REXBURG, Idaho (KIFI) - Fans of pizza in Rexburg can now say they have champion pizza makers in their city. Over the course of the summer, Bill Crawford owner and operator of the Righteous Slice Restaurant in Rexburg and some of his team members have traveled the world from Vegas to Italy and back again competing for the top prize in the art of pizza-making.
"The reason we compete is more to push ourselves to get better. So we learn a lot and we get better so our product gets better, which I think is the main benefit of these competitions. And then a very close second to that is we get to meet and make friends with just some great people in our industry who we learn from them," Crawford said.
In April, the competitors went to Vegas where for the first time they took first place in the Northwest Division. They then went to Parma, Italy, one of the largest pizza-making competitions in the world with more than 400 contestants. Then in June, they went back to Italy to Naples, the birthplace of pizza, and most recently they came back from California.
Crawford says it was their general manager Ian who helped take them to a spot they hadn't been before.
"We call it the Hellfire Brisket Pizza. So it's got hellfire brisket from Idaho Falls. We use their brisket (HellFire Barbeque's), and then we have our own combination of other toppings that go with it and some mustard-based barbecue sauce. Ian took that down to Vegas and competed in the nontraditional division. I don't know exactly where it placed, somewhere close to 15 out of 90. But first in the Northwest region, which was the best we had done up to that point, really, really proud of him," Crawford said.
After Vegas, they went to Italy where the competitions only got rougher.
"I think it's the biggest pizza competition in the world, and they've got this almost like a super dome with dozens of ovens and almost 50 judges all around the whole place. And they're about 800 entries in that one. And there were two things that stood out to me this year and in Parma that I thought were really noteworthy," Crawford said. "The first and most important was we had a young pizza maker here, only 16 years old, who went and competed on the biggest pizza stage in the world and did pretty well. I think he was about 125 out of more than 400 entries. And so that was really, really cool for him. And then I entered the PAN Division in my Pan pizza. I did a kind of butternut squash, prosciutto, and buffalo mozzarella mash-up, and it placed 23rd out of 88. So I'd love to put Pan Pizzas on our menu here, and those will be on the menu at some point. But right now I'm still in the development stage."
Part of that development is finding a way the pizzas can be successfully made each time and fit into the restaurant's current workflow.
In Naples, Crawford said the experience was well worth it even if he didn't do as well as he hoped.
"I entered three divisions and the American division, it turns out there were 27 competitors and I placed 25th out of 27. So really, really disappointing. And but, something really good came out of it," Crawford said.
The good that came from the placement in the competition was a lot of self-reflecting and learning.
"It's easy to say, well, the judges were biased or they just didn't like what I did that day. But I looked inside instead and said, What were all of the things that I did that led up to this disappointing result. Because judges like good pizza, right? If you make a good pizza, they're going to like it. And it wasn't a terrible pizza. But I mean, we're talking about some of the best pizza chefs in America. And so to come in 25th was just deeply disappointing. But also there was a lot of learning from that experience," Crawford said.
Crawford said it was those lessons learned that led into the final competition of the summer, the California Pizza Contest, sponsored by the California Milk Advisory Board.
Crawford came up with a recipe using California-based cheeses and sent it to the judges and became one of the 12 finalists who made it to California.
"More than 150 recipes were submitted, and I was one of the lucky finalists chosen out of 12 people. One out of four in the Cal mix category. And so they invited me to California to make pizza with some of the most talented and well-known pizza chefs in America and just had a great time with it," Crawford said.
Crawford says not only did he win his division but the entire competition.
"I won the whole thing. It was very surprising to me. My pizza was a New York-style pizza with Oaxaca cheese. Tequila lime chicken, and then some jalapeños, and corn. So it's kind of a mash-up between tequila, lime chicken and a elote corn pizza," Crawford said. The rest of the pizza was finished with some Queso Fresca and Creme Fresh and other spices, along with cilantro, lime, and pickled red onions.
"It's a very different kind of take on pizza, but something that worked really well flavor-wise, and especially with the judges, it's really impressive. You know, I was really happy with how it came out and it was a really tight competition. The Cal Mix division in particular had some of the highest scores, and they told me in the end that I only won by 0.3 points. So the next closest, who is just a really talented pizza chef," Crawford said.
The two winning pizzas will appear on the menu as chef's specials at some point throughout the rest of the year.
"So if you follow us on social media, you'll see when it comes out we're of course people who are on our email list can also find out about it," Crawford said.