“This pizza is all about the crust,” said Paul Cataldo, the owner of Antonio’s Italian Ristorante in Elkhart, Indiana. “It has to be about the crust.”
It’s a little over a week after the International Pizza Expo. Cataldo just arrived at Antonio’s, the restaurant his family has owned and operated since 1979, where he’ll soon get to work prepping dough and sauces for another busy night. He’s reflecting on his Vegas Fortuna pizza, the “Traditional Division” winner in the International Pizza Challenge, the United States’ largest pizza competition held annually at Pizza Expo.
Cataldo has been on the competition circuit for a decade and a half, and this year marked his first win in Las Vegas. His entry was topped with Antonio’s house-made pomodoro sauce, fresh mozzarella cheese, ‘cup and char’ pepperoni as well as house-made rope and honey sausages. But as he said, this pizza was all about the crust.
Coming into this competition season, Cataldo wanted to create a new dough. He reached out to his distributor and was introduced to Bay State Milling’s Heritage High Gluten Flour. The unbleached, unbromated flour comes in at 14% protein; ideal for the kind of airy, tender crust he wanted.
As he worked on the recipe, he settled on a 72-hour cold ferment. The result was a crispy, flaky, crunchy crust that carried his house-made topping to the judges and his pizza to victory.
Cataldo was born in Italy, where he lived until age five. He’s lived in Indiana ever since. At 16, he jumped into the pizza business and never looked back, taking ownership in 1995.
“It’s been a family business. We started from scratch. We built the building,” said Cataldo, a father of six who has already welcomed the next generation into the industry.
Antonio’s started as a carryout pizzeria in the early ‘80s and has since evolved into a full-service restaurant. Today, they have an eclectic menu of pasta, seafood and seasonal dishes. Cataldo said the offerings include traditional southern Italian fare, inspired by his family roots in Calabria, as well as the staples of American-Italian cooking.
“All of our menu is made from scratch,” Cataldo said. “We grind our own sausage. We make our own sauces. Obviously, we make our own dough. We make our own bread for table bread.”
He says takeout pizza is about 50 percent of their business. The restaurant seats 120. They also have a seasonal outdoor space and a banquet room that accommodates 80 people.
In 2004, a food vendor invited Cataldo to a pizza competition they were hosting. He went and won. That year, he made the US Pizza Team and traveled to Italy to compete in the World Pizza Championship. That experience opened him up to a whole world of competition.
He’s competed across the US from New York to Texas. He’s competed in Italy four times, bringing home the “2017 Best Pan Pizza from North America” title at the in World Pizza Championship in Parma.
Around the time of his first competition in Italy, he struck up a friendship with 13-time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani. Gemignani recruited Cataldo to join is World Pizza Champions team.
The invitation-only group is a multinational crew of pizza professionals that, according to their website, “is united by the shared goal of setting an industry-wide standard of excellence in all aspects of the pizza maker’s art.”
The team of about 40 people show up together at events like the International Pizza Challenge, but they’re also a network of professionals in the highly competitive restaurant business.
“You share struggles, you share successes, you talk to pizzaiolos all over the United States,” Cataldo said of the team. “To be around people with the same mindset is unbelievable.”
Cataldo and his teammates will be back together for the World Pizza Championship in Parma from April 9 to 11.
Capitalizing on the trip abroad, Cataldo and his 14-year-old daughter will head to Italy a few days early to see the sights in Florence and Venice before meeting the World Pizza Champions in Rome. They’ll spend some time catching up with old friends and bonding with new members. Two days before the competition opens, they’ll travel to Parma, and shift their mindsets to competition mode.
Tucked away in Cataldo’s suitcase will be a carefully-packed plastic bag of Heritage High Gluten Flour. It’s the backbone of a pizza that’s all about the crust. He knows he’ll need it if he wants to translate his Vegas Fortuna (Italian for luck) into a win on an even bigger stage.
“Going into Italy, I know the Italians, the first thing they look at is the bottom of the crust. They look at the bake and they look at the crumb,” Cataldo said.
He intends to replicate his winning dough exactly. He’s changing the toppings from a pepperoni and sausage pizza to one inspired by the competition site. The simply-dubbed Parma pizza features salami, prosciutto, burrata and arugula. To get sweetness, Cataldo will add grapes and maybe some honey.
In Parma, Cataldo will be competing in the traditional category, which bans pans, requires a round shape and a red sauce. He’ll also be competing in the pan pizza and Roman-style categories. He plans to use the same dough in all three.
Cataldo guesses there were 200-300 competitors in Las Vegas. He thinks there will be 500-600 in Italy.
Cataldo says that in the back of his head he thought he’d win at Pizza Expo. He’s feeling equally hopeful for the next competition. One thing he knows for sure is that he has the recipe for success.