Caliente Pizza regional chef Eric Von Hansen slides a decadently decorated silver tray of pizza slathered in thin slices of pork and brandy jam onto a gleaming wooden table inside the Aspinwall location of the chain.
“They haven’t tried it yet,” smiles Von Hansen, watching Caliente district manager Jay Falk and Bloomfield store general manager Nick Fink help themselves to a slice. “I keep my things until the last possible hour.”
And that’s it, the last minute. Time is running out until Von Hansen, Falk, Fink and several other Caliente employees board a plane bound for Las Vegas and the 38th International Pizza Expo, scheduled for March 22-24. .
“It’s the Olympics. You have everyone, from all over the world. It’s the best,” said Von Hansen, who is now in his sixth expo. “When it’s time to go, you gotta go. You’re up, you’re ready. It’s like ‘Chopped.'”
The atmosphere is indescribable: pizza makers dancing around a kitchen stage, sweating to beat the 30 minutes on the clock as their team shouts and contestants look on expectantly until the buzzer sounds.
“We’re here to support each other,” Von Hansen said.
He and his chefs will be cheering on Mt. Lebanon store general manager Max Mathious when he takes the stage at the world’s biggest dough stretching competition. Mathious is also aiming for speed in this year’s fastest stretching competition.
He and his bar manager, Kaylee Nagy, will enter into friendly competition when they face off in the box-folding contest, where contestants race to fold five boxes in the shortest amount of time.
Von Hansen, whose Mee-Maw pie was named America’s Best Pizza at the 2019 World Pizza Championship, competes in the non-traditional pizza category, while Falk dabbles in the casserole category and Fink prepares a traditional pie.
The non-traditional pizza category is limitless: if you can dream it, you can bake it.
The pan division is a smaller competition, where pizza makers prepare and present their deep-dish pies to a panel of judges. Like an artist dreaming up and revising a great work in his mind, Falk spent nearly a year perfecting his Detroit-style pizza for this year’s contest.
“(Jay) flew in at 9 a.m., ‘I came with my pizza!'” said Von Hansen, who said his chefs keep notepads on them at all times in case the pizza inspiration would arise.
“I probably talked to (Von Hansen) about this pizza about a year ago,” Fink said, adding that he baked the pie five times but went through almost 100 iterations of creation. in his head since its creation.
Falk’s pizza is a tasty and balanced mix of cheeses and meats on a moist crust that is perfectly crispy around the edges. He placed eighth last year and hopes to top 2021 performances and win gold.
Fink will fight to create the most delicious pizza within the confines of the traditional pizza category. He won the category in 2017 (one of the youngest contestants ever to win) with a three sausage and 10 pepper pizza he updated for this year’s competition.
The pizza makers said that no matter how many times they compete, going on stage at the expo brings a whole new set of nerves. But getting to Vegas is almost as nerve-wracking as stepping on stage in front of the best and brightest in pizza.
“One year was funny: we all wrote, ‘That’s not cocaine, that’s flour’ on those big bags of flour,” Von Hansen said, noting that ingredients were thrown away by TSA agents. “We bring our own yeast. Sugar and salt for the dough, we can go anywhere.”
For the first two years, Von Hansen and the staff made their dough in the hotel sink. Since then, Caliente has bonded with the Vegas restaurant scene, and the team arrives early at the show to shop for ingredients and make dough in Tony Gemignani’s kitchen.
Winning isn’t everything, but it has its perks. When Von Hansen’s pizza won America’s Best, Caliente sold a record number of pies that month.
“We sold the city of Pittsburgh and surrounding areas from Parmigiano Reggiano. I had to go to Ohio to get Parmigiano Reggiano from a supplier,” Von Hansen said with a laugh. “We haven’t had Parmigiano Reggiano in Pennsylvania for three weeks.”
While the glory of winning at the pizza expo is good for pizza maker business and confidence, pizza isn’t the only entertainment in Vegas.
Caliente staff will also be present at the exhibition. Alongside Von Hansen and other chefs, local channel creator Nick Bogacz will instill in crowds his knowledge of operating on a shoestring budget.
“Caliente is so well known, now that we take on more people. We won,” said Von Hansen. “Every year I think we raise our game.”
The restaurant hopes to level up with wins across the board. The staff also plan to bring new acquaintances home – Caliente makes their own dough and Von Hansen aims to start filling pies with homemade cheese.
“You have to think outside of the pizza box,” he said. “What has been done and how can you improve it? »
Winner or not, Caliente heads to Vegas with a strong hand of talented employees and original recipes. This expo is a chance to hone skills and have a little fun with the international pizza community.
“All three pizzas are phenomenal in my eyes, and I think the flavor profiles are off the chain,” Von Hansen said. “We love what we do. We’ve been waiting for this all year.”