Friday, September 15, 2017

Recap: Pizza Palooza - National Harbor, MD

The problem with the typical "Pizza Fest" type of event is that no matter how much talent the participating pizzamakers possess, their best pies suffer in cardboard boxes when transported en masse from the pizzeria to the pizza event location.

I had a great time at the South Philly Pizza Olympics in 2012, but the pies were less than ideal because of the minutes and hours spent sweating in cardboard, losing not only the oven heat but the crisp texture that makes an ideal crust. The easy winner of that event was Nomad Pizza, largely because they were the only ones baking pies on site (from the wood-fired Neapolitan oven on a mobile pizza truck).

I was excited to attend the "Pizza Palooza" event at the MGM Hotel/Casino in National Harbor MD (on the banks above the Potomac, minutes outside of Washington DC), mostly because of the celebrity pizzaioli in the lineup. Tickets, with taxes and fees, came to about $115 for this all you can eat, all you can drink event.
View of Potomac from MGM rooftop deck
What made it irresistible - even at that price - was the pizza royalty there. I finally got to meet Scott Wiener of Scott's Pizza Tours, where he was doing a lot of the work helping John Arena craft the Sicilian pies by Metro Pizza. For the record, he's a wonderful guy with genuine passion for pizza.
John Arena, Scott Wiener, Pizza Quixote
Other pie makers (not a complete list) :

  • Giulio Andriani - The Local Pizzaiolo (Atlanta)
  • Vincent Rotolo - Evel Pie (Las Vegas)
  • Paulie Gee - Paulie G's (several locations)
  • Nino Coniglio - Willliamsburg Pizza
  • Robert Caporuscio - Keste Pizza, Don Antonio (NYC)
  • Joseph Englese - MGM Hotel (National Harbor MD)
  • John Arena - Metro Pizza (Las Vegas)
  • Gino Rago - Panino's Pizza (Chicago)

Some of the Palooza chefs and celebs
What made this event special? As noted, the abundance of genuine world-class pizzaioli. It was a lovely sunny day for this event on a huge rooftop deck overlooking the Potomac. The best surprise, though, was that one of the sponsors was pizza oven maker Marra Forni, and every chef had a huge mobile Neapolitan pizza oven. No lukewarm pizza in boxes!
John Arena of Metro Pizza at his Marra Forni oven
The organizers claimed that 250 pies were coming out each hour during this 5 hour event; Panino's reported that they served 600 slices of their Chicago deep dish pizza, and everything was hot out of the oven.

I imagine that the pie makers had to adjust to the ovens, though. While indeed some were offering the kind of Neapolitan pies that cook in 90 seconds and for which these ovens were designed, there were also some New York style pies, a thick Sicilian, a Chicago deep-dish, and a gluten-free Detroit pie.
John Arena, Michael LaMarca (PMQ Magazine), Scott Wiener
We stayed for almost 4 hours, sipping a variety of the craft beers on tap, and we tried every single pizza offered (as well as the porchetta and desserts). There was no bad pizza, no ordinary pizza. Baked fresh on site by some of the world's best, the pies ranged from very good to great to stunning.
Giulio Adriani (formerly of Forcella)
I've become a little jaded to Neapolitan pies, with a preference for the crisper and sturdier pies baked in the New York style, or even the more substantial thick Sicilian and Detroit pan pizzas. But this event renewed my interest in Neapolitans. 
Lenny Rago, Panino's Pizza
Standout Neapolitans included the Montanara-style by Giulio Andriani, who came to fame with the "fried dough" Neapolitans at Forcella in New York. He's about to open new Neapolitan shops in some Atlanta locations. The pies he made here at Palooza sported that same wonderful crisp edges I remember from my visit to Forcella.
Paulie Gee
Paulie G's Neapolitans have been on my radar for a long time, and I finally got to sample the pie and meet Paulie Gee himself! Based on his activity at Palooza, his active Facebook page, and his five Paulie G's locations, I assume he never sleeps. 
Paulie G's "Barry White"
We tried the Barry White, with mozzarella, garlic infused olive oil, shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, and Aleppo chili oil. Spectacular. And I had 2 slices of his signature pie, the Hellboy, featuring fresh mozzarella, Italian tomatoes, Berkshire soppressata, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and Mike’s Hot Honey. It lived up to its lofty reputation. I could eat this stuff every day.
Paulie G's Hellboy
Another NYC pizzeria on my bucket list has been Keste. I still haven't been there, but I did discover Scuola Vecchia, a wonderful Neapolitan pizzeria in Delray Beach, FL. My two dining partners there both proclaimed "best pizza I've ever had" and I certainly agreed that it was my favorite Neapolitan. 
Giulio Adriani and Robert Caporuscio
I later learned that the pie makers there had been trained by Robert Caporuscio, of Keste. More recently, I had the excellent Neapolitan pie at Don Antonio in Manhattan, another Caporuscio project. So it was no surprise that the Neapolitans made on site here were exemplary, and meeting Robert was icing on the cake.
Panino's Chicago style deep dish
On a recent trip to Chicago, I tried several of the different thick pan styles, and learned that most take about 45 minutes to cook. That had to be a significant hurdle for the one Chicago participant here, so I imagine the Lenny Rago of Panino's Pizza had to employ some shortcuts with partially cooked crusts or pies. Either way, he was churning out some pretty excellent representations of that style.
Vincent Rotolo, Evel Pie
The most stunning pizza of the day - and my runner-up favorite - was the gluten-free Detroit-style pan pizza crafted by Vincent Rotolo of Evel Pie. I had low expectations, because gluten is such a valuable factor in achieving the ideal pizza crust texture. But this pizza was not "almost real pizza" or even "pretty good for gluten-free." 
Evel Pie's gluten-free Detroit style pizza
It was spectacular pie, one of the best I've eaten all year. Crisp, dense yet chewy, and topped with the perfect balance of sauce and cheese. We were stuffing our bellies in trying all the beers and pizzas, yet I came back for another slice of this remarkable pie. And even on this warm and busy day of crafting pies, Vincent talked with me for a long time about his method and his passion for creating this pie. I was nearly speechless. If you are in Las Vegas, you have to try this pizza.
Simple canned Italian tomatoes
My favorite pizza of the day was also a thick pie baked in a pan by a Las Vegas pizzaiolo, the Sicilian pie made by John Arena and his all-star helper, Scott Wiener. John had par-baked his large rectangular crusts as a way to turn out a high volume of pies in the Neapolitan oven for this event. 
Scott applies the sauce
Scott was the assembly man and John was the baker, and the results were astonishing. The crust was magical - crisp, thick yet airy, bursting with flavor. The cheese was good, the sauce was hard to believe. John freely shared that he uses some caramelized onions and one anchovy per huge can of simple tomatoes for this piquant sauce.

This Sicilian style pie from Metro pizza stands right up there with the other jaw-dropping thick pan pies I've had recently: Detroit pizza from Norma's Pizza; sesame-crusted rectangles from Rize; Detroit pizza at Via 313; Old Forge style at Elio G's; and the elusive Detroit/Old Forge hybrid from James Oley at Binge House Pizza.
Gino Rago, Panino's Pizza
Great weather, cold craft beer on tap, rooftop deck, meet and greet with world class pizzaioli, and more than a dozen authentic pizzas and styles being baked hot and fresh on site. If you see a Pizza Palooza in your town, it's a good investment of time and money.

Forcella Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Paulie Gee's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Kesté Pizza & Vino Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Panino's Pizzeria Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Evel Pie Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Metro Pizza Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
Voltaggio Brothers Steakhouse Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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