for a Mystic Pizza reference, but that’s one of the few 80s flicks I somehow missed. Conversely, you trigheads never seem to miss an opportunity to quote your hallowed axiom that “Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, measuring 3.14 159265… going on forever without repeating. Forever means eternity, dudes and dudettes, and eternity is the opposite of zero, and that’s very cool! It’s awesome, even if I’m much more familiar with Debrah Kerr’s beach-scene position in From Here to Eternity than the position of zero in the set of whole numbers. Point is Pi isn’t lost on math nerds or pizza pie lovers who come together March 14 (3/14, get it?) every year to celebrate two elemental constants that hold our vast universe in balance. And yes, it’s a good day to score discounted pizzas. So Pi to the maximus my math-inclined friends and countrymen!


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Slice of the 80's Is Piece of My Life

If you’re my age, 59, writing a pizzeria profile on a place called Slice of the 80's, your imagination tends to stroll down the Time Tunnel (cool show from the 60s, debuted when I was 9). As I was contemplating Slice owner Adam Matt’s glittering concept pizza palace in Westland, Michigan, just outside of Detroit, I mentally zoomed back to my formative decade, the 80's, faster than Kirk’s atoms reassembled on the Enterprise’s transporter deck after beaming up from The Wrath of Kahn.

In addition to Star Trek movies starring the original cast, the 80's were full of meaningful personal milestones and cultural monuments for me: Graduated from college (barely); got married; joined the Air Force as a writer; had two children; got divorced; got re-married; had another kid; voted for President Reagan (after voting for Jimmy Carter the first time); watched the Challenger explode (wrote about it and cried); went to a Heart concert when both Wilson sisters were hot; cried again when ET died AND ascended into outer space; told women in discos that me and my buddy were pilots instead of Air Force journalists; ate a lot of pizza; and threatened my kids that I’d complete the third utterance of “Beetlejuice” just to make them squeal in fear that Michael Keaton’s classic character would materialize in our living room. Trust me, it was cute, not abusive.

The 80's were many things to me, but movies offered a lose script for my arrested development. I particularly loved science fiction, war movies and smart-ass anti-heroes. So Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Blade Runner (1982), Back to the Future (1985), Platoon (1986), Top Gun (1986) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1988)) all offered celluloid role models with fast-talking shticks that appealed to an ADD-riddled (before anyone knew what ADD was) underachieving dreamer.
Adam Matt was born in 1983, the year that the TV series MASH ended, Microsoft Word debuted and the Jedi made a huge comeback. The still youthful-looking pizza entrepreneur is an even bigger devote of the 80's than yours truly. But nobody would confuse Adam for a slacker. Adam grew up digging 80's-kids’ must-haves He-Man and Fraggle Rock on the tube while testing his digital dexterity on pioneering gaming platforms with era-defining handles like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. By contrast, my first video game was Pong. When the high-energy youngster wasn’t padding his video game scores, he was looking forward to running his own business when he grew up.

As a new century dawned, Adam made his confident move toward his semi-charmed kinda pizza life. “I was 19 when I started working at pizza restaurants,” he recalls.  “I fell in love with the pizza business.” Adam also fell head over heels for his wife, Natalie, in a pizzeria where they both worked and, eventually, married. Adam insists there’s no truth to the rumor that the couple named their first child Peppe.

But he does cop to cutting his teeth delivering pies while radio wave boogying to his favorite 80's bands Bon Jovi, Aerosmith and Van Halen. He yearned to fold his passions for pizza and 80's nostalgia into something fresh, hot and profitable. Like The Red Rocker himself, constitutionally unable to drive 55, Adam threw caution to the wind and opened Slice of the 80's in 2008, after cashing in his modest savings on a vacant, former pizza shop. Though he admired The Gipper, Adam had no intention of tearing down this wall, or any piece of the 1500-square-foot 80's time capsule-to-be. Today, Slice’s lobby walls enshrine a way-cool collection of 80’s rock posters, Freddy Kruger-featured action figures, vintage electric guitars and eclectic 80's bric-a-brac, including Rubic Cubes and California Raisins. The digital tones of video games punctuate the happy chatter of customers and the parking lot outside is show floor central for a madly wrapped delivery fleet of rolling hot rod billboards. Slice of the 80's is a Motor City mainstay. Social critics have characterized the 80's as a decade of flash without substance. For the pizzaiolo with two first names, award-winning, lovingly hand-crafted pizzas made with fresh toppings—ixnay on the canned shrooms—belie any compromise with the quality gods.
You can read much more about how Adam Matt and Slice of the 80's beat the odds as a growing independent in Detroit’s chain-dominated pizza marketplace in the April issue of PMQ Pizza Magazine, coming soon.
Meanwhile, consider an amazing, marvelous decade—one powerful, dynamic and interesting enough to support a pizzeria nostalgia theme and the biggest hair since the first Queen Elizabeth donned a frizzy wig.  That’s the decade in which I became a man and Adam Matt became a gleam in his father’s eye.  And one last irony of my infatuation with 80's flicks: After Full Metal Jacket came out in 1987, I finally fully understood why Stanley Kubrick is my all-time favorite director. Yes, he made 2001 and Strangeglove, but he also made it possible for me and my Air Force buddy to tell chicks in bars—and sometimes supermarkets—“We’d like to buy you a drink—we’re military journalists.”      
Anyone get that reference? Anyone? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Can Pizza Predict Our Next President?

