Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The California pizza store with 55 owners

What can you expect from a pizzeria whose business model is a collective?  Long lines and lack of options?  Well, the the Cheese Board Collective in Berkeley has both of these in the most delicious ways and always to the tune of live music.

The worker-owned cheese shop, bakery and pizzeria has an enormous array of gourmet cheeses two doors down at the cheese shop.  But the pizzeria itself has only 1 type of pizza per day and only 1 type of salad.  Each lunch and dinner they have a different live band playing, fetching in droves of novelty seekers to see what the latest pizza/music/gourmet cheese combination may be.

I heard about the Cheese Board Collective completely by word of mouth from various people in the Bay Area.  Fans are enthusiastic about them and plentiful.  It was constantly on people's list of best pizza both for their wide cheese variety and their simplicity of making 1 really good, different gourmet pizza each day. With combinations like brussel sprouts and yam or squash and green apple, they are an innovative collective which has left its mark all around the San Francisco Bay.

So what does it really mean to be a worker-owned collective?   I interviewed part-owner Ridwan Schleicher in the video below to find out.

Put simply, all 55 owners are both workers and owners of the business.  Decisions are made at meetings where each employee gets 1 vote and everyone gets paid the same wage regardless of how long they've worked there.  He describes the collective business model as "a great way of sharing this special business" and one that "really works."

The Cheese Board opened in 1967 and has been a collective since '71.  Since then it expanded gradually to a bakery with a Friday night pizza crowd to serving pizza 5 days a week for lunch and dinner.  They seek to get as many ingredients locally as possible including the water buffalo milk they use to make melt-in-your-mouth soft serve ice-cream.  They have also developed their own legendary green hot sauce to sell in-store and give out for free with pizza made with orange juice, poblano peppers and cilantro.

If you're around the Bay Area be sure to check them out. You can scope out the daily pizza, music lineup and find out more info at

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

British chain Pizza Express surprisingly fancy in China

When I asked some Chinese friends where to eat pizza in Shanghai, they inevitably gave me names of Western style pizzerias. "But where can I try real Chinese pizza?" I asked and they refused to give up a single name of a Chinese-owned pizzeria. "We don't know of any good Chinese pizzerias," one said finally.  So we agreed to meet up at the British-owned pizza chain Pizza Express.

My friend sent me an address in Chinese characters that I showed the taxi driver. He nodded his head at the address and we took off in the cab. As we got closer to the destination the area looked less and less like it would have a restaurant called Pizza Express and more like it would have a Ritz-Carlton (which it did).  It was a luxury mall with shops like Armani, Gucci and an Apple Store.  There was no way of knowing where I was and the taxi driver spoke no English so I just paid the driver and walked into the bright-lit mall.

It was six floors and so enormous I got lost on the way.  Finally I found my old friends from college Wang Yinchao with her husband and new baby and Yan Rui. We ordered two pizzas in the trendy, upscale pizzeria.  The crust is super light with mostly Italian themed pizza toppings and pastas.

Pizza Express is a multinational pizza chain that started in Great Britain in 1964.  Its staff is made up of highly trained pizzaiolos who have to pass a 12 week course in pizza making to "earn their stripes" and begin work in the store. In each country Pizza Express tries to take on some of the local flavor. In China this took the form of a Beijing duck pizza. Proceeds from sales of the Beijing duck pizza went towards a foundation helping AIDS victims who were infected through blood transfusions.

Check out this 1 minute video of venturing to Pizza Express to see Chinese pizza and friends.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Stinky fruit pizza is the latest craze in China

Durian fruit in all its majesty
As China's middle class continues to grow, so does their fascination for the pungent South East Asian fruit known as durian on their pizza.  Repulsive to some, delightful to many, this yellow, spiky, pineapply pizza topping is the bread and butter of authentic Chinese Pizza.

Love it or hate it, durian is the number one best selling pizza topping in China, so much that even Pizza Hut is beginning to sell it this year.  Turing Chen, owner of the Chinese pizza chain LaCesar attributes his mounting business success to the craze over durian pizza.  In just 6 years he's opened 50 stores and goes through 200 massive shipping containers full of durian every year.  Chen says LaCesar is the original creator of durian pizza, which has come to define Chinese pizza itself.  "We mostly focus on durian pizza because there is a huge fan base for it. I even had a customer fly three hours from Beijing and ask to have the pizza delivered to the airport where she took a flight back straight away," says Chen.  It's stinky fruit madness.
Turing Chen, owner at LaCesar, the first pizzeria
in China to popularize durian on pizza.

The classic durian pizza is made with a mayonnaise base in place of red sauce and then about a 50/50 ratio of durian fruit and cheese.  Durian has a creamy texture which fuses with the cheese and mayonnaise for an exceptionally gooey mouth experience.  The baking process is said to remove the sharpness of the durian flavor.  But if you don't like the taste, it will still be very present on the pizza. Pizza team member Mike LaMarca said he was still tasting durian pizza the day after they tried it and he "simply could not get into the flavor."

