8:30am is pretty early to get people to show up for anything in Las Vegas but Chris Bianco had no problem attracting a crowd for his Pizza Expo Keynote speech on Tuesday, March 5. “I learned things by burning things,” he explained, “I never invented a damn thing in my life.” Listen to Bianco talk long enough and these are the kinds of quotable moments that stick with you, especially if you’re one of the many pizzeria operators in attendance at the International Pizza Expo, an annual event since 1985 that also attracts pizzeria suppliers and enthusiasts.
Often cited as one of the best pizzerias in America, Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, Arizona is the kind of place that inspires people to abandon their careers and do something crazy, like open a pizzeria. One of the only pizza-makers to win a James Beard award, Bianco was humble about the accolades he’s earned, saying, “That word best is very fleeting,” and, “What I do in my life is definitely subjective.”
So, how do you get to be (subjectively) the best? The Exhibit Hall offered plenty of potential solutions, with over 500 booths showcasing ovens, ingredients, POS systems, and product demos. Last year, Detroit style pizza was the next big thing and it still had a prominent presence. This year, Roman style pizza, naturally leavened dough, and gluten-free customers were common topics. Clearly, pizza-makers have a lot of decisions to make and attending demos and discussion panels could provide help narrowing down their choices to focus on what’s the most important to their specific needs.
While there was a lot of talk about technique and recipes, there was also an emphasis on the human component of running a pizzeria. Last year’s winner of the Pizza Today “Young Entrepreneur of the Year” award, Sammy Mandell of Greenville Avenue Pizza Company in Dallas talked about how running a pizzeria can quickly become about managing people problems. Vincent Rotolo of Good Pie in Las Vegas gave a presentation on “Building Lifetime Loyalty with the Gluten Free Consumer,” explaining the mind-set of this growing demographic and how to create a positive experience for them in your pizzeria.
In a panel titled, “Tinkering with Your Crust,” Chef and Baking Instructor Peter Reinhart led a discussion with Brian Spangler of Apizza Scholls in Portland and John Arena of Metro Pizza in Las Vegas that focused on sharing formulas and methods to build a community of pizza-makers that could learn from and inspire each other. There was also an emphasis on the idea that there is not a single solution to most of the questions—it’s up to you to decide what kind of pizza you want to make and what works best for your vision. While it may be disappointing to hear that it’s not as simple as learning a secret recipe, it’s equally empowering to understand that you bring something unique to the food that you make. “Something you made with your hands is going to be part of somebody’s body,” said Arena, holding up his hands, “This is our job security.”
The willingness to share took on a physical form during a “Working with Sourdough” demo from Scottie Rivera of Scottie’s Pizza Parlor in Portland. After explaining how to create, feed, and use a sourdough starter, Rivera gave away small containers of his starter for attendees to take home and experiment with on their own.
With all of these options, what’s a pizzeria operator to do? In Bianco’s Keynote he theorized, “The secret is, you know, that we wake up with the dedication and a commitment to do something excellent.”
During the audience Q&A, Scott Wiener of Scott’s Pizza Tours asked Bianco what inspired his pizza. Bianco spoke about his love of many styles of pizza as well as other foods that influenced him to create his own hybrid. This bridged nicely into the next audience question which was about what authenticity meant to him. Bianco answered, “Being authentic is being authentic to yourself first. Always.”
For more photos from the 2019 International Pizza Expo, visit the U.S. Pizza Museum on Instagram @uspizzamuseum.