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April 8, 2009

Morning: Freestyle face-off between No. 1 and No. 2

Despite the end of the baking and Heinz Beck competitions, no results will be announced until tonight. Additionally, four other competitions remained: largest dough stretch; fastest (participants stretch five skins and place them perfectly on screens); team acrobatic; and the much anticipated freestyle acrobatic showdown between the WPC’s Justin Wadstein and Juan Hermosillio of the United States Pizza Team.

Despite the schedule saying competition would start at 8:30, things started at 10 a.m. (typical Italian time) with both dough duals. Returning gold medalist Michael Shepherd started strong in “fastest,” but tore one of his five doughs and took a bit of time to fix it. Another WPC gold medalist, Bruno Di Fabio, was fast, but off his pace a bit, and also figured he missed a medal.

Tony Gemignani fared well in largest stretch until tearing his dough irreparably with one minute to go. Jamie Culliton and Joe Carlucci followed, but both turned in marks well below some early leaders.


Michael Shepherd

Shepherd, a past gold medalist in largest dough stretch, used all five minutes allotted to coax his dough to such thinness his WPC shirt logo was visible through the dough. His 95 centimeter total very well could earn him another gold.

After scoring just two points more than Juan Hermosillo the night before, Justin Wadstein moved to lock up the gold medal with a fiery —literally— second act.


Justin Wadstein

Late into his routine, Wadstein grabbed a wooden board with diesel-fuel-soaked towels pinned to it, lit the towels a flame and spun the wood. (No, I'm not making this up. See the photo.)

But despite the crowd’s roaring approval, it appears at least one judge didn’t like the incendiary incident, and awarded Wadstein a 42 out of 50 possible points. Not only was Wadstein shocked, the crowd booed the score.

With the door open for victory, Hermosillo launched off on one of his signature routines (lots of handstands and dancing) but struggled early on with dough that tore frequently. Multiple pauses to retrieve new dough in the subsequent interruptions in the routine hurt his score and dropped him several points below Wadstein's.

Wadstein's potential victory was short-lived, however, as Luca Lanza—performing at least twice as well as the night before—turned in a near-flawless routine that yielded a score higher than Wadstein's. Fans of the host-country crowd favorite were appropriately and admirably exuberant.

Night: Silvers & bronze, but no golds

Since our Italian hosts didn't start a single event on time this week, Bruno Di Fabio and Sean Brauser bet each other tonight's award ceremonies—though scheduled for 8:30—wouldn't start until sometime between 10 and 11. To our hosts' credit, they started handing out the hardware at 9:30—a delay that turned out to be a good one. (Nobody had to pay up, which is good, because rumor had it there was $500 on the line.) It afforded the teams one more chance to wish each other well and say some heartfelt goodbyes.


Bruno Di Fabio

(Steve's note: I was blown away by the strong camaraderie among these international competitors. Nearly without fail, friendships trumped egos this week.)

At the outset, Tony Gemignani said he felt the team had several chances for gold medals this year, but that didn't happen. "This is just a tough place to compete. You've seen how good the competitors are here. Sometimes the judges just aren't on your side, but I really don't think that was the case this year."

The highest awards were a silver medal for Justin Wadstein, a bronze medal for Michael Shepherd (largest dough stretch), and a very impressive silver medal for the Statue of Liberty sculpture by Matt Raposelli and Petra Kralickova.


Matt Rapposelli

"That's huge to do that well on our first try," Tony said. "When you see what they did in just 30 hours work, that's pretty unbelievable—especially when you look at the others' work." (Indeed, of all the large sculptures, Matt and Petra's was the only one that stuck to the "bread only" frame requirements. Theirs was beaten, however, by a truly astounding salt dough piece that surely took days, if not weeks, to produce.)

Though no WPC team members won a culinary event (John Gutekanst placed 17th in Beck), Bruno Di Fabio was the highest scorer among all American contestants—no small point of pride for the outspoken New Yorker.

