My old pal Vinnie the pizza guy called the other night. He's coming to town, but not to gamble: Pizza people — shop owners, sauce makers, cheese peddlers — are gathering for their annual trade show and he plans to be there.
In exchange for use of my spare bedroom, he offers his services as my tour guide to a little-known event that is nevertheless one of the biggest happenings annually in the pizza world: the three-day International Pizza Expo, which this year will draw 8,000 avid attendees.
Vinnie Mineo is a second-generation pizza man who in 1965 opened his first shop, Vince's Pizzeria, in Buffalo, N.Y., where back then they called it pizza pie. Over the next half-century, he ran six pizza shops in western New York and later in Phoenix, before finally throwing in his apron a few years ago.
Now, he wants back into the game, and in a big way. He subscribes to "Pizza Today" magazine and every morning at his home in Mesa, Ariz., scours the Internet for his next pizza opportunity, looking for the lost soul who's so tired of the business he'll be willing to sell cheaply. I tried my first slice of Vinnie's pizza 35 years ago and I'll never forget the thin crust, loaded cheese and, oh man, that greasy pepperoni!
Just maybe, Vinnie figures, the pizza show will offer a few business leads. But what he really longs for are the expo's sights and smells — the spicy scent of salami and roasted peppers, the white wheels of Parmesan cheese and all the free samples.
He's always been his own boss, making pizzas long before the likes of Papa John and Chuck E. Cheese, and rolled his first ball of dough in a region where pizza is like air: It sustains life. Now 70, he arrives at the airport in a shirt printed with an island motif, sunglasses and long white hair the color of baker's flour.
As we walk toward the Las Vegas Convention Center, he can barely contain his enthusiasm. "You won't believe it," he gushes. "Everywhere you look, people trying to sell you slicers, sauces, ovens, every type of cheese and topping. It's an entire universe of pizza."
Closed to the public, the expo is the reserved domain of those who bring you the world's most popular food: from manufacturers and suppliers down to the proprietors of mom-and-pop pizzerias across America.
Inside, the showroom explodes like a Big Bang for the senses. Even the carpet is a feast for the eyes — a rich red, the color of a nice Bolognese sauce.
Each year, U.S. consumers spend $1 billion on pizza — a lot of dough, if you will. One in 8 people eat pizza on a given day; for males between 6 and 19, the rate rises to 1 in 4.
For pizza makers like Vinnie, the expo is like Christmas morning, full of surprises — only it's scented with anchovies, and the goodies include ventless fryers, auto-saucing machines and sturdy brick ovens.
"Brick ovens are the best," Vinnie says. "Fast and greaseless."
We examine vented pizza boxes with plastic liners to ensure the pie doesn't get soggy; displays for oil, yeast, spices and olives; racks of meats, sauces and cheeses; an app that allows customers to track their pizza delivery online. There are people selling vegan, organic and gluten-free pizzas as well as sauces with non-genetically-modified tomato seeds.
Vinnie eyes a display of pizza paddles; he prefers the metal kind: "It's easier to slide under the pizza."
He scouts for sauce that isn't too sweet; something with a little kick. He loves to try other people's pies — either deep-dish or thin crust, it doesn't matter.
He samples a frozen pizza. "My uncle had the idea for frozen pizza in the 1950s," he says, chewing. "He was ahead of his time. If he hadn't died, he would have been the king."
We pass workshops for aspiring entrepreneurs with titles like "So, You Want to Open a Pizzeria" and "Common Pizza Start-up Mistakes and How to Avoid Them." There are panel discussions on "Health Care and the Pizzeria," and talks on how to make the best classic Neapolitan pie (with just tomatoes and mozzarella).
Most popular, however, are the "World Pizza Games," where people compete at activities like rolling a wheel of uncooked dough along their shoulder blades. There's the fastest dough-rolling contest, the quickest pizza-box folding and the triathlon, which combines box-folding, dough-tossing and dough-stretching skills.
Nearby, Garrett Marlin waits for the dough-stretching contest. He won last year's event — stretching an 8-ounce mound of dough the widest, just over 38 inches — in five minutes. He explains the rules.
Any holes bigger than a dime and you're out. Judges frown on the "lick and stick" trick, in which contestants use saliva to stretch the dough. Three judges decide who wins the $1,000 first prize and, as important, Marlin says, the bragging rights.
"I never toss my dough to use gravity in the stretch," said Marlin, who runs a pizzeria in Fort Collins, Colo. "I keep my hands moving that dough as much as I can."
Everywhere we look, it's one big pizza fraternity. Everybody seems to know one another. Passing men speak Italian. Many greetings involve pecks on both cheeks. We wander past signs with company names like Fontanini, Stella and Mangia Inc. Everybody's into the old-country atmosphere. Quipped salesman John Correll: "I say my real name is Correlli but that my family dropped the I."
Vinnie takes my arm: He wants me to meet his Buffalo pizza cronies. I've met many in the past, ever since my brother-in-law, Neil Downey, took me to Vinnie's shop in 1980. The two had been best friends since grade school and Vinnie always let Neil and his family eat for free.
I recall diving into an extra-large pepperoni pizza and order of spicy wings, telling Vinnie: "When I eat your pizza, my eyes are making love to your wings. When I eat the wings, I'm thinking about the pizza."
When Neil died last fall, we all returned to Buffalo for the funeral. Vinnie had sold the place to his nephew, but we went in anyway and ate for free — in Neil's honor.
Buffalo is full of such characters. For Vinnie, they're pizza royalty, guys like "Joey the Wing King," who, Vinnie says, runs the expo's biggest spread — serving up samples to advertise his two Buffalo pizzerias and a frozen chicken wing business.
At 47, Joe Todaro is a Buffalo native who each year hires young women in short skirts to dole out his slices and wings. Dressed in a white chef's jacket, he says his family started in the pizza business in 1957. Nowadays, his La Nova company sells 500,000 pounds of chicken wings a week.
"I'm a pizza guy; it's in my blood," he says. "I love the energy here. Every year, I just wander around here to take it all in."
Recipes for wing sauces often are family secrets, but Todaro offers a few tips: Butter is highly overrated, and you can create any flavor. He brings steaming samples of wings coated in a raspberry sauce.
"It's very good; subtle," says Buffalo-area pizzeria owner Chuck Mauro. "I was expecting sweet."
Then it's on to see the "Cheese King" — Frank Spina, another Buffalo native. Spina and Vinnie go back decades. Now 80, Spina is still peddling cheese. He pulls me close, like my grandfather. "Everybody loves mozzarella," he says, "but I want you to try a little mascarpone with your ricotta to make it sweeter."
Then we spot the "Pepperoni Queen," Valarie Rossman, a supplier who once enjoyed making stops at Vinnie's Phoenix shop. "You were always so good to your mother," she says, squeezing his arm.
Pepperoni, along with cheese, remains the nation's most popular pizza topping, studies show. Rossman gestures to a display that includes Italian dry salami, genoa and linguica. Asked why pepperoni pizza is so flavorful, she explains the phenomenon sometimes known as the "grease bomb."
Slide a pizza into the oven and after a while the pepperoni curls up at the edges, creating a little bowl of oil that provides the flavor. "We leave the casing on the pepperoni," she says, "so it curls up."
Our mouths water.
Vinnie never finds his pizza opportunity, but it doesn't matter. On the loudspeaker blares the Pharrell Williams hit "Happy." Vinnie is smiling.
Still, our stomachs are full and our feet weary. A day of sampling the pizza universe leads to a quick culinary choice: Cuban food for dinner.