The World Pizza Games are the closest thing pizza has to an Olympics. Qualifying stages bring heartbreak and exhilaration to competitors with floury dreams. This year, Pagliacci began its quest to place one of its own on the podium in fastest dough stretch. The goal is to toss five pizza crusts from 12-ounce dough balls to cover five 12-inch pizza screens. Best time wins.
The American finals take place in Las Vegas at the annual Pizza Expo. This year's winner, Mitch Rotolo, 27, completed the task in 23.4 seconds, setting a new world record. He advanced to the finals in Parma, Italy. After his record-setting performance, Matthew Sigur of The Advocate interviewed him. “For the past three years, I’ve placed in the competition. Finally, I just got tired of losing. I started working out, doing mostly cardio and getting some more finger strength. For about a week before the event, I slapped out 500 dough balls just to get my hands ready. I was determined.”
Pagliacci altered its annual best cook competition to compete on the world stage in 2017. In previous years, contestants had to toss a large pie, sauce it, cheese it, cook it, then baste and cut it. Field Manager Jeff Maneval oversees the event and calls it The Hunger Games. “We took the time it took to get the pie into the oven and added time for mistakes, such as every ¼ inch over or under the spec. We looked at pie color, crust definition, roundness, sauce distribution. A typical event would last 2 hours. This year’s event was much easier to manage,” Jeff said.
Each of Pagliacci’s stores nominated one contestant. The first three rounds, taking place over the first two weeks of April, reduced the field from 21 to 5. Finals were held at the Magnolia store on April 16th at 2 p.m. As the hour of competition neared, a large crowd stood in a semi-circle around a five-foot steel table covered with flour and five 12-inch pizza pans. Jeff Maneval placed five dough balls on the edge of the table. The first contestant took a wide-footed stance. Go! Fluttering hands worked the dough into a floured disc before tossing it into the air, flour streaming from its edge. Soon all five pans appeared to be covered. But Jeff leaned in and pointed out a pan edge that showed, a small dough hole in another. “Done,” he finally said after repairs were made. 58 seconds had elapsed. Each new contestant brought a different flare and varying strategies. Some stacked dough balls, flattening two at a time. The final competitor, James Armstrong, of the Edmonds store, had to beat a leading time of 41.45 seconds. He nailed it in 38 seconds flat, taking the honor, which this year meant a cash prize and choice Sounders tickets. Next year, if he can repeat, he will head to Vegas for a chance to win the national competition and head to Italy.
John Clifford, Director of Operations, and Jeff Woodruff, VP of Operations, watch the contestants.
Chris Hewson manages the Edmonds store. Of James’ victory, he said, “James has worked at Pagliacci less than a year, which makes his win all the more impressive. He is constantly looking for ways to streamline our daily tasks. He is always open to new techniques and offers suggestions when he has an idea to keep the store cleaner or to get pizzas in the oven faster. He asks lots of questions to broaden not only his knowledge of the job but also to understand why we do things the way we do. Seeing him cut out his own cardboard practice screens and asking me to order extra dough so he could do a few practice runs was very motivating. Impressed by his efforts, the Edmonds crew rallied around him. His likable personality and work ethic made his victory all the sweeter.”
John Clifford, Pagliacci’s Director of Operations, who oversaw the competition for six years before Jeff took over said, “I think the Hunger Games competition create a lot of fun for several employees and a chance to showcase their skills. Many of our stores will have mini-competitions to decide who participates. Jeff has done a great job at creating more incentive for friends, co-workers, and family to come cheer for the contestants.”
At 38 seconds James has a ways to go before challenging Mitch Rotolo’s world record time of 23.4 seconds. But he has a year to train; time for plenty of cardio and finger strength exercises. And strange things can happen on the big stage. This year, in Parma, Ludovic Bicchierai, a Frenchman won the overall competition. It was only the third time ever it hasn’t been won by an Italian (Italians did take 2nd and 3rd).
The Telegraph reported that the Italians took it in stride. “Even though pizza is an Italian icon, it's always a pleasure for us to see foreigners walk away with the prize from time to time,” event spokesperson Patrizio Carrer told The Local.
Bicchierai took home a pizza gong and 1,000 kilograms of free flour. How one checks that on the return flight is a mystery we hope James can answer in a year’s time.
This year’s Hunger Games winners:
1. James Armstrong, Edmonds (started May 2015, pictured center)
2. Alexander “Xander” Stapnes, Sand Point (started August 2014, pictured left)
3. Michael Thornton, Queen Anne (started November 2011, pictured right)