All in all, Tony said he was pleased with the team's accomplishments for the year. "These people have planned a full year for this, to come here and take their shot at it. … Yeah, we all want to win, but it doesn't always work out that way. I'm still very proud of these guys. We always come here to make a statement, and I have no doubt in my mind we did this year."

April 7, 2009

Showdowns and cook offs

Being a judge at this pizza competition is a gut-buster, but few judges work as hard as those monitoring the Heinz Beck competition. This all-day event included 28 competitors producing foods fit for the finest of gourmet restaurants though served in pizzerias. (The competition is named after Beck, a German-born three-star Michelin-awarded chef who cooks at an American hotel in Rome. That's one international dude.)


John Gutekanst

WPC entrant John Gutekanst served an uber-complicated lamb tartare wrapped in spinach leaves and fresh pasta and deep fried.

Though prepared to go by 10 a.m., Gutenkanst's number was 28, which kept him stressed until about dinnertime. By then, the judges looked exhausted and stuffed to the rafters.

Little did we know that the waiting had only begun. The second individual freestyle competition was to begin at 4 p.m. featured about a dozen tossers spun the skins to dance routines: some cool, and some goofy. On entrant (who's name escaped me—easy to do when the emcees all speak in Italian) took the floor wearing fake dreadlocks and spinning to Inner Circle's lone hit, "Bad Boys," as another faux-Rastaman "smoked" a gigantic doobie (with the help of a fog machine). Funny for about a minute or so.

A much anticipated showdown between the U.S. Pizza Team's Juan Hermosillo and the WPC's Justin Wadstein didn't disappoint.


Justin Wadstein

Hermosillo turned in one of his typically eye-catching and athletic routines, but dropped the dough a few times in the process. His strong score showed judges' approval, but it wasn't enough to hold off a near-mistake-free routine by Wadstein, and which vaulted him into first place by just two points. Luca Lanza, a wiry Sicilian pizzaiolo with blazing hand speed placed a distant third after multiple drops.

April 6, 2009

* Earthquake! (We’re all fine.)

To family and fans of the World Pizza Champions, know that the recent earthquake in L’Aquilla, which reportedly killed as many as 150 people, did not affect us at all in Salsomaggiore. Attendance on the first day of the World Pizza Championships, however, appeared to be down as a result of contestants not being able to travel through damaged areas. About midday, a moment of silence was observed to recognize the deadly quake’s victims, which include 1,500 injured and some 50,000 displaced and homeless.

The games have begun, but nobody’s playing around


Lady Liberty on the move

Since many of us arrived here April 2, the joking around and ball-busting has been relentless, but that lightheartedness largely disappeared today with the beginning of the 18th annual World Pizza Championships in Salsomaggiore. Nonsense is replaced by nerves, goofing off with game faces.

Well, except, maybe for Matt Rapposelli and Petra Kralickova, who are officially in relaxation mode after working nearly non-stop on the Statue of Liberty bread sculpture. The final work is not only fantastic, but a showstopper. The parade of people rubbernecking and turning to ask, “Is that really bread?” went on all morning.

During Tony Gemignani’s classic pizza presentation, the whole statue was lifted up by team members Sean Brauser, Michael Shepherd and Matt and presented behind Tony. The whole effort was a statement maker that drew both cameras and crowds. (It takes about 30 seconds here to understand that, unlike American pizza contests, the Italian contest emphasizes show as much as dough. Pomp and circumstance pay off if you do it right. [Unfortunately, what’s right and what isn’t seems to change with each judge’s whim.])