As I write this blog on the eve of the Super Tuesday presidential primary showdown, I’ve come to the conclusion that pizza and politics go together like The Donald’s skin color and a tube of cheap body bronzer. The correlations are unmistakable. I mean no disrespect to Mr. Trump—OK maybe a little, I think he looks like a giant oompa loompa, sub the crazy comb-over for the cute Prince Valliant. Point is, Trump is cleaning up, so far, in states where his exit-poll-validated “Yuuuge” constituency of alienated voters overcomes his fragmented opposition. I’m sure many of my friends in the pizza business are on board with Mr. Trump, and I get it! There’s a lot to be angry about.

Not suggesting who you vote for, just pointing out the empirical connection between pizza and political power; voting patterns and pepperoni; demographics and deep dish. Who needs data, you ask? We all know that America’s favorite food is popular among all electorates—not just ticked-off blue-collar workers in the industrial Midwest. No one eats more pizza than college students. But it’s undeniably true that pizza, through the centuries, has been embraced, and devoured, as an affordable, versatile, everyman’s family and community-minded meal. Since the time of the Roman Legions, this convenient, comforting source of protein and carbohydrates has fueled armies and political movements.

Earlier in this year’s campaign season, major news outlets flashed headlines like: “Hillary’s troops fueled on a steady ration of pizza.” The campaign dollars allotted for candidates' pizza parties among Democrats and Republicans alike in this campaign could fund a small country’s defense budget. The Palm Beach Post reports Democrats’ share of the pizza expenditure pie is significantly higher that the GOP’s, but voting loyalty may have as much to do with how you order as how much you eat. Bernie’s Battalions, according to, are surging to the hip social media platform Reddit. Led largely by pizza-passionate millennials, Sanders’ committed soldiers Bern brightly online—where they’ve been crowdfunding pizza deliveries in hopes of unhorsing the Clinton Dynasty just like the Trumpkins clipped back the Bushes.

It’s a long march to the Presidency—and the road to the White House is strewn with millions of pizza boxes. New research reveals, however, that supply shortfalls may threaten candidates’ advances like they challenged Sherman’s march to Atlanta. A new study by the real estate website maps out each state’s per-capita pizzeria ranking nationwide. To date, the pizzeria-propensity data lines up, mostly, with 2016 primary results. Note that the top 10 densest pizzeria states begin with West Virginia, (who knew?) Delaware, New Jersey and Ohio, but also include New Hampshire (No. 8) and Nevada (No. 5). We at PMQ think it’s no mere coincidence that New Hampshire was a runaway primary victory for both Trump and Sanders on February 9. Trump went on February 23 to easily run the table in the Nevada Caucuses, where a nationally acclaimed Neapolitan slice is up for grabs at any respectable Las Vegas hotel. Consistent with our findings, Sanders came in a close second in Nevada February 20, but had Mrs. Clinton on the ropes in pizzeria-heavy New Hampshire. The Granite State motto is “Live Free or Die” and discriminating pizza lovers and voters lean independent.

