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WOSA Semi-Finals Recap: Pizza School

After a short walk, we arrived at Pizza School NYC on Grand Street to begin the second part of the examination. Mark Bello and his team had us all settle in for a lesson on pizza-making while they had us sample a variety of different pies. They weren’t just providing us with great hospitality; these pizzas were designed to inspire us, too.

The goal of this part of the competition was to create the perfect pizza and wine pairing. Six South African wine producers were with us that day, and each of the sommeliers picked one producer at random out of a hat. From that producer’s wines, we then had to choose one to pair with a pizza, and we were then to create a pizza that we thought would marry well with it. Before the competition, I wasn’t clear on who would be making the pizza, but as I dumped flour onto my station and was passed a ball of dough, I realized I’d be the one not only coming up with the pie, but I’d also be stretching and pulling the dough, putting on the toppings, and handing it off to be placed in the oven. No pressure! To sweeten the pot, Mark pulled down a ridiculously garish pizza necklace and earring set off the rack and said the winner would also be receiving those as prizes.

I had to win.

As for the wine, I was assigned Beau Joubert as my producer. Though there were three different wines from them made available to me, the obvious choice in their lineup was the Oak Valley Shiraz-Cabernet sauvignon blend. The Cabernet brought a sharp fruit with a green, herbaceous note, and the Shiraz provided a pepperiness along with a smoky undertone. I grabbed a small paper plate to jot down my tasting notes as I assessed the wine, and then I got to thinking: what kind of pizza would best highlight these qualities in the wine? Grabbing the paper plate once again, I composed my recipe and got to work. To give the pizzas a South African flavor, two South African ingredients were made available in addition to the usual trappings: peppadew peppers and biltong, which is similar to beef jerky.

Mark turned up the music and we got to work making pizzas! Thankfully I’m comfortable in the kitchen, so preparing the dough and topping the pizza didn’t present too much of a challenge. I handed it off to Mark’s team, and I then asked if I could get some of that biltong, only I didn’t want it whole; I wanted it ground into a fine “dust.” Some eyebrows were raised, but I had a vision in mind and asked them to trust me.

The pizza was removed from the oven, and I was ready to put on my finishing touches. It was then time to present my pizza to the South African producers who would now judge all of our creations, explaining what I’d done and the rationale behind my pairing. I called my pie the “From Bloomfield to Bloemfontein,” and I explained that Bloomfield was the Italian area of Pittsburgh in which I’d lived for the past 8 years, and Bloemfontein, which is a city in South Africa that happens to translate to “Bloomfountain” – close!, is a nod to my inclusion of some South African flavors. I used a red sauce and put in some dried oregano to bring out the herbal nuances found in the wine, then added some shredded mozzarella and a spicy sausage with fennel. After it was taken out of the oven, I topped the creation with fresh cracked black pepper, then used the biltong dust to sprinkle atop the surface. It might not be the fanciest thing in the world, I thought, but it was the kind of pizza you want to eat, and after testing it with the wine I’d chosen, I felt pretty good.

We’d all done our presentations, and it was time to hear the results of the judging. The first place winner would be awarded 6 points, and 3 points were to be given to the 2nd place finisher; all others would be allotted 2 points. They announced the third place winner, and my name remained uncalled. Second place? No dice. This was it: I was either cementing my status as front-runner, or I was going to have to work especially hard in the blind tasting. “The Bay Area is going to be disappointed by this,” Jim from WOSA said, “but our first place pairing goes to Adam.”

The necklace was mine! Oh, and the 6 points, of course, which were also very much appreciated. Humbled and somewhat surprised, I offered a thank-you to the judges, then tossed in an Afrikaans “baie dankie” for good measure. After all, my pizza was a bridge between two cultures, so it only felt right to acknowledge that after the result.

But the day wasn’t quite over, and the crown wasn’t yet atop my head. We had one final stop to make: Corkbuzz on 13th Street for the blind tasting.

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