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 Vocative.com, 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 Estately.com 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.