CLINTON TOWNSHIP — Winning one of the world’s top pizza industry awards was no doubt a colossal honor for Shawn Randazzo.
But for Randazzo, who founded Detroit Style Pizza Co. in May at locations in Clinton Township and St. Clair Shores, winning the International Pizza Expo’s 2012 World Champion Pizza Maker of the Year Award was just part of what he considers to be a larger mission.
He wants to make Detroit-style pizza a household name.
“Honestly, I feel that it is something very big that has purpose,” said Randazzo, 36, of Roseville. “I describe it as a ripple that’s going to turn into a wave.”
The International Pizza Expo, which attracts an eclectic range of pizza styles from thousands of pizzerias and pizza industry professionals to Las Vegas every March, is the world’s largest trade show for pizza industry professionals.
The expo, which ran this year on March 13-15, is the Super Bowl of the pizza industry, said International Pizza Expo Executive Vice President Bill Oakley.
The expo’s 2012 International Pizza Challenge was divided into four categories: traditional, nontraditional, American pan and Italian-style. The winner of each category then goes into the pizza-making competition, for which they have up to a half-hour to make and bake a pizza using a secret ingredient.
Created in 1946 by Gus Guerra, founder of Buddy’s Pizza, the Detroit-style pizza is embodied by its square shape and soft, airy crust. The crust is crunchy on the outside and lined on the inside with toppings and cheese that caramelize when baked. The pizza is baked in a blue steel pan, and then topped off with red sauce.
It wasn’t long ago that when Randazzo would bring up Detroit-style pizza to people from outside the metro Detroit area, he was greeted confusion and sarcasm. “Does that mean it has bullets on it?” they would ask.
After owning and operating Cloverleaf Pizza locations in St. Clair Shores and Clinton Township for 15 years and five years, respectively, Randazzo and his mother, Linda Michaels, split off and became Detroit Style Pizza Co. earlier this year.
He admits that winning competitions wasn’t his goal when he joined the expo. What he really wanted, he said, was to see how his Detroit-style recipe stacked up against the competition.
He got his answer when he dominated the American pan division, winning by a record margin with his Detroit-style pizza coming out ahead over Chicago-style pies in the same category. He then moved on to the championships with the three other division winners.
On March 15, the last day of the expo, Randazzo and the three other competitors stood in front of a crowd of a few hundred spectators and a judges’ panel of culinary experts.
Armed with only his homemade dough, Randazzo had a total of 30 minutes to make and bake the pizza. The other ingredients were provided, including a secret ingredient that was previously undisclosed.
When the secret ingredient was revealed as Cattlemen’s Gold Barbecue Sauce, Randazzo said he went with his first instinct: barbecue chicken pizza. Naturally, it was Detroit-style.
Oakley said the last-minute introduction of the secret ingredient takes competitors outside of their comfort area, putting their skill set to the test and encouraging them to think outside of the box.
After a half-hour of intense pizza-making, Randazzo pulled his pizza out of the oven with less than a minute to go and served it up for the win. The judges rate each pizza based on taste, creativity and visual presentation.
Randazzo’s winning pizza styles are now featured on Detroit Style Pizza Co.’s menu.
“There can only be one winner, and he’s it,” Oakley said. “He’s got his name on a trophy that’s going to be around forever.”
Because pizza industry professionals regularly attend the International Pizza Expo to take away successful ideas, Oakley said, it’s likely that having the world’s top pizza-maker win the International Pizza Challenge with a Detroit-style pizza will almost certainly further the style’s cause.
It wasn’t Randazzo’s first award, however.
In 2009, while operating under the Cloverleaf name, he won first-place at the North America Pizza and Ice Cream Show in Columbus, Ohio.
“There were 70 other competitors, and not one of them had the same style of pizza,” he said. “It really opened my eyes and my mind that we had an opportunity here.
“I really started to feel something big. … I made it a personal mission of mine at the time to just get this style out there.”
At the 2011 International Pizza Expo, he placed sixth as a finalist in both the traditional and nontraditional divisions. The rules were changed afterward to limit competitors to one category, he said.
He also won third-place in the fall 2011 American Pizza Championship in Orlando, Fla.
Now, several months after hitting the pizza-makers pinnacle at the International Pizza Expo, Randazzo’s fire for making and educating people about Detroit-style pizza hasn’t died.
“People are proud to be from Detroit,” he said. “Here’s an opportunity for me to give Detroit a positive light, and to really give something that is, I believe, a culinary original for this region the recognition it deserves.”
This upcoming March, Randazzo will once again be competing at the International Pizza Expo. This time, it will be up against three former world champion pizza-makers from the U.S., Italy and Australia. The expo calls it their “Best of the Best” challenge.
Randazzo also has been invited to host a demonstration on making Detroit-style pizza.
But putting Detroit-style pizza into the same league as the Chicago and New York styles is a mission that he knows isn’t going to happen overnight. And it’s one he acknowledges that he can’t do alone.
That’s why he’s encouraging pizzerias in Colorado and other parts of the country to start serving up Detroit-style pizzas. And, looking ahead, he hopes to see them emerge as winners at competitions like the International Pizza Expo.
“I want to see other people with Detroit-style pizzas win and make a name for themselves,” he said. “This mission is concrete, and it’s something everybody can feed into.”
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