Judging in the America's Plate Pizza Competition

The following events took place last Tuesday, March 6, at the Javits Center in Manhattan, during the New York Pizza Show. I was on hand to judge in PMQ magazine's America's Plate pizza competition. Contestants came from Canada, Luxembourg, France, Spain, Italy, Australia, and the U.S. I had wanted to live-blog the proceedings, but I experienced technical difficulties early in the day. So, here is the tape-delayed version of last week's events.

Javits Center Lobby (by Slice)
9:31 a.m.: I enter the Javits Center. It's my first time here. Lots of tall glass and concrete. Doesn't seem very inspiring for a building that in many ways is New York City's face to visiting professionals.

New York Pizza Show: All Access (by Slice)
9:53 a.m.:I check in, get my "floor pass," and head toward the PMQ New York Pizza Show corner of the International Restaurant & Foodservice Show.

9:54 a.m.: My cellie rings. It's Tom Boyles, editor of PMQ magazine, the trade publication that has organized the New York Pizza Show. "Where are you? I've got to brief the judges. We need you on the floor."

"I'm tryin'," I say. "The guards won't let me in till 10 a.m." Boyles pleads with the scanner-wielding guards to let me in a few minutes before the floor actually opens to attendees. I get in.

9:59 a.m.: I sit down at a table and meet "Pizza" Paul Nyland, who will serve as one of the judges. Soon after, Dino Ciccone, president of the World Pizza Organization and builder of the World Pizza Bike, sits down. Ciccone will be lead judge, and he wants to consult with us on ground rules. "There might be shrinkage on pies in the oven," he says. "How far plus or minus do we want to give contestants? An inch in either direction?" (Judging rules state that all pies must be round and 14 inches in diameter; deviant pies will be docked 1 point. Boyles notes that in past shows, contestants have been known to cut their pies into novel shapes—the outline of Italy, for instance—confident that their creation was so good that the 1-point deduction would have little effect on overall score.)

10:04 a.m.: John Brescio, owner of legendary Manhattan pizzeria Lombardi's, arrives. He's another of the judges. Ciccone continues to clarify scoring criteria. "In the event of a tie, which category should serve as tiebreaker?" he asks. "Overall appearance, taste, or creativity?"

"Taste," Brescio says, emphatically—spoken like a man who doesn't rely on frills and wacky toppings to sell his pies.

Roto-Flex Pizza Oven (by Slice)
10:10 a.m.: With the judges' briefing done, Boyles dismisses us, telling us to meet him at 11 a.m. in the PMQ conference room. I wander the floor, looking at pizza ovens (that's a Roto-Flex multideck rotary oven at right), delivery vans, dough-shaping machines, sauce-dispensing machines. The sauce-dispensing machine catches my eye, all tubes and vats. What's the point? Here's a $3 piece of sauce-dispensing technology for you—it's called a ladle.

Tony Modica, Creator of the Pizza Dance (by Slice)
10:33 a.m.: It looks like the final judge has arrived: restaurateur and caterer Tony Modica (right), who's also the creator of the Pizza Dance. Mr. Modica has an entourage with him, consisting of at least one accordion player. I've never seen the Pizza Dance in person, so I secretly hope that Mr. Modica will break into it at some point during the day—I mean, otherwise why lug an accordion in? (A note on the Pizza Dance: Its moves correspond to the motions you go through while making pizza: "Bang it, shake it, spin it, put it in the oven.")

10:50 a.m.: I decide to see what kind of wifi connection the Javits Center has. Nothing free. I decide to pay the $29.99 daily rate. Hey, it's for the sake of pizza, right? I connect (woo hoo!), close the lid of my MacBook, and proceed to the judges chambers.

Blogger with Laptop: Totally Cliché (by Slice)
11:11 a.m.: I'm in the judge's chambers, waiting for the first slices to come in. The other judges are with me, chatting pizza and making restaurant shop talk. In Italian. Mamma Mia, how I regret having studied German in college at this moment. Wait! I understand something: va fanculo, I hear. I wish I knew what prompted that exchange!

With no pizzeria experience to chat about and no Italian beyond a curse or two and the phrase for "good luck," I slink to a corner to communicate in the best way I know how: blogging. I transfer some photos from my digicam to my laptop and then, connecting again successfully to Javits wifi, I upload a couple pix to my Flickr account. I'll kill the time spent waiting on slices by live-blogging this thing. Slice readers will get minute-by-minute updates on how the judging is going.

11:27 a.m.: Ugh. Yeah, right. Let's put that on hold. Friggin' Javits Center is ripping me. After having connected and uploaded a photo, the wireless is not working for some reason. It registers that I've paid and tells me to "click here to continue." I click. Animated ellipses blink: "One moment, please." I'm transferred back to step one: "Click here to continue." I can't get the damn thing to work. I guess this will be tape-delayed blogging of the America's Plate.

Contestant No. 2 (by Slice)
11: 35 a.m.: Boyles, serving as pizza runner, brings the first pie in. We don't know which team it's from. Neither does Boyles—it's double-blind judging. We do know it's from Contestant No. 2. "No. 1 is running a bit behind," Boyles says. "It'll be along shortly."

No. 2 looks good, and I remember lead judge Dino Ciccone's advice. He's a veteran of numerous serious pizza-judgings and has been on the other end of the stick himself, as a contestant. In the event that the first pie is terrific, Ciccone says, it's best to be conservative with the grading. In other words, even if it rates a 10 in your book, give it an 8 or so. That way, if another pie comes out later that's even better, you still have room to grade it higher.

