Every Pizza I Judged at the 2014 International Pizza Expo

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Here you have it, every single pizza I judged at the 2014 International Pizza Expo. The International Pizza Chanllenge has several categories: Traditional, Non-Traditional, American Pan, Gluten Free and Blind Box. This year I judged Non-Traditional, American Pan and Blind Box (an Iron Chef-type challenge where pizzaioli compete using their own dough and surprise ingredients).

Every compeditor has to bring their dough and toppings to the event, get them through airport security, keep them alive in the hotel room and prepare the pizza using an unfamiliar oven in a gigantic convention center. No easy task. 

10 Amazing Things I Saw At Pizza Expo


1. A company selling bags of coal! Pizza was introduced to the USA at  coal-burning bakeries in the Northeast. After all, anthracite coal comes mostly from Northeastern Pennsylvania, so it only makes sense that cities like New York and New Haven still have a bunch in use (and even more laying dormant). But coal-fired pizza ovens died out as natural gas became the easier, less expensive alternative. Now companies like Grimaldi’s, Tommy’s Coal FiredAnthony’s Coal Fired and a bunch more are bringing it back. Gotto get that rock! 


2. Lots of dough acrobatics. Dough needeth not need be airborne to make a good pizza, but it really is hard to look away when someone’s doing crazy tricks with it. These guys do crazy choreographed routines with dough that contains extra salt so it won’t rip. 


3. The World’s First Breathing Pizza Box! A packaging company from India may have solved the problem of crust soggification - you know, that tubby gummy crust you get from delivery pizza. The VENTiT box utilizes indirect venting to allow humid air to escape while containing valuable dry heat. They had all sorts of cool demonstrations and even a FOG MACHINE that pushed smoke through the logo on their booth. Pretty sweet. 


4. Hardcore culinary competitions! I’ve been fortunate enough to judge culinary competitions at Pizza Expo since I started going in 2007. Here’s a shot of my fellow judges checking out one of the many many pizzas we had the honor of eating. That’s Jonathan Goldsmith (Spacca Napoli in Chicago), Tom “The Dough Doctor” Lehmann (American Institute of Baking), Domenico Crolla (Bella Napoli in Glasgow, Scotland) and Theo Kalogeracos (Little Caesars in Perth, Australia - NOT the American franchise). Some of these pizzas were excellent, some were vile. 


5. Amazing pants! They must shop at the same place. 


6. A live artist painting a classic pizza box scene! We’ve already covered my love of pizza box art, but I’ve never witness its creation in action! This artist was on-site at the RockTenn booth (they make 65% of all pizza boxes in the USA) all three days of the event painting a classic cafe scene. I patiently await the day I see this image on a pizza box.


7. Merchants of nightmares! Seriously frightening pizza costumes. There were several of these booths at the event and they were clearly separated to avoid turf wars. Have fun sleeping tonight!


8. Pizza Stadium! The final culinary showdown pits the winners of all four pizza competitions (Traditional, Non-Traditional, American Pan and Italian) for an epic battle. The secret ingredients are revealed and each pizzaiolo had 20 minutes to prove they’re the best. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty damn exciting. 


9. Beautiful pizza boxes and they’re all free for the taking!!! OK, this one might only be fun for me but I had to include it. After all, I have written a book about pizza box art and currently hold the Guinness World Record for Largest Collection of Pizza Boxes. To keep a collection of top-notch specimens, you have to go to the source. These companies trash all their display boxes so all I have to do is wait until the show is over before I sack all the box companies on the floor. There’s a FedEd center in the convention center, so I just wrap them and ship them back to Brooklyn. I’ll just have to wait 7-10 business days before I get to examine the loot!


10. A dude spinning a baby pool! Justin Wadstein won this year’s dough acrobatic competition, thanks in no small part to his ability to spin just about anything

5 Craziest Pizzas from International Pizza Expo

Last month I had the incredible opportunity to judge at the largest culinary pizza competition in the USA. The International Pizza Expo has been an annual event in Las Vegas for the past 27 years and it’s seriously wall-to-wall pizza insanity. The competition categories change every year as different styles evolve, but this year I was asked to judge preliminary rounds and finals for both the traditional and non-traditional categories. The five pizzas I’m about to show you are the least traditional of the non-traditional round.

This Japanese pizza started with a rice flour dough topped with dried seaweed, sliced mochi cakes, soy sauce, Japanese mayonnaise, corn, dried-fermented-smoked tuna flakes and a blend of mozzarella and gouda. That’s pretty dang non-traditional! It was actually one of my favorites in the category but execution in the final round wasn’t so hot.

I first saw this pie at a competition in Orlando a few years back and even though I have never personally judged it, Dave Smith III from Smith’s Pizza Palace Plus in Emporium, PA definitely deserves points for pizza insanity. The thing looks like a ninja star! Dave snips the crust and gives the dough skin a quick toss to create these little spikes. Truly amazing.

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How To Judge a Pizza Competition

I’m not into writing restaurant reviews, but when pizzerias sign up for culinary competitions I am more than willing to be on the eating end of their slices. I’m proud to have judged at several national and international competitions over the last few years but last month I tackled my most challenging competition yet. The International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas splits its culinary competition into two divisions: Traditional (basic crust, cheese blend, tomato sauce, two toppings) and Non-Traditional (no holds barred). Each round of judging consists of twelve different entries. I was enlisted for two rounds for each division, totaling 48 different slices.

But how does one accurately judge a pizza competition?