Leo and Bill at the judges table

Tony, Bruno Di Fabio, Joe Carlucci, Bill Manzo and Theo Kalogeracos (from Perth, Australia) all competed in the classic segment, and Theo also competed in the growing “gluten-free” category. None will know how they did, however, until the end of the competition on Wednesday. Thank God, though, for teammates who speak Italian. Bruno, Leo Spizzirri and Nancy Pugielse are helping most everyone answer questions of picky, persnickety and sometimes pain-in-the-neck judges who have the right to ask any question of any contestant. It seems it all depends on which table of judges you get. Some of our guys, like Bill, got grilled. One judge could tell Bill’s dough was something truly unique (it’s born of an 8-year-old starter from his shop in Providence, R.I.) and he wanted to know how he made it. Bill gave about 98 percent of the details, leaving out the secrets that mattered. Sensing Bill was being deliberately cagey, Leo did a bang-up job of translating just enough info to back off the nosy judge.


Jamie Culliton

Knowing Jamie Culliton was scheduled to compete in the individual acrobatic competition at 4 p.m., most of the team waited to help prep his dough and cheer him on. Italians aren’t known for promptness, and they can be horrible estimators of time required to complete a task, so at 4:30, no one was surprised when there was no sign of the competition starting. But then came 5 p.m., then 6 p.m. and everyone’s wondering what the heck’s going on, especially since the culinary competition had ended. When the acrobatic competition finally started at 6:30, Jamie was No. 8 out of 10 or so to go, so a bit more waiting ensued. His “Men in Black” routine went smoothly and scored a 40, which placed him near the top of today’s heap.

April 4, 2009

A stop-and-go ride to Salsomaggiore

This morning we loaded up two small vans with all our luggage and some 7,413 baked-to-brittle parts of The Lady. Given that we had no real containers to hold her fragile fractions, they were stacked on bubble wrap and laid carefully inside one van. It was decided someone needed to ride with the old girl and hold her in place in case the ride got rough. And given that I’m the newest to the group, I was elected. No, commanded. (Yes, much chortling followed. It was shameful, but I’m a team player. And I have no idea where I am in this country, so I followed orders. So would you.)

When traffic is good, Salso is about 2.5 hours from Padova, at least according to our Tom Tom. Not a bad ride, unless you’re the shmuck holding down a bread sculpture in the back of a van which, on several occasions was moving at better than 100 mph to keep up with the lead car carrying Tom Tom. Not that my driver, Bill Manzo, didn’t pilot the van expertly; in fact some of his evasive maneuvers worked brilliantly to save us our lives, but they often threatened The Lady’s.

And this was when traffic was good. Somewhere along the way we got hung up in stop-and-go traffic for about an hour, which made trip time closer to 3.5 hours, despite Tony G. acting out his Formula One fantasy on the Autostrade. (Truth: If I’d have been behind the wheel and told there was no speed limit, I’d have done it, too. To hell with that old crusty broad in the back of the van.)

Good news is we made it, Salsomaggiore is lovely, and Lady Liberty was not a bit worse for the wear. Tomorrow they begin assembling her while the pizza makers on the team go shopping for ingredients.

And I sleep in.

April 3, 2009 (Part 2)

Venice, dark and mysterious

Matt and Petra have worked like dogs on this bread sculpture. (And what the heck does that phrase mean anyway? Outside of Alaskan dog teams and old-time dairy farms, dogs are about the laziest animals on the planet.) I’d count the hours they’ve put in so far, but it would be shameful. Everyone’s tired, but these two … don’t ask.

So far The Lady is only semi-cooperative. The detail of her dress and torch are truly something, but despite all the rich green spinach powder invested in her dough to give it a faux-patina, the high-temps of the ovens here are rendering her “skin” an olive drab. Think more Lance Corporal Liberty rather than Lady Liberty. You’re in the Army now, baby.

Ricardo took us on a tour of the state-of-the-art 5 Stagioni flour mill. Fascinating. No baloney. Count me among the slack-jawed gawkers on the tour. If you’ve never toured such a mill, do it. You’ll gripe less about your flour prices when you see what has to happen to make that precious ground grain. (Insight for anyone who’s never experienced a tornado: It sounds like the inside of a working flour mill. The roar is indescribable. I know, I’ve lived through it.)


