Pizza chef defending global title
Flo’s Pizzeria Ristorante aims to drive business by repeating last year’s success at World Pizza Championship.
(As seen on WZZM TV 13) The owner and president of a local Italian restaurant collection will defend his first-place title for “Best Pizza in America” this week in Italy.
Dan Uccello is co-owner and president of Flo’s Collection, which includes Flo’s Pizzeria Ristorante at 4494 Plainfield Ave. NE, as well as Catering Concepts by Flo’s in Holland and two Flo’s Pizzeria Ristorante Sports Bar locations in Belmont and Greenville.
He and his brother, Davide Uccello — who are not related to the family who owns the local Uccello’s Ristorante chain — founded the collection in 2011. It is known for its New York-style pizza and locally sourced ingredients.
Last year, the brothers and their Grand Rapids location general manager, Alex Garcia, traveled with the U.S. Pizza Team to compete at the 26th annual World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy, where Dan Uccello’s creation, “Pizza D’Italia,” won the title of “Best Pizza in America.”
Uccello said the accolade had an immediate impact on Flo’s day-to-day business last year.
“That weekend, we did over 50 percent more than our normal sales,” he said. “I was still in Italy, but we were live on Facebook, posting videos and pictures. It was great.
“To this day, we have people driving from an hour to two hours away to try our pizza. It’s put us on the map to be the unique pizzeria in West Michigan.”
From April 9-11, the native Sicilian will travel back to his home country to whip up another from-scratch creation for the competition’s “classico” category.
Brian Hernandez, operations director for a trade publication called PMQ Pizza Magazine, is the U.S. Pizza Team event coordinator. He said Uccello earned a spot on the team among the top-ranked “black-coat” pizzaiolos, or pizza chefs, after his victory in Parma last year. Black-coat pizzaiolos, he said, are an elite class, a rank above their white-coat counterparts.
“The U.S. Pizza Team is about skill but also very much about your attitude,” Hernandez said. “Dan Uccello has been one of the fastest rising stars we have now. He’s got … the culinary skills, as he proved last year, where he beat all these guys on his first shot, whereas they had been competing four or five years.
“He’s got the right attitude. He’s very giving, cooperative and the first to help anyone who needs help.”
Hernandez said this year’s world championship will feature 773 competitors from 44 countries competing in 11 categories.
The categories in which the U.S. Pizza Team will compete include traditional pizza, pizza on the peel, gluten-free, pizza in the pan, pizza for two (made by two pizzaiolos together), largest dough stretch, fastest pie maker and freestyle acrobatic.
Each category has different prizes, depending on the sponsor, and can range from plaques to gold medals to pallets of beer to working pizza ovens.
“It’s a great avenue for press and publicity for the pizzerias, which is why we do it,” Hernandez said. “We want to lift pizza up above the big three chains of Domino’s, Pizza Hut and Little Caesars. It’s always independents competing, for the most part.”
Uccello said the pizza competition is a chance for him to flex his creative muscles and make a pie that isn’t on his restaurant’s menu.
“You’re competing against world-class pizza chefs,” he said. “You have to take things out there to be able to compete with them, which, a lot of times, are not things you could sell at the store because of price point.”
He said the judges evaluate the way the chefs handle the dough, as well as oven technique, taste, creativity, topping combinations, etc.
Uccello said the contest, while competitive, isn’t cutthroat.
“If you have a guy from France competing, and he puts out a pizza, he serves the judges two or three slices and then it goes back on the table for others to try,” he said.
“We’re getting ideas from other people, looking for techniques from other guys. Although we’re out there competing against each other, we definitely help each other out.”
One of the things Uccello learned last year was bumping his dough hydration from 51 percent up to 59 percent would make his pizza crusts taste lighter and less like bread — so he incorporated that change into his crusts at Flo’s.
“My knowledge in the last year has probably doubled,” he said. “We are second-generation pizza makers, so we weren’t there when the recipes were made. I didn’t know the logistics of how you came up with this dough recipe. I’ve learned all that now.”
Uccello said he has been immersed in pizza making since he was 12 years old. Growing up in Sicily, it was commonplace to go to a farm to pick, cook and bottle tomatoes for use in recipes. While researching pizza sauce suppliers, Uccello made site visits to find a company that would exercise similar care in its food preparation.
“I do it for the passion of the craft,” he said. “I truly respect the craft of pizza. It’s been around for hundreds of years, and I think it’s the No. 1 food in the world. I’m lucky to be a part of it.”