This is the third year in a row I’ve participated as a judge in All Over Albany’s annual Tournament of Pizza. I’ve gotten a lot of questions about how it goes and what my approach is, so I figured I’d write about that stuff.
The way AOA runs the judging, for the earlier rounds, the powers-that-be at AOA decide what the pizzas will be and where they will be from. The judges have no influence on what pizzerias are participating (in the past, they’ve crowdsourced ideas from their readers), but, sometimes, we get asked for ideas for what the rounds are. Sometimes, we’re surprised and a round will be comprised of something one or more of us mentioned; other times, AOA picks what they want based on what they think their readers will gather information from. For the finals, AOA lets the two finalists know they made it to the finals and to send their best pizza.
Basically, I show up, eat pizza, fill out my score sheet, and anguish about the amount of bread, cheese, and toppings I had just ate because I’m teetering a line of having no self control and trying to lose these last five pounds. If you thought it was more illustrious or provocative, I’m sorry to break kayfabe there for you.
I get asked a lot about filling out the score sheet. AOA has it broken down into four categories: crust (5), sauce (5), toppings (5), and overall taste (10). I have my own method to arriving at scores for each.
I assess each slice at a time. The first thing I do is look at it. I’ll bring it up to taste and take a very incidental sniff of it. Then I fold the slice and take the first bite; it’s usually a big bite because I want to be sure to taste everything. At that point, I give my rating for the overall taste (starting at the bottom of the score sheet). I’d like to think the way I arrive at a number is the same as someone scoring Olympic diving, for example. For the overall taste, my contribution to the score is an assessment of how everything in the slice comes together.
Then I continue at the top and go down the line. I break down the crust. I look for technical details about how it comes together. I taste the bottom crust and end crusts separately. I ask myself a few questions: is the dough seasoned? How is it cooked? Does the crust work structurally with what’s on top? What are the textures on the surfaces like? How about the texture inside? Based on the answers to these questions, I write down my score.
Sauce can be difficult to assess separately, especially when there are many toppings on a pie. I’ll look for a spot that has a decent amount of sauce and try to taste it on its own. I generally look for a pizza sauce to have a strong base of pureed tomato and some herbs. Based on the amount of sauce overall, the seasoning, the aroma of the herbs, and how it works with all of the toppings, I’ll jot down my score.
Judging toppings can be tough depending on the amount(s). Ultimately, I want my score to reflect a technical assessment of the toppings. How’s the texture of the cheese? For veggies or meats, is everything sufficiently sized and seasoned? How’s the overall balance of the toppings?
Then I sit and take a sip or two of a drink (this year, my drink of choice is San Pellegrino mineral water; in the past, it’s been orange soda). I tally up my score and write it in the total row. I take another reasonably sized bite and ask myself if that’s a fair number. Usually, it is, and I hand my form in. Sometimes, I go through a complete reassessment.
Through the process, I’ll write down some comments about my thoughts to help the powers that be at AOA put together some comments that’ll be helpful to a reader in their blog posts. Since they’re compiling from multiple judges (four, sometimes five), I keep my comments brief and as objective as possible.
[I think about it like this: going back to the Olympics example, I think it’s more entertaining when people slip or land wrong, but if I’m going to score the performance, obviously that’s not technically correct. Technical correctness precludes my personal preferences.]
The judges do their assessments together. Sometimes there’s conversation, other times, it’s quiet. I try to keep my opinions private until score sheets have been tallied because I don’t want to get into the politics of swaying other judges’ in either direction about stuff. These pizza places have it hard enough as it is being under the microscope in a tournament they’re not even aware of; the last thing they need is unfair judging.
But that’s pretty much that.
After the scores get tallied, we talk for a few minutes about it. Sometimes, opinions get passed around that we all agree with; other times, crazy things get said. (The owners at Marisa’s Place always ask me why the AOA post said their Italian sausage “was more like breakfast sausage.” That’s always a fun conversation, considering they know I grew up working with my dad who makes tons of Italian sausage not unlike what they put on their pizza.)
The really tough part about this gig for me is keeping on track with my diet. Pizza is the worst food I can eat for a couple of reasons. First, the way my body reacts to any starch, I look at it and gain weight. Couple that with the fact that pizza also opens my appetite for pretty much everything, and things go downhill pretty easily. Walking out of the pizza judging sessions, I get a wicked sweet tooth.
Another tough part of judging is being open to eating things I normally wouldn’t eat. Peppers and onions are probably the last two toppings I’d pick for pizza. There are a number of reasons for this that I’m not going into here aside from the one that they’re the types of things to linger through digestion.
For this year, part of my TOP survival kit include San Pellegrino mineral water and pretzel M&Ms. The Pellegrino helps with the digestive effects of the peppers and onions and other acidic components in pizza. The pretzel M&Ms satisfy the need for sweets after eating pizza (and if that doesn’t work, then I fall back on old faithful, ice cream.).
Overall, I enjoy doing this. What I really like about it is that it really gets the community talking about pizza in the area. Because of the density of colleges around here, there are a lot of pizzerias. It’s impossible to fathom visiting all of them, so getting the discussion going is helpful to filter out what’s worth checking out. There’s a lot of grey area, and the scope of the tournament could never brush the surface of the entire pizza scene, but it is a fairly useful resource.