A very wise man (Bill Murray) once said, “Unless you are a pizza, the answer is yes, I can live without you.” The love of pizza, perhaps Italy’s greatest contribution to mankind, permeates our society in a way that elevates it beyond a mere food choice—it is a pillar of our culture. People take pizza seriously.
None moreso than the folks at Caliente Pizza and Drafthouse on Castle Shannon Boulevard, who, in their spare time, scoop up accolades at international pizza competitions. Yes, pizza competitions are a thing. Yes, most of them feature tastings. And yes, we would like to go to one.
Two weeks ago, Caliente Pizza General Manager Matt Hickey competed in the United States Pizza Team Trials near Boston, where he earned first place in the Fastest Pie Maker Competition and second place in Freestyle Dough Acrobatics. As you might suspect, this was not his first rodeo—over the years, Hickey has racked up dozens of awards, from Fastest Box Folder to champion pizza acrobat in competitions across the U.S.
What exactly is a pizza acrobat, you ask? We were wondering the same thing. So we (Managing Editor Merle Jantz and I) went to Caliente to talk to Hickey about his favorite sport, and we got to try our hands at pizza performing.
Tell us about these pizza competitions.
The industry is huge. I didn’t even realize how big it was until a few years ago , when we won with the “Quack Attack” [Best Pan Pizza] at the International Pizza Expo in Vegas. Most of us had never experienced anything of that magnitude. It was Chef Eric’s first time competing and it was huge for the company. Just huge for us in general.
This Boston one was funny because it wasn’t anywhere near Boston. It was really closer to Vermont. It was a really nice place—the first time I ever competed in a country club, actually. I almost broke a chandelier … All of the competitions had 10 competitors, except for the freestyle. It was me vs. the guy who taught me vs. someone else.
We usually go to Vegas to compete every year in March. We compete on a stage, and there is a huge crowd. The one we went to in Ohio in January also had a decent crowd, but when we go somewhere smaller, we don’t always have a stage, just a set perimeter. I like that. I like close-quarter tossing. It keeps the movement tight.
Lots of people I go up against don’t speak English. Lots of Swedes—they’re pretty freakin’ good. Koreans kill the acrobatics portion every year. And there’s this one French dude who is really good [at the competition in Vegas]. We see a bunch of the same dudes every year.
We definitely eat a lot of pizza at these competitions. Not just at the expo, but around town.
How did you get into pizza acrobatics?
I started delivering pizza in high school, but I thought it would be super cool being able to make my own pizzas. Once I started, I wanted to continue—I always wanted to get better. And whenever I saw people doing tricks, I wanted to do that. I wanted to do it even better than they were doing it.
Then I saw these things called “throw dough” [a thin piece of silicone shaped like pizza pie dough], so I got some and started practicing. I’m a lot self-taught, but I definitely picked a lot of professional guys’ brains. I only see them once or twice a year, so at the competitions, I make sure I talk to them and they give me tips. Then I keep working on it, and by the next time I see them, I often hear “Wow! You really came a long way.” There are also a lot of YouTube videos out there to help with practicing.
I have worked in pizza shops for about a dozen years … I’m going on five years at Caliente. I came here [Mt. Lebanon] to open this store, and then I was trained to be a general manager.
Are there any rules/best practices you have to follow for the acrobatics?
The dough has to be very cold, and in this humidity it is hard to reach that temperature. But we do our best. We use a very simple recipe for the purposes of this—just water, flour, and salt. It has no yeast in it. It has to set. Ideally for 12 hours, but no more than 24.
You are usually allowed to bring your own dough, but I’m not going to fly with it. You also run into the fact that you don’t have refrigeration, so I just use the dough [provided by the competition]. It’s not the best all the time, but it’s not terrible.
At the competition, you don’t even need to warm up. Prepping the dough is warmup enough. By the time we go on stage, we are already tired, out of breath and sweating. Before it starts, all of the acrobatics guys do usually practice our throws and stuff, though. We like to talk to each other about our moves and things.
For [most] competitions, you are supposed to prep 10 10-ounce dough balls. You can either have 10 singles or five doubles. Then you pick a song, usually four to five minutes long, and you time your tricks with the music. Some people choreograph, but I like to freestyle. And I always pick my song right beforehand (he chose DMX’s X Gon’ Give It To Ya for his most recent competition in Boston). So I go out there, pick a song that I’ve practiced at home—I do this every day—so I pick one I’m feeling. And then I do my thing.
Do you have any tricks of the trade that you would like to share?
You literally have to get in the zone. You can’t get jittery … The one thing that I try do, with freestyle, is to think through all the moves I have in my arsenal. I remind myself whether I can land them or not. That’s my biggest thing. Don’t go above and beyond and do something someone else can do that you can’t.
Also, I always try to remember to spend two to three minutes on the outside of the dough. Once you get the dough up in the air, gravity does the work for you in the center. You want it real thick on the outside, so that it makes a wave pattern.
What do you compete for?
For the one in Boston, first place was a trip to London for the European Pizza and Pasta Show. Then second prize was $500 and third was $250. For the one we went to in Ohio, the prize was a trip to Italy. There are definitely cash prizes, trips and good stuff to win.
Do you have any goals for future competitions?
I would like to get on the World Pizza Champions team. They are a group of the best pizzaiolos, with the best acrobatics, in the country and around the world. They are all over the place. Our owner [Nick Bogacz] and regional chef [Eric Von Hansen] are members—they became members last year. They joined as culinary individuals. I want to join as a Pizza Game individual.