Stepping onto the marinara-red carpet of the Las Vegas Convention Center’s north hall, I inhaled a whiff of baking dough and followed the call of a gentle legato tune. Past a towering display of insulated delivery bags, I found the music’s source: at the Stanislaus Food Products stall (“Home of the Real Italian Tomato Since 1942”), a guitar duo plucked and strummed a Neapolitan jingle by a low white fence. As the players painted the coda, I took a few steps backward. A woman from Tyson Foods patted my arm and said she wanted to show me how they are so much more than chicken. “Would you like to try our Hillshire Farm all-natural pepperoni?”
The International Pizza Expo, now in its thirty-third year, bills itself as the largest gathering of pizza professionals in the world. From Tuesday, March 28, to Thursday, March 30, twelve thousand attendees filled the vast, brightly lit convention-center floor. More than five hundred companies descend on the expo, bringing independent- and chain-pizzeria managers together with the manufacturers and service providers who populate an industry with an estimated forty-four billion dollars in American sales and 128 billion worldwide.
I’m not a pizza professional, but I grew up in New York City, so the cheese slice is one of the foundational realities of my life. I’ve always been drawn to pizza, I probably worship it, and these days I’m often drawn to Las Vegas, almost like a pilgrim. So when pizza and Vegas collided for this year’s expo, I heeded the signal, and off I went to wander the aisles and consider the wares. Perhaps I would be led to the portal of the pie’s sorcery, and finally look straight into the metaphysical nucleus of the food’s mighty allure. Maybe I’d meet some hooded parmesan master and he’d disclose to me his secrets, or have my mind blown by the perfect grease-to-crunch ratio.
I politely declined the Hillshire pepperoni—a few minutes past ten A.M. felt too early for cured meat, no matter how natural its additives—and entered a zone of metallic bakeware. An exhibitor at Molded Fiberglass Tray held up one of the company’s customized industrial-kitchen solutions and explained to a visitor, “Basically, they wanted a cinnamon roll that was the right shape.”
Monochrome pans and trays soon gave way to a stack of Celebrity-brand cans of diced mango and pineapple tidbits—a welcome sunburst of color. Across from the cans, a crowd had gathered to watch a Marana Forni Rotator brick-oven demonstration. “It’s the smartest oven on the market,” a pitchman told me, “it cooks pizza in ninety seconds.” He stopped there, though, and entered an argument with a janitor about the placement of one of his team’s garbage pails.
A taste of honey seemed like a reasonable amuse-bouche for the day, so I accepted a little wooden spoonful of Brooklyn-based Mike’s Hot Honey. The delightful chili-infused dollop sparked the need for a drink; conveniently, Coca-Cola had set up shop right on the corner. I scanned the offerings—flavored milks, iced teas, energy drinks—and sampled Coca-Cola Life, a stevia-sweetened brew that left a rusty taste in my mouth.
Fortunately, the Wrkr Solutions labor-management software firm was giving away bottles of water at their booth. As I drank one in an effort to rinse away the scab of Coca-Cola Life, a Wrkr envoy harangued me: pretty soon automatons—not just drones, but robots and self-driving cars—would be delivering pizzas to our homes in twenty minutes or less.
Over at the Salzer Products stand, I watched blue-dyed water shuttle through a wall of clear plastic pipes, sinks, and toilets—a presentation of “the industry’s first inline drain jetting system” to prevent clogging—and accepted that I would need something stronger to finally vanquish Life’s aftertaste. The Bronco Wine Company’s Big Guy half-cabernet, half-Syrah blend proved to be just the bold mouthwash I required.
Refreshed by the three-sip snifter, I happily accepted a free packet of ketchup from a French’s condiments representative. “Is there a use for ketchup on pizza?” I asked. “Yes,” he smiled, handing me a pamphlet, “we have a recipe for bacon cheeseburger pizza right in there, and it calls for ketchup.”
In a stroke of logic, I proceeded from ketchup to tomato sauce. Larry from Chicago’s Pastorelli Food Products showed off a big clear bag of the stuff; it looked like a blood bag from a toy medicine set. Pastorelli packs the sauce in cans, too, but Larry confided, “I’m trying to push the bags; I imagine it’ll be 75 to 80 percent bags in a couple years. It’s just more efficient.” What about a bag’s durability, compared to a can’s? “Oh, I throw these things around all the time,” he said.
As I sat in the lounge of the Pearls Olives booth on a khaki leather couch next to a low table stacked with cups of single-serve Olives to Go! (“No Liquid!” shouted the foil tops), daydreaming about Larry hurling bags of tomato sauce off the roof of the Art Institute of Chicago into South Michigan Avenue traffic, I smelled something vaguely tropical. It was emanating from the nearby Dole station, where corporate chefs had just set out a sausage-and-peach pizza. “I’ve never seen a pizza like that in my life,” exclaimed a woman from Oklahoma. When she learned it contained onions, though, she sighed and handed the sample to her husband.
As late morning turned to early afternoon, a manic energy filled the crowding hall. Single-minded men in thick gloves stroked knives behind a table at the Double ‘D’ Knitting and Gloves booth, sternly showing off the hand-wear’s cut resistance. I posed for a photograph with an eight-foot-tall inflated Pillsbury Doughboy. A Pillsbury employee insisted that someone inhabited the figure, but it only swayed and waved like a robot. Was it remote-controlled? No, she told me again, there’s someone in there.