I'd never thought of this before, and it's one of the things that put this pizza competition head and shoulders above some of the others I've judged in. The overall knowledge of the judges, their love of pizza, and their attention to detail are superb. In this room, I'm clearly the greenest of greenhorns, the tenderest of tenderfoots, the n00biest of n00bs.

Contestant No. 2 Upskirt (by Slice)

Contestant No. 1 (by Slice)
11:44 a.m.: No. 1 finally appears. Straggler. "Look at that," Brescio moans. "That's a premade commericial crust. Lift it up, let's see the bottom." It's not surprising that professional pizza men also want to sneak a peek at an upskirt view of the crust.

Contestant No. 1 Upskirt (by Slice)

Contestant No. 3: 'The Gold Pizza' (by Slice)
11: 52 a.m.: Hot on the heels of tardy Contestant No. 1 comes No. 3. Boyles brings in the pizza box, and opens the lid to reveal a spectacular sight. A pie topped with sheets of gold leaf. I recall the gold-topped 007-inspired pizza from Scotland. This one has everyone talking. "Can you eat that?" Modica asks.

"Yeah. I've seen this before," Ciccone says. "It's edible gold leaf."

Contestant No. 3: Upskirt (by Slice)
A guy in Park Slope does this," I say. "He calls it the 'L'Oro di Napoli' and it's inspired by a Sofia Loren film. It's supposed to just pass through the body harmlessly without being absorbed."

This one is great. The crust, the sauce, the cheese distro. Everything. Nice char on the thin, crisp-chewy crust (right). The only complaint I have is the gold leaf, which is more gimmick than anything. And since one of the judging categories is "Pizza Viability"—i.e., how practical is it to make for typical restaurant service—I score it low in that column. Seems like it would be expensive to reproduce this pie.*

I guess I'll have some valuable poop soon.

Contestant No. 4: Whole Pie (by Slice)
12:04 p.m.: Contestant No. 4 emerges. Boyles walks in, hoping aloud that he hasn't "ruined the chefs' creation." Opening the box lid reveals why he was worried. At the four corners of the pie are large gorgonzola-stuffed dough knots. It looks like a medieval castle of some sort. Is this one of the European pies, I wonder.

Contestant No. 4: "Upskirt" (by Slice)

I can't even get an upskirt because not even with all the years of practice in pizza-upskirting could I get this slice to stand up for a shot from underneath. I have to down-blouse this one. :(

None of the judges tries the dough-knot things. We're just confused by them. The crust is stuffed with the same mild gorgonzola that tops the pie.

Contestant No. 5: Whole Pie (by Slice)
12:33 p.m.: Contestant No. 5 comes out swinging with a pie called the "Pacific Dream." I guess that this one might be the American pie and that the American team is from California. It's the most out-there pizza yet, with smoked salmon, onion, basil, and salmon roe dotted upon dollops of crème fraîche.

I never would have dreamed of putting crème fraîche on a pizza, but, well, it was kinda good—in that way that crème fraîche makes almost anything good. It was interesting. The smoked salmon almost tasted like bacon of the sea, since it was thin and smoky and had cooked to a baconlike texture in the heat of the oven.** High marks for creativity but still a weird pie overall.

Contestant No. 7: Whole Pie (by Slice)
12:49 p.m.: Uh oh. Another out-of-order snafu. Contestant No. 7 hits the judges chambers before No. 6. Oh well. Boy, does it hit us. We can SMELL this pizza the minute it floats in. This one is called the "Prince Henri," we're told. Hmmm. THAT definitely must be a European. France? Luxembourg? Probably not Spain. It features salame piccante paired with a very pungent gorgonzola. The gorgonzola is just too much and obscures the taste of the salame piccante and the sauce. The only time I taste anything other than gorgonzola is when I bite into the cherry tomato on my slice and it bursts its tomatoey flavor onto my tastebuds.

Contestant No. 6: Whole Pie (by Slice)
12:56 p.m.: The last of the pies comes out. Contestant No. 6. It's another odd one. It's called the "Lamb Paradise" and has lamb, feta, tzatziki sauce, chives, olives, grape leaves, and tomatoes. It's almost overkill, and we think the crust is going to suffer for it. But it's a hearty whole-wheat crust. Whole-what?!?!? Yes. That does not endear it to us. The judges must have followed the letter of the roundness law on this one -- it is perfectly, strangely, arrestingly circular. This is like a gyro on a pizza. Like the "Pacific Dream," it is creative and tasty but just not completely there.

Here Comes the Judge (by Slice)
1:22 p.m.: The scores are in, the judges are tallying everything. Ciccone and Boyles (right) reach a total and rank the contestants.

1:44 p.m.: We leave the judges chambers and head to the stage area. It's time to award the winners.

New York Pizza Show (by Slice)

1st Place: Spain (The Gold Pizza)
2nd Place: France (The Beef Topped Pie)
3rd Place: USA (The Puffy Boboli-Like Pie)
4th Place: Australia (The Lamb Paradise)
5th Place: Luxembourg (The Prince Henri)
6th Place: Italy (The Dough-Knot Pizza)
7th Place: Canada (The Pacific Dream)

2:03 p.m.: The U.S. Pizza Team shows some off some of its moves. Here's a vid:

2:32 p.m.: I leave the Javits Center. $29.99 poorer, seven slices heavier, and content at having tried pizza from all over the world.

FOOTNOTES * I later learn that edible gold leaf isn't that expensive but that it's a tricky substance to work with—it wants to stick to everything and you have to be patient with it to apply it to a pie.

** In describing this pie to Girl Slice, I am told, "Oh. They basically did a blini pizza." That sounds about right.