Ricardo talks at the 5 Stagioni flour mill

Our plan was to visit Venice that evening, to see the day’s final rays of sun splash on its famed, colorful, overly photographed and sadly neglected buildings. Didn’t make it before sundown, though. The only things moving faster than the clock in the past two days are the Euros fleeing our wallets. But we made it, dark as it was, and with a power boat ride our two (all the gondola’s were docked; those slacker drivers need to take a lesson on working real hours from Matt and Petra) followed by a long stroll through Venice’s inscrutable alleyways we arrived at dinner.

We went to Harry’s Bar for legendary peach bellinis.


Legendary Harry's Bar

Legend has it Ernest Hemmingway was a regular here. Short review of the joint: Overated, overcrowded and overpriced. Each bellini cost us 12 Euros ($18), and Petra forked over 9 Euros ($13.50) for a bottled Coke. After about 20 claustrophobia-inducing minutes (maybe this place is what drove Hemmingway crazy), we set out off toward dinner—which we started around 10 p.m. (How do these Italians do it?) Ricardo ordered appetizers of delicious prosciutto, beggars’ purses of beef tartare stuffed with minced spinach and gorgonzola and crudite with mustard. WARNING: IF YOU’RE A MEMBER OF PETA, SKIP THE NEXT FEW LINES … AND, WELL SKIP ANY ENCOUNTER WITH ME WHILE YOU’RE AT IT. Entrees of horse tenderloin (amazingly tender, juicy and grassy-flavored), stewed goat (gamy baby, gamy!) and rabbit were gobbled up with glee, and washed down with superb wine.

Nearly three hours later we were back on the water taxi, then to the car and on the way home. Most reported hitting the sack at 3 a.m. I have no idea if Petra and Matt made it in that early.

April 3, 2009 (Part I)

Sleep. It does a body good.

The day starts late—thankfully—after 7 hours of needed sleep. Matt Raposelli and Petra Kralickova are already at the mill fabricating The Lady’s dress. I don’t know how long they’ve been here, and I’m afraid to ask. Petra looks tired but she’s focused: the mark of a pro. Matt’s fastidious and giving good direction to Tony, Bruno DiFabio, John Gutekanst and Bill Manzo; marks of a leader.

Last night, Nicola promised to make us a lunch of fresh tagliatelli and tomato sauce, and he’s busy sheeting out fresh pasta (if anyone wants his recipe, here it is, based on baker’s percentages: 52 percent flour, 48 percent eggs and a splash of oil). When lunch comes a few hours later, the pasta is surreal. Anyone who knows what good pasta feels like against the teeth expects al dente, but these bright yellow noodles are that, plus firm and springy. They’re so pleasurable to chew it’s hard to justify swallowing them.

The panels for the base of the statue must be shaved flat on each side before being hot-glued together. But the rotary tool brought here from America is blowing out the cheesy outlet adapters we brought along to recharge cameras, phones and laptops. Hand tools are now being used, greatly slowing the process.

John, Tony, Bruno, Matt, Petra and Bill
John Gutekanst, Tony, Bruno, Matt, Petra and Bill
discuss how to level The Lady’s pedestal

Nearly 300 years ago, when Since 5 Stagione was started, it was a water-driven mill, so it’s located near a fast-running but small river. In the basement of the mill, owner Ricardo Agugiaro shows me the ancient drive gears that turned the grinders centuries ago. Outside on the riverbank are three guys fishing, doughy, city-softened males with tattoos, working rigs of plastic water bottles, line and hooks. The trio could fit in perfectly in the infield of a NASCAR race, and we jokingly call them “imported rednecks.”

Tonight, we head into Venice for what surely will be some incredible grub, good bars and crazy sights. Good night to get loose given tomorrow will see the bread sculpture’s parts completed, loaded into the van and driven to Salso. Should be tense.

April 2

No rest for the weary

After a 9-hour flight to Venice, we grabbed our bags and headed straight for the 5 Stagioni flour mill in Padova, just outside of Venice. Here is where the team will assemble the Statue of Liberty bread sculpture, and make their pizza dough for their various contests in Salso.

