Pizza Expo, 8,000 Pizza-Freaks and Me!
I just got back from what I think is, like, the 32nd annual International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas (or is it 23 — anyone know?). There may have been either 22 or 31 of these before but this was my first, and you know what they say about the first time….yes, it was memorable!
Pete LaChapelle, the publisher of Pizza Today Magazine, and the organizer of this event, told me that this year was the largest turnout yet, with over 8,000 pizza-lovers (or as we here affectionately call them, pizza-freaks) registered to attend. Judging by the attendance at many of the special featured events, it seemed liked even more than that. Shortly after I arrived, I moderated a panel on dough fermentation (“Is 24 Hours Enough?”) with Tom Lehman (aka, “The Dough Doctor,” as everyone who reads pizza trade journals knows — he’s the only columnist that I know who gets to publish regular columns in both of the major — and competing — magazines, so you know he knows his stuff), and General Mills’s own dough expert, Bill Weekley, famous for his “Pizza Boot Camps” (in collaboration with General Mills other dough expert Tim Huff). In other words, I was in great company and my job was to just keep us on schedule because we had to be finished before Tony Gemignani, the Expo’s featured megastar (and long-time friend of Pizza Quest), needed the room for his presentation on pizza cheeses. I was told to expect up to 200 people for our panel but the conference room had 600 seats, which seemed a little intimidating as I braced for the disappointment of speaking to a nearly empty room. But Bill, Tom, and I were all pleasantly surprised to see nearly every seat filled by the time we were 5 minutes into our designated hour, which included a great power point crash-course presentation on fermentation, prepared by Bill, and a, “Here’s what you need to know,” mini-seminar by Tom. So many people lined up to ask questions of the panel that we ran five minutes over, which got a little nerve wracking as Tony’s even larger audience was gathering and they had cheese, not dough, on their collective mind. Well, we wrapped it up, Tony gave me a big hug, and the room filled up all over again, with some of our audience staying to join a whole lot of new faces. And this was all on the day before the Expo floor officially opened to the public!
Once the full Expo opened the following day it was like a big city inside the Las Vegas Convention Center, with hundreds of booths, tastings, simultaneous demo’s, and educational seminars and presentations — a true three-ring circus! Pizza Quest columnist, and one of America’s greatest pizzaiolos, John Arena, arranged for the two of us to present a demo class called, “Why Are You Still Buying Bread?” John did most of the work, while I did most of the talking, in that he made all the dough and shaped and baked in advance all the bread and focaccia at his Metro pizzeria, and even brought hoagie filling to fill all the torpedo loaves he made (plus the ones we baked during the demo), all from a formula that I developed that is designed to be user-friendly for any pizzeria operator, using ingredients and tools already on hand. Bottom line: why buy bread when you can easily make fresh, house-baked bread and use it in both your marketing and in offering a superior product? (If you want this recipe, write to me at email@example.com and I’ll e-mail it to you). We had about 200 in the audience while, all around us, the Expo was teeming with other sessions and folks gathering information, making deals for tomatoes, cheeses, meats, equipment, you name it. It was fantasy camp for pizza-freaks!!!
The rest of the time I was on cruise control, hanging at the Forno Bravo booth where pizza champion Leo Spizzarri put on 5 delightful wood-fire oven demonstrations. I also filmed interviews for Pizza Quest, made new contacts, met the legendary Paulie Gee (who agreed to do an interview with me for PQ, so be on the look-out for that), and I even had a chance to join Ajith Dharmawardha, Albert Grande (creator and host of the fabulous PizzaTherapy.com website), and his brother Tom Grande, at The Bellaggio Hotel’s Fix Restaurant, where we stayed up late sharing our stories.
The following night, John Arena hosted a private party at one of his six Metro Pizzerias, where he and his friends baked all sorts of pizzas in a Fire Within Mobile Wood-Fired Oven for about 40 of us. As Frankie Valle and The Four Seasons put it, “Oh what night!!”
Of course, lots more happened but I guess it will have all stay in Vegas. Next time, get yourself a ticket and join us there….
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Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.
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