#1 Bring Palate Cleansers
A few years ago, I brought a small container of coffee beans to a competition. I thought I could clear my senses by taking a whiff between slices but it didn’t do quite the job I had hoped it would. This time around, I showed up with two simple tools: a lemon and a bottle of Pellegrino. Lemon rind is a great palate cleanser. Just pick off a small piece and chew on it between slices. You need a beverage to help keep opposing slice flavors from converging and Pellegrino is perfect because of its bright carbonation, which wakens the palate without coating it in new flavors. A squirt of juice from your lemon will also help the Pellegrino preserve your taste buds for their important duties.

#2 Take Photos
Documentation is extremely important because it’s really hard to maintain context over the course of one round in the competition. After completing a round, we always flipped through the visuals to make sure our grading held up from slice #1 to slice #12.

#3 Don’t Eat Too Much
My mantra is “A bite of the tip, a bite of the lip.” This lets you experience all aspects of the pizza’s landscape without having to wade through several identical mouthfuls. It’s easy to overeat at the beginning of a round, but resistance is necessary for the good of the competition. Yes, lots of good pizza will end up in the garbage but that’s the harsh reality of pizza competitions.

#4 Free Your Mind
Just because you don’t like Sicilian pizza, it doesn’t mean you get to disqualify all square entries. Ask yourself, “Did this pizza achieve the pizzaiolo’s goal?” Even if the slice is far from what you’d consider ordering, enjoy it for what it is within the context of the competition.


#5 Go With Your Heart
It’s easy get get overly analytical when sitting at the judge’s table with nothing but a grading sheet, a pencil and a slice of pizza. But don’t forget that at the end of the day, pizza is about having fun and enjoying yourself. Take a step back from the slice and remember that there’s a lot about pizza that cannot be scored on a scale of 1 to 10. You can take non-scored elements into consideration at the end of the judging round by making sure your true feelings about a slice are reflected in its overall score.

Pizza Boxes at the International Pizza Expo

The International Pizza Expo is a massive trade show with everything from canned tomatoes to mozzarella-making demos to dough acrobatics and anything else you could possibly imagine relating to the pizza industry. I’ve been attending the Expo since 2006 and always find myself overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the room and the number of exhibitors it holds. Since I’m always researching multiple angles of the pizzaverse, entering the Expo floor feels like walking into a pastry shop and wanting to eat one of everything. It is truly amazing… and filling.

This year, I decided to limit my scope to just a few pieces of the pizza puzzle. Numero uno on my list was a tool we often take for granted but couldn’t live without: THE PIZZA BOX. I’ve been collecting pizza boxes from around the world ever since last year’s Slice Out Hunger fundraiser (we raised $1600 for City Harvest in just 2 hours with the help of an International Pizza Box Gallery) and my collection has grown exponentially since the event. I’ve learned a ton about the art, architecture and history of the pizza box, which all came together earlier this month at the pizza industry’s oldest and largest trade show.

First thing’s first, I saw the WORLD’S LARGEST PIZZA BOX! That’s right, this 54’ box is used by Big Mama’s and Papa’s Pizzeria to deliver gargantuan party pizzas to folks in the Los Angeles area. It’s manufactured by Whalen Packaging and requires direct shipping via flatbead truck to get to the pizzeria. The artwork is applied as a decal rather than printing directly on the box, so it’s extra clean and bright.

After a quick call to Big Mama’s and Papa’s on Hollywood Blvd in Los Angeles, I found out that the pie serves up to 60 people and costs $199.99 + tax as well as an additional delivery fee of $60. YIKES!

The megabox seemed to be the only over-sized piece on the show floor, with most manufacturers heading down the eco-friendly path of minimizing paper usage. New box designs are reducing paper consumption by 10-15% after eliminating unnecessary chunks of cardboard on the box flaps. Smurfit-Stone is the largest pizza box manufacturer in the US and their designers literally cut corners to reduce paper consumption and save their customers some cash.

As far as the eco-friendly pizza box is concerned, the undisputed leader is Ecovention, who showcased their GreenBox at the show. The lid breaks apart into four serving plates and the base folds into itself to become a storage unit for leftover slices. It’s a brilliant way to instantly reuse a pizza box and the visual design is super classy. GreenBox’s distributor, Roma Foods, even has their own branded GreenBox for nation-wide distribution, as does gourmet supermarket Whole Foods. My brother Jon is really excited about it.


Other innovative ideas came from Smurfit-Stone, who makes a box with a mylar heat-retention sheet under the hood. I’ve never seen one in action but I’d love to run some tests to see how it compares to the amazing iPack & Trade box I love so much. It looks like this one might trap a bunch of steam since there’s only one visible notch vent at the front of the box but I’ll try to get a sample and test it myself!


Pizza Box fever was on a real rampage this year. The show even had a Best of the Best Pizza Box Challenge, which awarded a cash prize for the best pizza box design. Voting was open to all show attendees but entries were limited to custom prints (no submissions from box manufacturers). Farrelli’s took home the prize (bottom row) but I thought there were quite a few decent submissions.

Sadly, the best boxes weren’t even in the contest. I’ll leave you with two of my favorites from the show floor. First up is an awesome ad-oriented box from Papa John’s (manufactured by Smurfit-Stone). PJ’s has lots of these limited edition boxes and I want all of them. Send me one and I’ll give you a prize!

And finally, the most talked-about box of Pizza Expo ‘11 hails from Milan and was used by reps from Via Tribunali in Seattle. I proudly present the pizza box you don’t take home to Mama:

I’m so confused by this scene because these four guys are just hanging out while there’s a babe holding a beautiful pizza Margherita just a few feet away. What a bunch of bozos!