LAS VEGAS — My old pal Vinnie the pizza guy called recently. He was coming to town, but not to gamble: Pizza people — shop owners, sauce makers, cheese peddlers — were gathering for their annual trade show, and he planned to be there.
The three-day International Pizza Expo is a little-known event that is nevertheless one of the biggest happenings annually in the pizza world. It drew 8,000 avid attendees this year.
Vinnie Mineo, 70, 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., he 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 figured, the pizza show would offer a few business leads. But what he really longed for were 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 he rolled his first ball of dough in a region where pizza is like air: It sustains life.
As we walked toward last month's show at the Las Vegas Convention Center, he could barely contain his enthusiasm. "You won't believe it," he gushed. "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. And at this year's expo, even the carpet inside the Las Vegas showroom was 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 eight people eats pizza on a given day; for males ages 6 to 19, the rate rises to one in four.
For pizzamakers such as Vinnie, the expo was like Christmas morning, full of surprises — only it was scented with anchovies, and the goodies included ventless fryers, auto-saucing machines and sturdy brick ovens.
"Brick ovens are the best," Vinnie said. "Fast and greaseless."
Vinnie eyed a display of pizza paddles; he prefers the metal kind: "It's easier to slide under the pizza."
He scouted for sauce that wasn't too sweet; something with a kick. He loves to try other people's pies — either deep-dish or thin crust, it doesn't matter.
We passed 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." Most popular, however, were the "World Pizza Games." There was the fastest dough-rolling contest, the quickest pizza-box folding competition and the triathlon, which combined box-folding, dough-tossing and dough-stretching skills.
Nearby, Garrett Marlin waited for the dough-stretching contest. He had won last year's event — stretching an 8-ounce mound of dough the widest, just over 38 inches — in five minutes.
He explained 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 said, the bragging rights.