Next, I shuttled through a devotional lunch-on-the-run. I consumed a wet chunk of rubbery Italian-spiced turkey burger from the Rose Packing Company, then a slice of smokehouse-jack cheese pizza at the California Milk Advisory Board’s stand, then a gluten-free Margherita slice from Venice Bakery. After that I went on a chicken spree: an OK Foods dry boneless wing, a hunk of fried chicken with tangy barbecue sauce by Wayne Farms, and finally a cartilage-forward Brakebush chicken tender. If I had parachuted down into the middle of this expo, I might have guessed it was hosted by a poultry association.
At a white plastic table under a red Birra Moretti umbrella, I washed everything down with a four-ounce cup of the Heineken International–owned brewing company’s Italian lager—“like Budweiser, but better,” the bartender asserted. Indeed, it mercifully lacked the American lager’s battery-acid finish.
After that feast, I felt like I had swallowed a triple dose of expired sedatives. A dull, brown rainbow of vinyl table covers at the Americo Inc. station emanated a damning force field of sadness, a muffled knock to my stuffed being. I needed a little help.
A lighthouse flashed over at the Betson Enterprises’ exhibit of amusement devices. I sat at the wheel of a Cruis’n Blast arcade game and raced a yellow Corvette through Death Valley. I came in first place. Mid victory stroll, I encountered “the industry’s largest pizza box” (72″ by 72″) at the Arvco Container Corporation’s stall. A staffer declared that one of his colleagues “had to drive the box to Las Vegas from our headquarters in Kalamazoo, because there was no way to ship it.”
Around half past noon, the hall swarmed with glistening, chewing faces. A frenzy picked up at the Vienna Beef tables; the delegates wanted their miniature hot dogs immediately. I stepped outside for a breather.
By the loading docks, forklifts shifted wooden crates around the sunlit asphalt. A security guard on her lunch break stood under an awning eating a bag of peanuts and drinking a Pepsi. This was a busy set of days at the 1.94-million-square-foot Las Vegas Convention Center. In the south hall, the Digital Signage Expo was taking place (6,000 attendees); in the central hall, the Night Club and Bar Show was underway (39,000 attendees). A chain-smoking pizza account manager barked into his phone about a Safeway deal and then blasted his travel arrangements. “We’ll be at O’Hare at fucking four o’clock in the morning if we got an eleven forty-five flight out of here tomorrow,” he complained. A pigeon poked around in the butts on the ground and found a morsel of crust.
What are today’s pizza professionals looking for? If they want what the exhibitors at the International Pizza Expo were hawking, they want elements of surprise to add to their pies, and various forms of processed meat to serve beside or within the flat circle—and they want them ready-made and easy to incorporate among the cheese. This business can only get bigger and faster and easier to operate, the thinking seems to go, if we take an anything-goes approach to ingredients and further undergird the whole enterprise with surefire, labor-saving technology.
Back inside, chewing on a fried puff of San Felice dough stuffed with melted mozzarella and topped with a splash of marinara and a strip of fresh mozzarella, I walked over to the Forza Forni station. The Brewster, New York–based distributors and servicers of “America’s Most Exclusive Italian Brick Ovens” had hired a stocky, black-suited a capella vocalist, Dominick Ranieri, to provide entertainment at the threshold of their freight-container-walled exhibit. The singer stood among a scattered pile of yellowing sheet music—“All the Way,” “The Shadow of Your Smile,” “Strangers in the Night”—and between takes nursed a cough with sips of hot tea. “This is the first song I ever sang, in kindergarten,” he told the passersby. And then he crooned “Everybody Loves Somebody.”
I’d heard the United States Postal Service would be present at the show, and I wanted to know why, but I’d yet to encounter their booth. So I consulted the Pizza Expo app on my phone and found their address: N2326. I got sidetracked on my route: first by the constant up and down movements of a Detecto-brand Dump Commander mechanical trash-can lifter (“Quickly lift up to 150-lb trash cans with the push of a button,” cheered the brochure); then by the sizzling griddle at Ritter’s Authentic Philly Sandwich Steaks, whose literature pledged cuts “processed from American grown beef, available flat steak or puck style.”
After I downed a salty slice of Polly-O mozzarella, formed on site from company curds, I finally found the USPS and chatted with a member of its sales department. He merrily outlined the benefits pizza businesses see when they partner with the agency for direct-mail marketing purposes, as well as the use of the carrier’s services for the shipping and handling of spatulas, slicers, and other kitchen tools. He gave me a branded pen and we shook hands.
At two P.M., a carbohydrate- and fat-induced lethargy came to rule over the hall. All went still, and then the place began to empty out. I returned to Dominick Ranieri’s shadow to witness the exodus. He sang “Call Me Irresponsible,” and then “Come Fly with Me,” and he had a funny way of cutting the songs off about two-thirds of the way through; not out of vacant apathy, it seemed, but rather with the veteran’s hard-earned nonchalance.
Somewhere down the lane I stopped for a bland spoonful of Italian lentils. Exhibit hours would be ending at three thirty—soon. I took a few pieces of warm chocolate-chip cookies from the Sweet Street bakery station, which paired surprisingly well with an Art of Meat bread and butter pickle. I topped that off with a demitasse of cane sugar-sweetened Mexican Sprite, followed by a dose of high-fructose corn-syrup American Sprite Cherry.
I fell into the straitjacket of a plump pleather massage chair and took a kneading. I closed my eyes and saw a scary prospect. Would I, too, be flattened and baked? I asked the attendant to release me, and made for the exits.
Joshua Baldwin’s recent dispatches from Las Vegas have appeared at The Daily and at the Los Angeles Review of Books.