Super Tuesday is mostly happening in Southern battlefields like Alabama, Georgia and Texas—all in the bottom ten of pizzeria-rich states. One March 1 exception is Massachusetts (No. 9 in pizzerias), where Trump is leading and Sanders competitive. Proving that every theory holds its own exception, Trump’s Southern campaign, with its mad-as-hell 35% cohort, is thumbing its nose at, while gleefully middle-fingering, its closest chicken-loving Republican establishment rivals. The Donald, who, ironically, once owned the New Jersey Generals and employed Georgia’s Hershel Walker, is on the cusp of out-performing his pizzeria factor in every state on the ballot. Validating our grand theory of pizza relativity, Sanders, on the other hand, is poised to demonstrate that pizza—and Brooklyn-born progressives—don’t stack up to pulled pork in Dixie.

When it comes to expectations-defying Trump, let’s bag the math and talk mozzarella. Cruz and Rubio never had a chance! They’re up against a guy who presumably knows how to fold a piece of authentic New York-style, and eat it sans knife or fork.

Or maybe they do. Trump is also the guy who thought the Strategic Triad consisted of cheese, sauce and pepperoni. I made that up. The Donald never even heard of the Strategic Triad.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Fly Exorcism and the Big Bang Pizza

So my boss and I were brainstorming possible social media pizza memes to increase engagement with our loyal PMQ audience. My mind, as it will relentlessly skew, crashlanded on my weird pizza encounters over decades of rarely discriminating faceoffs. I once ingested a two-day-old slice of curled-over, rock-hard pepperoni scaffolding a dead fly to make my unhinged toddler daughter stop screaming like a heretic burning at the stake.

I’m not proud of it. I was a single dad dealing with a lost pacifier and a postcard-cute, but temporarily bug-eyed, demon-possessed little girl who was clearly NEVER going to return to adorability mode short of someone immediately popping a giggle-inducing projectile into his or her mouth. I chose my mouth because I faintly feared the diseased insect might carry bubonic plague. Thirty-plus years later, I’d still rather suffer a horrible feverish death than endure screaming rugrats—and I adore my grandchildren.

Old pizza never fazed me. In October 1975, I was a freshman at Boston University watching the Red Sox lose nobly to the Big Red Machine at Fenway Park from the Day Room window of our 11th floor, Commonwealth Avenue high-rise dorm. A short-circuiting hot plate and a box of elbow macaroni stood between my skinny butt and starvation. Scrounging the occasional sliver of naked crust left over from the previous night’s smoky bacchanalia was a bonanza. Not as awesome as going to the all-you-can-eat Bonanza with the strip steaks and chocolate fountain, but good enough in a pinch.  Heck, my mother’s care package of a whole bologna—that’s right, she spared no expense—nearly incited a Lord of the Flies riot on my floor one night. It was after another one of those devil-may-care get-togethers 19-year-old college boys love to indulge in. I won’t go into detail, but for some reason—lost in the pungent clouds of my memory—that everyman’s sausage log attained the rabidly coveted status of a five-pound King Crab leg. I do vividly recall the bologna being launched like a Minuteman missile at one point to keep it out of enemy hands. Talk about the deadliest catch.

Which begs the question: Would you eat bologna on a pizza? How about crab legs? Since I already established my germophile cred as a young man with my fly-pizza exorcism, you can probably guess I’d eat crab legs off the floor at Bonanza, or Taco Bell or the once-monthly cleaned bathroom of your local Jiffy Lube. In fact, I’m one of those odd ducks who enjoy my pizza crawling with anchovies. Dead ones are manageable on your plate—but I’m flexible. Pineapple? Dig it! Pair it with that old odd duck, or better yet, salty ham, and I’m half way to Honolulu in the misfiring synapse range between my ears. Which begs the other ubiquitous challenge: Could you eat the whole pie?

When I really crave something, my MO is to do it some MO, until I pass out from exhaustion—or throw up. A handful of times, I’ve put my mouth where my bravado was and killed an entire meat-heaped dough dinghy.  Only once (see my Jan. 5 blog post) did my gluttony grab me by the collar and kick me to my knees to hug the porcelain throne behind door No. 2. In fact, pizza deliciousness has only really hurt me a couple of times. Actually, it stuck to the roof of my mouth at a temperature approaching the heat produced when the Big Bang went off. They should warn you that the gooey string of molten mozzarella that snaps back in your face from the initial bite while you recoil in pain is actually several thousand degrees hotter than the host slice.  I know what you’re thinking:  Pizza IS cosmic and you’re old as dirt, dude. You have to know it burns…it burns…I’ve got blisters on my gums! I bet you’ve also determined that delivered pizza cools off in a ratio equal to the rate that BB, and a pre-existing pizza-loving Creator, blew matter to the ends of the Universe. Gosh, fresh pizza is so good, that I submitted to the cheesy, saucy immolation again recently as I prepare to enter the dreaded seventh decade, frequent-napper leg, of my lifetime pizza roadtrip. OK, I’m only 59, not 69. Do the math! Yep, that makes three times pizza hurt—but it’s still soul food to me.

