In the world of food and beverage competitions, medals matter.
“I think everybody wants to know how their pizzas would do against other people’s pizzas,” said Paul Cataldo, owner of Antonio’s Italian Restaurant in Elkhart.
Many may wonder, but few actually go to the trouble of entering competitions. Cataldo has, and it’s made a difference in what customers can get from the restaurant.
At Crooked Ewe Brewery, a bronze medal on May 6 in the World Beer Cup has already resulted in a run on the winning beer, Glasgow Butcher Scotch Ale. The long-term effects aren’t yet apparent, but a win in the only worldwide beer competition can’t hurt for the 10-month-old brewpub in South Bend.
There are reader contests, which are essentially popularity contests. They matter, but chefs, restaurant owners and brewers put stock in what a judge says in a competition, even if that judge is just a stranger with a certification.
I’ve heard Cataldo mutter about losing to entries that are a mash-up of a pizza and a sandwich such as a BLT or Philly cheesesteak. But I’ve also seen his pizza change because of what he’s learned at these competitions.
In Italy in 2007, I watched Cataldo and his brother Bruno ruin a blender making sauce in their Italian hotel room before a competition the next day. That night and the next day, we saw dough twirling, pizza baking and sculptures made out of pizza dough. I never looked at pizza the same.
Paul Cataldo has kept competing. In late January, Cataldo did well at the North American Pizza and Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Ohio. The trip to Columbus has become a winter ritual for him.
This year, he finished third with a thick-crust Sicilian pizza and sixth with the Italian Stallion, which has 80 pieces of pepperoni along with bacon, sausage, meatball, and provolone and mozzarella cheeses.
In Elkhart, pepperoni and sausage pizza is his bread and butter, he said. It’s what a lot of his customers want.
When he and his son, Tony, created the Stallion four years ago, competed with it, and put it on the menu, it didn’t sell much.
Now, Antonio’s sells 50 to 70 of them a week, Cataldo said.
This year, after the competition, he ordered pans in which to make the pizza for customers. I had it for the first time in early April. In full disclosure, it was just after I’d co-won a weight loss competition at the restaurant because of the amazing work of my partner, Jim Burns. Given how hungry I was, I would have been willing to eat the pan, but the remarkable thing about the Sicilian is the crust. It’s thick, but light and tender. Some crust just carries ingredients. This one actually is packed with the flavor that develops when you give flour, yeast and water time.
The crust at Antonio’s usually goes in the oven four to 24 hours after being made. This one has different flour and less yeast. First there’s a starter and then the dough that takes two days to make. It will keep longer than the other crust.
On the menu are several pizzas with this crust, including one with honey and ricotta. They’re selling OK, but not great. That may take time. Cataldo is also working on a Roman crust that is thin, but also takes a long time to develop and like the other, has a different flavor than conventional crust. He said that while Elkhart has a lot of great pizza, no one else is doing that.
Cataldo said the competitions help him learn about the industry, troubleshoot and get new ideas. He sees trends long before they get to Elkhart. He saw wood-fired pizzas eight years ago and sriracha before most people here could pronounce it.
He wants to make better pizza, and the contests help him do that.
At Crooked Ewe, brewer and co-owner Andy Walton has learned from what judges have said in homebrew contests over the years. When the World Beer Cup came around as it does every other year, he was ready and sent four beers.
Months later, on a Friday night, they got word that they’d won a medal in the “beer Olympics.” In an event that had 6,596 beers from 1,907 breweries in 55 countries, there were 70 in the scotch ale category. Crooked Ewe, 1047 Lincoln Way East, South Bend, finished third.
Last week, Walton was still awestruck, as was co-owner Sean Meehan and chef Alain Helfrich. “It still feels not real,” Helfrich said.
“A buddy of mine said it’s like winning the Oscars,” Meehan said. Walton added that this isn’t his buddies saying they like his beer. It means a lot more. “It’s awesome. It’s very cool.” Despite looking ahead at months of making a lot of this beer, he joked, “I’m not mad.”
This malty, slightly sweet beer with 6.3 percent alcohol is selling like mad. It’s a big award for a small, new brewery. It’s recognition and that could bring more customers and fuel sales.
From tasting other entries and looking at the competition, Walton may get other ideas or know how to tweak a beer even better than he does now.
But mostly, winning is just fun and feels good. “Those are world class judges,” Walton said.