LAS VEGAS — At the International Pizza Expo, Paul Cataldo was talking about pizza the way athletes talk about their sport.
For Cataldo, the owner of Antonio’s Italian Ristorante in Elkhart, pizza making has become sport. It’s still craft and business, but for almost 15 years, Cataldo has traveled to competitions in Ohio, Texas and Vegas, as well as Italy. He’s part of the World Pizza Champions, a team of pizza makers from around the United States, and is making plans to compete in Italy in May.
In Las Vegas, Cataldo competed in the pan competition of the International Pizza Challenge. He was one of 30 competitors presenting pizzas to judges March 29-30. He said he’d be happy with a top-10 finish, but when the scores were tallied, he finished fifth, 4.25 points behind the winning score of 70.55 by Giuseppe Manco of New York City.
Cataldo presented a gorgeous “Agro Dolce” Sicilian pizza to the judges. He made the dough for the crust soon after arriving in Las Vegas and friends Dave and Syd Troyer got him to a Whole Foods to get tomatoes and dried cranberries for the sweet and sour pizza.
The pizza is occasionally available at Cataldo’s restaurant at 1105 Goshen Ave., Elkhart. It starts with a long-rise crust, even up to 72 hours to develop flavors. After the crust is baked in a square pan, it’s topped with grape tomatoes, small pepperoni and spicy Calabrese sausage, pickled peppers called Sweetie Drops, sweet basil and honey. It has mozzarella and Parmigiano Reggiano cheeses as well.
The creation of the pizza started with using a different form of the top-selling ingredient at Antonio’s: pepperoni. He added honey. Right before traveling, he decided to use dried cranberries because of how popular they are in the Kruser salad on his menu. When he got to Vegas, he decided to add chile oil.
“Everyone thinks their pizza is the best. Otherwise they wouldn’t compete,” he said. “You want to compete to see how good you really are.”
Some in the competition make pizzas for judges to taste. Others stretch dough and compete on time or size. There are competitions for acrobatic dough-twirling and box folding.
Everyone in the contests travels from their restaurant where they feed and serve customers, where they’re competing with others in a geographic area for business. There’s little exchange of information. At competitions, Cataldo gets feedback from judges. But more than that, he gets feedback from others in the business and benefits from their ideas. He’s part of the World Pizza Champions, one of two U.S. “teams” that go to competitions. The World Pizza Champions and U.S. Pizza Team are more collectives of people trying to get better than fierce competitors.
“I learn so much talking to people in my industry who are also dealing with the same things, only in a different state or different country,” he said. “It’s a constant ongoing education and you want to make your product better.”
Like restaurant chains, Cataldo works to reinvent his menu and try new things while staying rooted in his Italian tradition. He won’t make a chicken bacon ranch pizza, so he explores all the aspects within a spectrum based on tradition. He doesn’t make Neapolitan pizza and doesn’t know if he can logistically add it to his restaurant, but he also can’t yet let go of trying to make Neapolitan pizza, made in a wood-fired or high-heat gas oven. The margherita pizza in southern Italy birthed the other forms of pizza and Cataldo is intrigued by whether he could also offer that alongside his other forms at his restaurant.
Teammate Tony Gemignani of San Francisco is the most decorated pizza competitor in the world. But he’s also a fan and friend of Cataldo. “Paul’s just a good all-around guy. Paul’s it in it for all the right reasons,” he said. “He’s always trying to improve and wants to do better and better.”
As Cataldo prepares for Italy, he’s talking with teammates and asking what he could have done better in Las Vegas. He’ll make the Agro Dolce again, but also present a meter-long Roman pizza with pears, cheese, pistachios, gorgonzola, parmigiano, arugula in a balsamic reduction and prosciutto. Since the competition is in Parma, Italy, pizzas using local ingredients get extra points, he said. He’s also planning a pizza for the classic category that has simply spicy sausage, anchovies, red sauce and parmigiano.
Cataldo has put his pizza into more than 20 competitions. “It keeps you motivated,” he said.
This will be the fifth or sixth time he’s competed in Italy, the country that birthed his mother and father. He’ll go practice his craft and learn what the judges at the World Pizza Championship say. His daughter, Carmela, will be along, learning and helping. Because part of the Cataldo tradition since starting Antonio’s more than 30 years ago is doing it with family.
I’m hungry. Let’s eat.