I was beyond honored to be invited to the 2nd Annual ConPizza conference in São Paulo, Brazil earlier this month. I had no idea Brazil was so into pizza but they’ve apparently had it for over a century and São Paulo has so many pizzerias nobody knows the real count! The event was sponsored by a pizzeria association, similar to the VPN in Italy (and the US), but they’re more of a union than a certification agency.
The goal of ConPizza is to get a bunch of pizzeria owners and pizza business folks into a room together to share information that could be mutually beneficial. They had a bunch of speakers from big companies talking about marketing and franchising but it was all in Portuguese so I had almost no idea what was going on. Attendees got cool headsets so they could hear an interpreter’s version of my talk about pizza diversity in NYC and pizza box design around the world (I always manage to squeeze that in).
I only had two days to experience the wonders of São Paulo’s pizza scene but here are some highlights of the trip.
Let’s get pizza boxes out of the way first. From what I can tell, 99% of the pizza boxes in Brazil are octagonal! Most pizzerias deliver by scooter, so the unconventional box shape might be a way to keep the pizza from bumping around too much. They come in two pieces (a lid and a base) which seems crazy to me because it takes so much more time and material, but they seem to love it over there. The artwork is also insane. The boxes int he photo above are all interactive. One becomes a soccer field with upright coal posts and even a two-piece cardboard “ball.” The other two have pieces that pop out to form either a toy airplane or a model dinosaur. HOW COOL IS THAT?!?!
The gentlemen from the association even took me to their headquarters, where they store a box from every pizzeria they work with. It was incredible. There are boxes in that pile are beyond belief and I’m just glad I had the opportunity to see them in person! New York City truly is living in the pizza box dark ages.
Now for some pizza. We spent night #1 at Quintal do Brãz, an absolutely beautiful restaurant with an incredible yard. I noticed a couple amazing things here. First of all, they offer pizzas divided into three sections. I’m used to seeing a half-and-half pizza, but this is seriously divided into thirds! It seems so much harder to cut and top, but they did it and I applaud them for it. The pizza above has one section with soppressata; one is a Calabrese salad with fresh tomato and mozzarella; the final section has a “requeijão,” or creamy cheese, made by a local company called Catupiry. From what I can tell, Catupiry is to creamy cheeses what Kleenex is to tissues. It’s a little strange for my palate but the people here seem to love it.
At Quintal, I noticed that the staff serves your slices and leaves the remainder on a table to the side of the dining area. It gets covered with a vented lid and marked with your table number. The pizza isn’t sitting on your table while you eat, so the server has total control when it comes to who gets the final slice!
Quintal do Brãz is one of several locations, but the word “quintal” separates this one from the others because it means this place has a serious “backyard.” Here’s a photo of the most beautiful path to a restroom I’ve ever seen.
We spent the second night at 1900, a pizzeria that has been family owned since it opened in 1983. We tried a ton of different pizza from the restaurant’s 30 year history before I had to zip to the airport.
Erik is the owner of 1900 and he’s extremely proud of his family’s restaurant. He told me how his father used to stop service for an hour every Monday night so the restaurant could become a concert hall for local musicians. This wasn’t meant to attract business, they wouldn’t sell food during the performance. That’s pretty damn cool.
His pizza was really interesting. The crust is a dense, yet soft, surface (probably because of the extremely short fermentation time) and topped with more interesting ingredient combinations. These were served as whole pizzas instead of three sections like Quintal do Braz. Both places baked in a wood-burning brick oven. Most Neapolitan ovens I’ve seen have an arched doorway but the wood-fired ovens in Brazil all had square openings. Bake times were in the 2-3 minute range and most of these places are burning composite wood logs rather than straight chopped wood. They claim it’s cleaner and easier to manage.
In Brazil, pizza is treated like a proper restaurant food. People sit down and use a fork and knife to eat it. They apparently don’t eat it for lunch, only dinner. And most of the pizzerias in São Paulo are delivery/takeout only. I’m so used to seeing wood fired ovens as showpieces inside restaurants but in a delivery business the customer will never see them. I completely forgot that these ovens are tools for food, not just for marketing.
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.
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 Fired, Anthony’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.