Reddened eyes tell the group’s story of minimal sleep, and the jones for Italian coffee is strong. But the mood’s good, our energy is still high and the real work begins quickly … a mixture of spinach-powder-infused flour goes into a spiral mixer to be turned into the hard dough that forms the Lady’s dress. A yellow-brown turmeric-infused mixture is made to form the statue’s base.

Tony and Bruno making green dough
Bruno and Tony hard at work

Our hosts at the mill are whipping up several types of pizza for our lunch, including pies made from 5 Stagioni’s gluten-free mixture. The pizzaioli among us who’ve tried to make their own gluten-free doughs are amazed at its taste and texture: amazingly close to the real thing. (Not to American pizza makers: this stuff is now available in America. You’ve got to try it.)

Dinner takes us to Pizzeria Brian, about 2 hours away from Padova. The place is owned by Graziano Bertuzzo, a multi-time world champion—including the past two years at Pizza Expo—who tells us we’re in for a surprise. His oven is crazy: a rotating stone deck headed by wood fire. The result is ethereal pizza, crisp and chewy with an earthy aroma (Tony G. says the dough is probably five days old). Three rectangular pies are served on an 8-foot long wooden board. Some are topped with fresh mozz and brie, others with smoked mozz, some with caramelized onions, others with superb prosciutto, arugula, cherry tomatoes. At 11 p.m., we finish with a tiramisu dessert pizza, sweet sparkling wine. We were beat, but blissfully full, as we head out for a long drive home.

April 1, 2009

Getting there is only half the torture

This is my tenth trip to the World Pizza Championships in Salsomaggiore, and speaking for myself, it never gets old. I love the competition, thrive on the stress that comes with it, and I have a blast with our team and the people we meet there.

But whoever said "Getting there is half the fun" about traveling must have been crazy. Trans-oceanic flights are hard … cramming into coach class seats for an eight-hour leg from New York (tough on the back) … convincing foreign customs agents to let the pizza ingredients you brought enter into their country … hoping all your luggage makes it … is no fun at all.

The kitchen staff at the hotel where we stayed the past few years also allowed us to use their space to do some of our prep. But since we're in a different hotel, we have no idea if we'll get the same reception. We'll be scrambling if they don't.

This year we're only adding to the joy of the journey by constructing a six-foot-tall bread sculpture of the Statue of Liberty at 5 Stagioni Flour Mill in Venice, and then transporting it by van to Salso for assembly there. The drive could be nerve-wracking.

So here we go: a few of us from the West Coast, some from the East Coast, a scattering from the Midwest and a bunch of others from a few foreign countries, all headed to the most important contest of the year. Here's hoping we all arrive in one piece!

One note: Freelance food, restaurant and travel writer Steve Coomes will be chronicling the WPC's travels through Italy with words and photos. See his daily reports on our progress here on our blog, along with comments from the team.

Ciao,

Tony Gemignani

March 31, 2009

Time to go for the gold!

Over the course of the next few days, 20 members of the World Pizza Champions team will each leave their corner of the globe and travel to Salsomaggiore, Italy, to the premier contest on the planet, the World Pizza Championships. Our group will battle almost 400 other competitors from 20 different nations to grab one or more titles for pizza making, dough acrobatics, bread sculpture and first courses. To say that we're fired up about what lies ahead of us would be a huge understatement.

This will be an intense five days marked by hours of preparation punctuated by short, tense moments in front of some of the strictest judges anywhere. This is fun, but it's not easy at all.

Thankfully, we've got an incredibly talented team made up of several past champions, experienced pizza makers and bread experts. Our ages range from 20 to 60, and our personalities are equally diverse, but I have no doubt we've got a great shot at bringing home gold medals in more than one category. If I sound confident, that's because I believe these guys are that good.

So visit this blog daily for news and photos about our progress. It'll make you wish you were here with us!

Ciao,

Tony Gemignani

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