LaMarca tried durian pizza with members of the Groupon U.S. Pizza Team and PMQ during their recent visit to Shanghai to compete in the Chinese Pizza Championships.  The team found the adage "you'll either love it or you'll hate it" to be absolutely true.  Whereas PMQ Publisher Steve Green described the taste of durian pizza to be like "a colorful dance of flavors singing on [his] palate," Daniel Lee Perea, PMQ's Media Producer blatantly described it as "probably the most godawful thing [he's] ever put in [his] mouth."  Not surprisingly, durian is outright banned in some public spaces, especially enclosed ones like airplanes.

Want to know what durian is like? I tried some with PMQ China publisher Yvonne Liu in her home and was amazed at how utterly non-disgusting it was.  It was creamy like an avocado, with a taste like custard, with only the slightest hint of gasoline or horseradish.  Sounds delicious right?

Looks like an innocent cheese pizza
but watch out... it's durian!

So, although the fruit is all the rage in China.  It's actually grown in other countries and imported from either Thailand or Malaysia with China as the number one importer in the world.  The country you get it from depends on if you want the beginners yellow soft stuff known as monthong or the "lethal" D20 variety.

After the private durian tasting at Yvonne's she drove me to the airport and said good bye.  She didn't mention before hand that durian can give you a serious case of small, smelly, durian burps.... which probably explains why it's banned on airplanes.  One thing is for sure, the taste of durian is hard to forget.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

The Groupon U.S. Pizza Team cleans up at Shanghai pizza championship

All U.S. Pizza Team members placed winning honor AND cash prizes
Last week 4 members of the U.S. Pizza Team traveled clear across the globe to Shanghai to compete in the 10th annual Chinese Pizza Championship which took place at the FHC food show.  The flight was grueling, the food, hardly recognizable, and yet the competition turned out to be a huge victory for the Pizza Team.  All 4 traveling team members placed as well as our tag along Russian competitor representing Dodo’s pizza. 

The Groupon U.S. Pizza Team members competing this year were Rick and Jane Mines, Dave Sommers and Mike LaMarca (pictured above).  LaMarca received an honorable mention, Rick Mines and Sommers tied for 3rd place and Jane Mines came in 2nd.  Anatolii Surkov of Dodo’s pizza in Russia came in 1st, tied with two other Chinese competitors Zhang Xu and Cai Zhichao. 

But winning wasn't easy.  There were over 40 competitors and challenges along the way.  The team's first challenge came immediately after touching down on Chinese soil.  Customs confiscated all the team’s meats, cheeses and vegetables for their competition pizzas.  Some ingredients would be particularly difficult to find, such as the gorgonzola needed for Dave Sommers pie.  But with help from a vendor at the FHC food show, Sommers was able to recreate his pizza. 

Left to right: Dave Sommers with wife Karil and son Chris
The competition was different from the international pizza competition the Groupon U.S. Pizza Team has seen in Italy.  For one thing, LaMarca notes that “in Italy, the Italians are considered the experts whereas in China, the Americans are considered the experts” when it comes to pizza making.  Sommers was glad to see more options in terms of ovens.  “In Italy they don’t have a conveyor option, China had a flat deck or conveyor.  Italy only has a domed deck oven,” says Sommers.
Apart from the pizza competition and trade show, PMQ ventured out into Shanghai.  Dinner was always an adventure, and not always a pleasant one.  The Chinese way of having a communal dinner is traditionally at a large round table with a large lazy Susan in the middle.  A wide variety of dishes are brought out and everyone helps themselves, turning the lazy Susan to pass along the dishes.  Each meal was a new surprise adventure with food quite different from what you'd expect at a Chinese restaurant in the U.S.  In fact, the food we call Chinese food is what the Chinese call Chinese American food. You can find your General Tsao's chicken and chop suey only at Chinese American restaurants like Fortune Cookie. No, the real China eats such delicacies as frogs, duck skin, cow stomach, chicken feet and cold goose.  Fortunately, we all survived the meals in China, even the street food was inexplicable but delicious.  

Some of the other excursions included a river boat dinner cruise on the Pearl River which passes along the skyline of Shanghai.  The economic boom in China is evident in the colorfully displayed flashing lights reminiscent of Times Square.  Check out the following pictures along with some beautiful scenes in the quiet water town of Zhujiajiao. 

Buddhist temple

This Chinese dog looks suspiciously French
Street vendors have the best food

It's crowded in China

The Green family, PMQ publishers Steve and Linda with children Chris, Caroline and (me!) Missy.

For bonus excitement, check out Chris Green's viral video on venturing to China

Chris in China
Posted by Chris Green on Monday, November 16, 2015

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Sausage paste and beetroot essence pizza wins at the European Pizza Championships

Well it's no surprise that the Italians claimed first (and second and third) prize at the European championships in Milan last month.  What you might not expect though is the atypical toppings on  the winning pizza.

While Italy is still known to be the most "orthodox" when it comes to classic pizza toppings, the high volume of pizza competitions in the past decade has likely contributed to the variety now coming from Italian chefs.