Even given my hairy earlobes, I don’t pretend to own the pizza chops that my younger colleagues here at PMQ have earned.  I have learned one thing, though: Even if you agree with me that it looks ridiculous to keep blowing on the glowing lava tip of that come-hither slice like you’re whistling the entire score of Les Mis, it’s worth the wait.

If you’re nodding your head and want to share some of your own pizza journey observations, feel free to email me at If they move me—and I cry at Preparation H commercials—they just might find their way into the PMQ cyberspace.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Love Don't Stink--It's Covered in cheese!

Mayowa Tomori, born in Nigeria, tried his first slice of pizza at age 10 after his family moved to the States. He fell in love instantly. Last year, on Valentine’s Day, the cash-starved Indiana University graduate student shared his pizza devotion with battered women and children at an Indy-area domestic abuse shelter.Tomori was simply following through on his firm belief that “pizza can bring people together in an amazing way.”

The musical technology student occasionally volunteered at a shelter in his Irvington, Indiana, neighborhood, east of Indy, called the Julian Center. The non-profit agency offered a safe refuge for folks dealing with violence, instead of love, handed out by those they trusted most. Despite his own shallow student pockets, Tomori’s imagination soared to the tune of a pizza dream for people hurting for some hope and a comforting meal.

The African immigrant, who sports a pizza tattoo and considers his favorite edible an “enduring symbol of love,” describes pizza as the quintessential comfort food. During a grad school internship creating a Pizza Hut ad campaign, Tomori fully grasped the worldwide explosion of pizza passion. “I noticed posts on Twitter like ‘I love you more than pizza.’ An ad for a domestic abuse shelter depicted a woman calling up a pizzeria and instead of ordering, she simply said, 'Send help!' I realized I needed to change my approach to life—and LOVE sounded like good place to start.”

Tomori fixed his loving gaze on the Julian Center, where he knew real humanitarians were offering empathy in the face of despair. “I really believe that pizza is just about the nicest thing you can do for someone,” Tomori says. A real-life musical scientist—he recently designed his own pizza-controlled synthesizer—Tomori rocked out his heart-felt anthem accompanied by 45 Jackamo Upper Crust Pizza-supplied pie high fives. Together, the community-minded three-location pizzeria and Tomori and friends fed 110 Julien Center residents on V-Day, 2015.

But the Nigerian whiz kid and his volunteer band did much more than share pizza with their grateful shelter neighbors. “We made Valentine’s cards with the kids and helped out in the kitchen,” Tomori recalls during a phone conversation from his new home in Oakland, California. Since graduating and moving to Oakland, Tomori runs his own business, endearingly named PizzaLabs. The pizza-fueled entrepreneur develops interactive multi-media presentations for museums and schools. He works with his girlfriend, who he met back in Indy while recruiting volunteers for his “Valentine’s Day Miracle.” “I sent a pizza over to her after-hours school art program and then I invited her to join my team. It’s literally true that pizza brought us together,” he explains.

Tomori has equally nice things to say about the wonderful people at Jackamo’s Upper Crust Pizza back in the Hoosier State who discounted Tomori’s 2015 pizza Valentine. “They have great pizza and they gave us a 15% discount for something like $300 for the 40-plus pies,” he says. “As a struggling college student, I could have never pulled this off on my own.”

This year, circumstances dictate a more modest contribution to a local Bay Area bakery that employs the developmentally disabled. But Tomori’s torrid love affair with his adopted country’s hottest delectable shows no signs of cooling down. “Nigerians don’t eat lot of cheese, but the first time I tasted a slice as a kid I was hooked forever,” he recalls. "I’m lactose intolerant—but I love it too much to stop.” That’s right, Cupid! Love don’t stink—it’s smothered in cheese!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

