U.S. Pizza Team gets saucy for world championship in Italy

By Erin Ailworth MCT

ORLANDO, Fla. – When trying out for the U.S. Pizza Team, the recipe for success is simple: Be one with the dough.

That’s how Chris Balthrop, 31, wowed the judges at the dough-tossing tryouts for the 2007 team, which took place recently at the Florida Restaurant ‘ Lodging Show at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando.

It’s all in the flick of the wrist, Balthrop said as he practiced with a rubber round of faux dough before taking the stage for a demonstration with his new teammates. They will travel to the World Pizza Championship in Italy later this year to show off their skills – a mix of break dancing and juggling with floury dough.

“The main trick is called the whip: Throw it (the dough) up and catch it underneath it,” said Balthrop, who works at Lupis Pizza Pies in Chattanooga, Tenn. “That’s where it all starts.”

For pizza chef Jason Samosky, the secret to his first-place finish was in the spices.

Judges sampling pie slices during the baking competition called Samosky’s use of cheese, avocados, artichokes and grape tomatoes a “tidal wave” of flavor.

“This stuff cost me $35 an ounce,” the chef from Valley City, Ohio, joked of the basiloregano mix he sprinkled on his “Heartocado” pizza.

“He was on OBT, and he picked it up cheap,” said competitor Eric Lippman of Cypress, Texas, his tongue firmly in cheek.

“I wanted to win,” Samosky quipped.

The competitions were sponsored by PMQ Pizza Magazine, a trade publication from Oxford, Miss. Co-publisher Linda Green laughed as she described most people’s reactions to finding out about the U.S. Pizza team.

“They scratch their heads,” she said. But most quickly catch the fan fever.

“Pizza is a universal food,” Green said. “Pizza is like a blank canvas, and you have so many artists that do different things.”

Self-described “well-known pizza guy” Ed Zimmerman agreed. But he still prefers his pizza naked.

“Pizza is really personal,” said Zimmerman, the president of Success Foods Marketing in Novato, Calif. “You have to look at pizza plain … toppings really mask the flavors of crust and cheese and sauce – the real guts of the pizza.”

Knowing a good pizza isn’t just about the taste, however. PMQ culinary editor and baking- competition judge Evelyne Slomon said she also looks at the crispness of the crust and the gooeyness of the cheese.

“It hits all the buttons – just ding, ding, ding,” Slomon said of knowing when you’ve tasted an exceptional pie. Added fellow judge Ed LaDou, owner of Caioti Pizza Cafe in Los Angeles: “It’s like fireworks in your mouth. It just feels right.”

And oh, how Eric Lippman’s steak-and-potato pizza felt right to Norma Amalia Fernandez de Miccio, a spectator, who owns a gelato business in Sarasota, Fla.

“Very rich, the pizza,” she said in Spanish, sighing and closing her eyes as she went in for a bite.

Another convention-goer, Rebecca Gessner, was just as excited.

“This looks much better than the pizza I used to make at Chuck E. Cheese’s,” said Gessner, 27, a former chef from Clearwater, Fla.

Not all the dough at the pizza competitions was edible, however.

During the pizza-stretching portion of the day, competitors spread their dough as wide and round as they could across the stage floor.

“When you’re competing, you’re in your own little world,” said competitor Roger McColly of Upper Sandusky, Ohio. “It’s just you and the dough.”