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.    


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