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Pizza Meet

A Report From the National Pizza and Pasta Show

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A large sign on the booth proclaimed "Doomsday for Roaches" and offered a money-back guarantee. The display featured a cheese-and-sausage pizza with a most unusual additional topping--king-sized cockroaches.

Presumably they'd been done in by the product advertised, Perma Proof, the brainchild of north-side exterminator Jerry Goldman. The former LA actor turned roach buster was only one of more than 250 exhibitors at last weekend's first annual National Pizza and Pasta Show at McCormick Place, sponsored by the Pizza Industry Manufacturers' Association.

The pizza industry, at $60 billion a year and growing, has grabbed a pretty big slice of the convenience-food pie. Recent surveys show that pizza is now the carryout food of choice and closing fast on the burger as the overall most popular convenience food. Americans eat approximately 80 acres of pizza on an average day, and McDonald's is testing a five-and-ahalf-inch pie that would be frozen, then heated in the store--to be called, naturally, the McPizza.

The three-day trade show, which was closed to the public but attended by 10,000 food distributors and equipment dealers, had all the ingredients for success. At this show, which featured 350 exhibits, including pasta products and fast-food items, exhibitors looked for a way to exploit the lucrative gourmet-food market. There were new-age pizzas made with goat's-milk cheese and sun-dried tomatoes, pizza with smoked toppings, spicy Cajun-style pizza, and taco pizza sprinkled with chili powder.

Many of the products--among them a fruit-stuffed pizza--were clearly geared to the tastes of the health club generation. Sue Sertes, a supplier from Warsaw, Indiana, said California's healthy life-styles are beginning to influence pizza-eating habits. "We're seeing more use of fish-type products, vegetables, chicken toppings, and other healthful ingredients on pizza," she said.

Exhibitors also displayed nonpizza products--everything from ovens that bake a pizza in less than six minutes to pizza parlors on wheels, like Good Humor trucks but equipped to sell pizza by the slice. Other hot items were all-natural dough additives, which the manufacturer claimed made soggy pizza a thing of the past; designer pizza delivery bags in bold colors; thermal bags for keeping your pizza hot, when youre on an outing to the beach, for example; and a National Pizza Credit Card.

The credit card is the brainstorm of Californian Michael Piancone, a founder of the U.S. Pizza Network. Piancone said that a pizza parlor can sign up with the network and then issue cards and a $100 line of credit (guaranteed by the network) to anyone who is employed. They're targeting those between the ages of 18 and 24. Piancone plans to offer his credit-card service to all 50,000 independent pizza operators across the country.

"We're going to be the Century 21 of pizza," he said. "This will help the mom-and-pop pizza shops compete against the giant chains."

The pizza-convention business itself is growing because the industry is expanding so rapidly. The large turnout for the Chicago show pleased promoter Drew Axelrod, who said the manufacturers' group now plans not only to keep the yearly national convention in Chicago but to mount a smaller show in New York City.

There is a larger and more established industry trade show, not sponsored by the manufacturers' group, which is held each year in Las Vegas, Pizza Expo. But Chicago pizza makers claim that the, Windy City is the "Pizza Capital of the World" and deserves to be the site of a world-class convention.

Rudi Malnati, a member of one of Chicago's most famous pizza-making families, explained that Chicago has earned the championship title with such innovative contributions as deep-dish and stuffed pizzas. "Pizza started here in 1942," Malnati claimed. "Chicago-style deep-dish pizza started at Pizzeria Uno. My grandfather and Rick Riccardo made pizza come of age."

But Albert Sarno, owner of Sarno's Handmade Pizza (a frozen product), said that as far as he is concerned, the Malnatis are the new kids on the block. He said his family has been making world-famous Chicago-style pizza since 1936. "We were one of the first pizza makers in this city--if not the first," he insisted.

Sarno did agree, however, that Chicago is the proper location for a national pizza convention. "I've traveled all over the world," he said, "and you can't beat the textures and ingredients of Chicago pizza."

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