LAS VEGAS — The International Pizza Expo took place March 28-30 in Las Vegas. The themes of breaking tradition, providing surprise and marketing sustainability dominated the expo floor, all while staying focused on producing quality, authentic pizza with real and fresh ingredients.   

“You have to change with the industry and the customers,” said John Arena, owner of Metro Pizza, Henderson, Nev., a four-location chain with origins in the Little Italy neighborhood of Manhattan. “I’m always trying for an element of surprise to provide the customer.”

Metro Pizza’s sauce is formulated with three tomato varieties. Instead of mozzarella, the company uses sharp fontina cheese. One of Mr. Arena’s specialties is “The Zamboni,” which is described as a “slap shot” of flavor with sausage, pepperoni and roasted red peppers, all drizzled with Mike’s Hot Honey after it is baked.

Sweet heat concepts were plentiful at the show. While numerous hot honey companies displayed their wares, it was the cheese marketers that showcased how peppers — everything from jalapeño to ghost — can elevate the pizza-eating experience when the pepper is paired with the proper cheese. That’s because the milkfat in cheese mellows the pungency (measured in heat units on the Scoville scale), enabling the flavor of the pepper to be tasted. Including some fruit, everything from pineapple to peaches, adds a layer of sweetness. Think raspberry chipotle pepper salsa (as the sauce), topped with smoked mozzarella and fresh arugula with a balsamic drizzle.

Odyssey Brands, Monroe, Wis., debuted smoked feta cheese at the show. Corporate chef Allen Hendricks used it to create the Odyssey Pizza, a vegetable-forward pizza with a base sauce of tzatziki topped with shredded brick cheese and smoked feta crumbles.

“This cheese features just the right amount of smoky flavor and color,” Mr. Hendricks said. “It has a slightly salty touch and tanginess that comes through from the traditional feta, and a creamy mouthfeel finish. It melts well but never turns gooey.

“Added red bell pepper, green onions and baby spinach brings freshness to the build. The final touch is garlic-enhanced Greek yogurt swirled on the top.”

The California Milk Advisory Board (CMAB) used Pizza Expo to launch its Real California Pizza Competition in which chefs and culinary students entered recipes in one of three categories. Twelve finalists will prepare their creations on Aug. 2, 2023, at the Culinary Institute of America at Copia in Napa, Calif. All finalists win a cash prize. Finalists who are not category winners will receive $500 each. Category winners will each receive $5,000. The grand prize winner — judged as the best overall pizza — will receive an additional $10,000.

Contestants may choose from a selection of more than 250 varieties and styles of California cheese. The three categories are Cal-Mex (flavor fusions featuring Hispanic-style cheeses), The Real Californian (the wild card category) and Plant Forward (flavor combinations of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, etc., along with cheese).

“This on-trend flexitarian pizza recipe will deliver flavorful produce-centric toppings layered to complement cheeses made from California milk, where meats or other non-cheese proteins are considered an optional garnish or condiment,” said John Talbot, chief executive officer of the CMAB. “As the leading producer of mozzarella, as well as Hispanic-style and originals like Monterey Jack, pizza is a key foodservice category.”

Shepherd's GrainShepherd’s Grain introduced pizza makers to the marketing opportunities when using regeneratively grown wheat in crusts. Photo: Donna Berry

 Cheese dominated the many pizza creations available for sampling at Pizza Expo, even Beyond Pepperoni, which made its foodservice launch at the show, was featured on pizzas made with mozzarella. A vegan option was available upon request.  

Research from Beyond Meat, El Segundo, Calif., showed more than half of the 600 consumers polled in December 2022 would increase visits to a restaurant if plant-based pepperoni was available. Beyond Pepperoni delivers an authentic pepperoni experience with 50% less saturated fat and 30% fewer calories than a leading beef and pork foodservice pepperoni, according to the company. It cooks up like traditional pepperoni, with crispy, curled edges.

Beyond Pepperoni was co-developed by Beyond Meat and the culinary team at Pizza Hut, Plano, Texas. It was offered for a limited time at select locations beginning in August 2021.

The expo was more than cheese and toppings. Companies such as General Mills Foodservice, Minneapolis, hosted boot camps to help pizza makers “doughminate” when it comes to creating signature pizzas and preventing crust catastrophes. The company showcased a variety of pizza flour options, from untreated/clean label and organic flours to European-style flours.

Shepherd’s Grain, Portland, Ore., introduced pizza makers to the marketing opportunities when using regeneratively grown wheat to crusts. The wheat comes from farms in Idaho, Oregon, Montana, Washington and South Dakota, which have no-till practices and use crop rotations to eliminate erosion for a healthy ecosystem. Every bag of flour may be traced to the farmer and can be part of the pizza maker’s story.