If You Can Make it (Pizza) in Columbus, You Can Make it Anywhere

Maybe you've heard the expression, “Will it sell in Columbus?” Which, can be translated roughly as “Those salt-of-the-Earth Midwestern German folk know something about the value of good knockwurst.” Despite all the traveling I’ve done in my 35-year writing career, the closest I ever got to Columbus, Ohio, is Dayton, home of the coolest aeronautical treasure trove in America, the U.S. Air Force Museum. The North American Pizza and Ice Cream Show at the Columbus Convention Center, which took flight Jan.  24-25, wasn’t anything like a museum. Think noisy, aromatic, thickly packed throngs of exhibitors and visitors showing off and sampling awesome pizza- and ice cream-making and marketing technology that never actually became airborne. That’s right, even the propeller-spinning decorative drones pitched by Marty with Vehicledrones didn’t actually fly—they’re delivery buggy roof-squatters designed to turn heads and get your pizzeria noticed.

Speaking of spinners, one of the highlights of the show was the Winter North American Pizza Trials sponsored by PMQ and the Groupon U.S. Pizza Team, where pizza athletes squared—and rounded—off in amazingly frenetic  pizza throwdowns tagged with misleadingly prosaic designations like “Largest Dough Stretch,” “Fastest Box Folder” and “Fastest Pie Maker.” Now “Freestyle Pizza Acrobatics” is more like it! This show-stopping event capped off NAPICS with a comeback tale for the ages. When I first met very-extremely-young-looking Scott Volpe of Tucson, Arizona (Never been there either) on the showroom floor, I asked him what pizzeria he worked for. “I run my own authentic Neapolitan pizza operation,” he replied with an endearing smile and the worldly assurance of an entrepreneur who has earned his pizza peel. When he told me he was 24, I said I had socks in my drawer that old, but he only repeated his determination to rebound from his previous year’s razor-thin second-place NAPICS Acrobatics finish and take it all. He proceeded to back it up with some new dough-spinning moves paced to a funky musical beat.

Volpe was a whirling dervish on the flour-sprinkled stage, dancing and striking theatrical poses, sometimes blindfolded, while propelling dough discs heavenward… behind his back…over his shoulders…and between his legs, with an aerial nimbleness that any F-15 Eagle driver could dig.
In a thrilling climax to a dramatic routine, Volpe took top acrobatic honors over veteran (but a whippersnapper himself) Bradley Johnson of Mellow Mushroom in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Before Pizza TV packed up for our long road trip home, we rushed Volpe in front of our camera (Did you hear we’re launching a new streaming online video network later this year?) for his exhilarated explanation of how he became the Comeback Kid. The co-owner of Fiamme Pizza Napolentana credited the same values—hard work and commitment—that drive his mobile pizza oven business with fueling his dough-dealing dexterity.
It was better than the Super Bowl—and Columbus, home of THE Ohio State University, was definitely worth THE 10-hour jaunt in the new PizzaTVmobile. That’s true even though we had to outrace a raging blizzard northward from Mississippi and the PMQ Mother Ship. I even ate a couple of knockwurst—and threw back a couple of steins—at Schmidt’s Sausage Haus and Restaurant downtown (Columbus reminds me of Indianapolis, where I have been, lots). Believe it or not, I tasted not one teaspoonful of ice cream at North America’s biggest ice cream social —and I adore the stuff. Type Two Diabetes is crueler than the bone-chilling gale that blew down High Street in January in Columbus.


Friday, January 15, 2016

A Degree in Pizza Is Worth a Thousand Words

I’ve read recently about college courses on pizza in England and at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. My first reaction is: Where do I sign up? I teach a college course in writing fundamentals here in Oxford, Mississippi, home of Ole Miss and PMQ headquarters, and I think teaching students about the history of the world’s favorite food would be much easier than explaining active voice. Pizza fits the modern zeitgeist so much better than split infinitives.

I’m not minimizing the complexity of pizza studies. Menu planning, marketing, pizzeria operations, point of service technology and supply budgeting are all subject hurdles that would send me sprinting to the registrar’s office to beg for an incomplete. I just like eating the stuff. Although, if I won the Powerball, I’d be tempted to open a chain of those fast casual places to ensure my longevity among the world’s richest businessmen and set up my 2020 presidential bid…against He Whose Comb-Over Reveals No Part. Pizza’s march into the academic domain doesn’t surprise me at all. As I’ve chronicled previously in my first year at PMQ, it’s on everybody’s mind…and on their underwear…and in clear plastic pouches hanging around their necks. Yes, some lonely dude in the Gateway City even married a funky slice of St. Louis-style Provel cheese-laced squareness. No word yet on offspring.

