For pizza vendors, Vegas expo is simply a big slice of heaven

Los Angeles TimesApril 18, 2014 

A booth at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas was devoted to costumes that could be worn on the street to advertise a business. The expo, strictly for industry insiders, attracts thousands.

JOHN M. GLIONNA/LOS ANGELES TIMES/MCT

LAS VEGAS — My old pal Vinnie the pizza guy called the other night. 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 would 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. He’s always been his own boss, long before the likes of Papa John and Chuck E. Cheese. 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.

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.”

Vinnie eyes a display of pizza paddles; he prefers the metal kind: “It’s easier to slide under the pizza.”

We pass workshops for aspiring entrepreneurs with titles such as “So, You Want to Open a Pizzeria” and “Common Pizza Startup 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 such as 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.”

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.

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