Mark Todd pulls a series of six pizzas out of an oven, passing them one at a time under the noses of a gathering throng. He notes the unexpected odour a different cheese brings to each: the floral bouquet of lavender-scented jack on one, the mild funk of blue cheese off another.
Todd makes a particular show of the last, which he says is coated with 90 per cent standard mozzarella and the remainder a pungent “Schloss” from Marin French Cheese, the San Francisco-area cheese factory that is America’s oldest. “You’d never eat it on its own because it smells like dirty feet,” says Todd. “None of these are [traditional] pizza cheeses.”
A chef and “cheese educator”, Todd consults for the California Milk Advisory Board, one of more than 1,000 exhibitors at the International Pizza Expo. This annual trade fair packs the Las Vegas Convention Center with vendors of oven peels, pepperoni and industrial mixers, along with competitors in the World Pizza Games (events include dough tossing and stretching).
This year’s expo took place during a moment of unusual fluidity in an industry that has often plodded along, safe in its status as America’s most reliably affordable casual meal (the price of a New York slice has historically tracked the subway fare, now $2.25/€1.60). As independent restaurants continue their battle with large chains such as Pizza Hut and Domino’s where $9.99 buys a large pizza with one topping, gourmet pizzerias – especially those specialising in Neapolitan-style dough – are now among the most highly rated restaurants in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“The Neapolitan pizzeria market has grown 100 per cent in the last five or six years,” says Mario Vellotti of Caffe Vita, a Seattle mini-empire that started selling coffee but went on to open the Via Tribunali pizza chain and now markets Naples-made ovens, basic pizza ingredients and toppings. “A little bit has to do with the economy because pizza is not such an expensive meal.”
The goal of many exhibitors in Las Vegas is to slowly change this perception. The big challenge for vendors is getting price-sensitive restaurant operators to invest in quality ingredients, even though their most loyal customers – students, sport fans at a game or catering parents – aren’t really picky.
“A lot of pizza restaurants don’t seem to be that concerned with the quality of the spice,” says James Siefker, president of Orlando’s Pizza Spice Bags, which assembles custom-made blends of freshly ground spices. “But it’s such a minimal amount of cost.”
Many independent operators have given up trying to compete with the heavily discounted chains on price. Hoping to at least match them on convenience, though, the National Association of Pizzeria Operators has partnered with a Montréal software firm to develop a mobile app to relay customer orders to a local store’s handheld device. (Domino’s reportedly took in one third of its delivery orders digitally last year.)
“The $10 pizza pisses me off beyond belief,” says Sean Brauser, whose Ohio-based Romeo’s chain has expanded to 31 locations in the last decade. “If a town is just being served by the chain pizza shops without an independent stronghold, I think we can come in.”
Things are looking up in the world of the gourmet pizza. This year’s expo drew a robust showing of Italian pizza elites: owners of flour mills boasting of their fine grinds and oven makers showing off Vesuvian stone. “They see the market booming in the US and everyone wants to do it,” says Dino Santonicola, a native Neapolitan who has lived in the US for a decade and is opening a pizzeria in suburban Washington DC.
“In Italy it’s not so important,” says Alex Manzo, vice-president of Miami’s Manzo Food Sales, which handles both Ferrara and San Felice. “In the US, they want authenticity.” Not everyone believes pizza authenticity has to come via Italy, though. “The restaurants are sold on the idea that they need to be Italian authentic – it’s their marketing scheme,” says Nicky Giusto of Central Milling, a 140-year-old northern Utah water-powered flour mill that has begun expanding beyond baked goods to selling flour to pizzerias.
Behind Giusto, a baker starts to work another mound of dough, a coarse wheat mix topped with local vegetables including dandelion greens and rutabaga. “My answer to the whole Neapolitan thing is: go to Naples,” he says. “We’re in America, man!”
Pizza is finding an eager market in India. Already, international chain Pizza Hut has a solid presence, with around 150 outlets in 39 cities, while Domino’s has the home delivery market cornered, with 364 outlets in more than 70 locations. US firm Papa John’s is a local favourite, while New York’s Famous Famiglia and the Pizza Buffet chain are looking to get a foothold in the country. Domestic offerings include Slice of Italy and Pizza Corner.
Global chains such as Pizza Hut and Papa John’s are taking off in China. Pizza Hut was the first to enter the market in 1990 and it’s now the leader with more than 500 restaurants. Pizza Marzano, the international brand of the UK’s Pizza Express, offers a gong bao chicken pizza and a Peking duck pizza. Extra hoisin sauce is available upon request.