I’m not into writing restaurant reviews, but when pizzerias sign up for culinary competitions I am more than willing to be on the eating end of their slices. I’m proud to have judged at several national and international competitions over the last few years but last month I tackled my most challenging competition yet. The International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas splits its culinary competition into two divisions: Traditional (basic crust, cheese blend, tomato sauce, two toppings) and Non-Traditional (no holds barred). Each round of judging consists of twelve different entries. I was enlisted for two rounds for each division, totaling 48 different slices.
But how does one accurately judge a pizza competition?
#1 Bring Palate Cleansers
A few years ago, I brought a small container of coffee beans to a competition. I thought I could clear my senses by taking a whiff between slices but it didn’t do quite the job I had hoped it would. This time around, I showed up with two simple tools: a lemon and a bottle of Pellegrino. Lemon rind is a great palate cleanser. Just pick off a small piece and chew on it between slices. You need a beverage to help keep opposing slice flavors from converging and Pellegrino is perfect because of its bright carbonation, which wakens the palate without coating it in new flavors. A squirt of juice from your lemon will also help the Pellegrino preserve your taste buds for their important duties.
#2 Take Photos
Documentation is extremely important because it’s really hard to maintain context over the course of one round in the competition. After completing a round, we always flipped through the visuals to make sure our grading held up from slice #1 to slice #12.
#3 Don’t Eat Too Much
My mantra is “A bite of the tip, a bite of the lip.” This lets you experience all aspects of the pizza’s landscape without having to wade through several identical mouthfuls. It’s easy to overeat at the beginning of a round, but resistance is necessary for the good of the competition. Yes, lots of good pizza will end up in the garbage but that’s the harsh reality of pizza competitions.
#4 Free Your Mind
Just because you don’t like Sicilian pizza, it doesn’t mean you get to disqualify all square entries. Ask yourself, “Did this pizza achieve the pizzaiolo’s goal?” Even if the slice is far from what you’d consider ordering, enjoy it for what it is within the context of the competition.
#5 Go With Your Heart
It’s easy get get overly analytical when sitting at the judge’s table with nothing but a grading sheet, a pencil and a slice of pizza. But don’t forget that at the end of the day, pizza is about having fun and enjoying yourself. Take a step back from the slice and remember that there’s a lot about pizza that cannot be scored on a scale of 1 to 10. You can take non-scored elements into consideration at the end of the judging round by making sure your true feelings about a slice are reflected in its overall score.