The winning pizza paid tribute to the Halloween season with it's wicked named, the "witch" pizza.  First place winner Salvatore La Porta topped the pizza with pumpkin cream, mozzarella, sautéed sausage paste, strips of zucchini, tomatoes, essence of beetroot, mushrooms, and parmesan cheese.

When not winning European championships, you can find Salvatore at his pizzeria Al Posto Giusto in Calepio, Italy.

The European pizza championships was held at the HOST trade show in Milan, organized by Pizza e Pizza Italiana magazine and had 62 competitors participate in the competition.  Pizza e Pasta Italiana's next competition will be a round of Giropizza taking place in Rimini January 25, 2016.  Giropizza is a series of pizza competitions leading up the World Pizza Championships in Parma, Italy.

Also, be on the lookout for the Chinese National Pizza Championship and the Triple Panel Pizza Challenge organized by PMQ China.  Many of the U.S. Pizza Team members will be competing in it.  It all happens at the FHC food show in Shanghai November 11-13, 2015.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Domino's shamelessly opens first store in Italy

Domino's has boldly gone where no American pizza chain has gone before - Italy.  Early this October Domino's Italia opened its first pizza store in Milan with the promise of opening two more by the end of the year.  Sounds crazy, right?

The Italian Domino's franchisee and seasoned restaurant entrepreneur Alessandro Lazzaroni doesn't seem to think so. "We will be using a recipe created by us, using locally-sourced wheat. Everything else is purely Italian. We are purchasing all of our products from Italian producers. We've created our own recipe, starting for the original pizza recipe, with Italian products, like 100 percent tomato sauce and mozzarella, and products like Prosciutto di Parma, Gorgonzola, Grana Padano and Mozzarella di bufala Campana."  That's right, 100% tomato sauce and mozzarella.
Lazzaroni goes on to say, "we will also leverage Domino's excellence in technology, being able to operate online delivery as nobody else, to bring to Italian people what is fully missing today: a very good local pizza served at home quickly and hot, which can be ordered online with few clicks and at a very competitive price."  To push online sales, the Domino's in Milan is offering a 25% discount for online orders, not a bad idea since online ordering is known to increase ticket sales 15-20%.   

The biggest challenge will probably be getting over the stigma of being an American capitalist giant.  Italy has proudly proclaimed for years that not a single Starbucks could make it in their rich coffee culture.  On the surface, resistance to American chains looks Anti-American, but don't let it fool you.  Italians have a deep appreciation for American culture (and an infinitely deeper one for their own cuisine).  Take a look at the Italian brand Arnold Coffee with the tagline "The American Coffee Experience."  The store is very much like a Starbucks with free wifi, a display case with muffins and cookies, and of course, coffee served in paper cups.  

I admit American pizza would be a harder sell than American coffee, but that's why Domino's is completely changing their product to adapt to the Italian market.  They are even serving tiramisu!  Along with a business model for pizza that is currently lacking in Italy (quick, efficient, easy ordering and delivery), perhaps it's not so crazy after all.  

The Italian tweetosphere is largely in an outrage over the nerve that Domino's has opening an "American" pizzeria on Italian.  In fact, the Domino's Italia twitter page doesn't even display their tweets.  They are locked until you follow them, pending approval.  I've never seen a business' social media page on lock down, it makes you wonder what kind of response they're getting.

The ONE tweet I found in Italian that was positive, came from someone who actually tried the pizza!  It says, "Domino's pizza in Italy in Milan, I'll tell you, I thought it would be worse." 

Only time will tell if an Italian franchisee can sway the public with a 100% Italian pizza and an American brand logo.  One thing is for certain, it's not gonna be easy.  

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Check out pictures of Italy's Pizza Oscar winners

The winners from Italy's second annual Pizza Oscars are in.  The competition was hosted by Angelo Petrone a professor at, the Italy-based pizza school headquartered in Pisa.  In previous years the competition was based solely on how photogenic a pizza was.  But with a new competition format that also judges pizza on taste, pizzas can't win on looks alone.  Like the real Oscars, they must also make a stunning performance.

The competition runs in two stages.  The first part, taking place in August was called the Great Beauty (in reference to the 2013 Italian Film.)  Over 100 contestants entered in either the Classic or Gourmet categories.  From this pool of contestants, 24 were selected to recreate the pizzas in their photos and present them before a panel of judges at the Eataly location in Florence.

Without further ado, here are the first place winners.
Created by Giuseppe Frau in the Classic division. 

This "great beauty" consists of mozzarella, prosciutto crudo, cherry tomatoes and Parmesan cheese flakes topped with a ball of buffalo mozzarella which been wrapped in raw prosciutto.

Domenico Felice from Florence took first in the Gourmet division 

Both categories had ties for 2nd place.  What follows are both second places and the 3 place pizzas for the Classic and Gourmet categories.

2nd place Classic: Marco Fuso from London 
Also 2nd place Classic: Mattia di Giovannantonio from Giulianova 
3rd place Classic: Marcello Fotia from Anzio

2nd place Gourmet: Paolo Albante from Austria  
2nd in Gourmet also: Rocco Meninno from Grottaminarda 
3rd place in Gourmet: Marcello Fotia from Anzio

If you want to see more from visit them at their website.