On the other hand, no one much cares about verb-subject agreement anymore. The same millennials who rack up texting minutes like Fitbit steps never met a comma they didn’t like, or stopped to capture a direct quote with two pairs of those crooked little critters that appear over written text versus dangling at the end of their hands.  On the other hand (oops, running out of hands) those same I-phone jabbing youngsters are pizza brainiacs. They all seem to instinctively internalize the quickest, smartest most App licable (See what I did there?) tech savvy way to order pizza online.

So, I ask you, as a teacher, what group would you like to challenge? The pizza entrepreneurs of tomorrow or the never-wanna-be-a-Faulkner two-hand texters of today? Actually, I have no choice.  Already admitted inventory and cash flow are way above my brain synapse firing range. I’m only good at a couple things and, tragically, one of them is locating the perfect injection point for em dashes—here, maybe—which, so far, never made me a fortune or got me one date. I take that back. One date, but she was an English major who didn’t shave her legs.

I’m not complaining, really. I love my students, even if some of them roll their eyes when I suggest that typos detract, in some small way, from a professionally written press release. I make it up to them by ordering five large pizzas for our end-of-semester celebration.        

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

May the Pepperoni Be With You

With Star Wars dominating public consciousness I was thinking about the role pizza might play in a galaxy far, far away. On the day the new movie came out some of my co-workers were fully regaled in stormtrooper gear. While shooting a recipe video our test chef attempted to slice a pumpkin seed pizza with his light saber acquired in the WalMart Empire outpost here in Oxford, Mississippi, where the PMQ Deathstar orbits.

To be perfectly honest, I was always more of a Star Trek guy. Since my dad was a Naval aviator (that’s cooler than a mere pilot or even a Jedi Knight in my book) the Naval nomenclature in Captain Kirk’s universe had personal appeal. I remember when the crewmen, not to mention the crewladies in their 23rd Century mini tunics and boots, pressed a button and the fakey-looking rectangular door on the instant food replicator whizzed open to reveal trays of never-found-in-nature-hued nutrition blocks, maybe chased down with some blue Romulan Ale. Never saw them grab a smoking slice of pepperoni pizza out of that thing. Too messy, maybe?  Not enough heat produced by the dlithium crystals to bake really authentic Neapolitan crust? Politically correct concern for Vulcan dietary mandates?   Don’t know, but the Trekkies are missing the starship when it comes to good eats.

While I put this blog under the heat lamp during my holiday week off, I actually went to the theater myself (alone, yes pathetic) to view the new Star Wars blockbuster. I was hoping director J.J. Abrams would pay homage to the famous cantina scene from the first flick, and he didn’t disappoint. Still, no pizza! In fact, I didn’t notice grub of any kind, although a few of the patrons at Maz Kanata’s place did resemble grubs…or termites…or something equally intergalactically repellent.  Old (apparently thousands of years ancient) Maz is a dead ringer for a spectacled lizard herself, or maybe the (really) old wisecracking broad from Golden Girls. What’s Star Wars got to do with pizza, you ask. Well for one thing, I figure those legions of evil stormtroopers would be naturals to subsist on some 3-D food-printed version of the same staple that their Roman predecessors marched on while conquering Planet Earth. After all, 3-D pizza printing is already part of 2016 military planning as the DOD tests integrating America’s favorite food into the rations for today’s deployed GIs. When I was in the Air Force, the best we could hope for in our MRE (Meals Ready to Eat—but not enjoy) was reconstituted beef stew.

Now I love syfy, even if my tastes run to more authentically cosmic physics-aligned approaches like last year’s hit Interstellar. Even in Matthew McConaughey’s fifth dimensional, gravity-curved worm hole of a fun time there’s no time for pizza. Ditto my favorite mind-bending film experience from childhood, 2001 a Space Odyssey. The astronauts again feast on rectangular essence of real food. The mysteries of creation are found in a black monolith, but not one sliver of leftover pizza crust exists in the vast expanse of space.

I don’t buy it. Don’t tell me that any advanced civilization will be able to survive without a cheese dripping, meat and veggie-laden slice of doughy, saucy perfection. Nutritional convenience and tidiness may be important values for space travel, but great food has always been about more than existing. It’s family and fellowship and pleasure and art. When the force really wakes up—it’ll send the Millennium Falcon out for a space cruiser full of pepperoni pizzas.