Mama always said don’t play with your food, but it’s advice Tucson pizza maker Scott Volpe never really took to heart.
He prefers throwing his food.
He takes a ball of dough, flattens it out then tosses it in the air.
He flips it above his head, catches it midair, tosses it behind his back, then between his legs, back in the air and above his head.
He has lightening fast hands when it comes to tossing and stretching pizza dough in a dizzying display that goes on for several minutes.
It’s performance art that has earned him a trip to Italy to perform in the 2016 pizza championships in Parma in April as a member of the U.S. Pizza Team.
Last month, he snagged first place in pizza freestyle — that’s the fancy tossing tricks — and second in pizza making — stretching the dough into a pie — at the North America Pizza and Ice Cream Show winter trials in Columbus, Ohio. Next stop: Parma, where Volpe, owner of the 2-year-old Tucson mobile pizzeria Fiamme Pizza Napoletana, will perform against pizzaiolos from around the world.
“It’s definitely the hardest one in the world. Everybody comes from all over the world,” the 24-year-old Mountain View High School alum said.
Volpe, who launched his wood-fired pizza business in California before moving back home 18 months ago, got his start in pizza acrobatics when he worked at a Long Beach, California, pizzeria known for its pie tossing antics. Cooks — sometimes working in pairs — would toss the pies in the air while customers watched.
One of his bosses suggested Volpe enter a competition.
“I was a little bit skeptical about it at first because I didn’t think I was that good,” he said. “But I liked it.”
It took three or four weeks of practice to get his hands to cooperate with his brain; muscle memory is key in these contests. Once he had that down, his confidence level soared. Last year he placed second in freestyle in the qualifying contests with the U.S. Pizza Team — think of it as the Olympics team for pizza — and followed up with this year’s top finishes.
His routine has evolved to include choreography and some crazy antics.
“Sometimes I do it blindfolded,” he said. “I put the dough on fire. I do a one-handed handstand and throw it through my shoulder. I juggle two between my legs.”
He leaves the blindfold at home and doesn’t play with fire outside of cooking when he pulls his mobile oven up to Tap and Bottle downtown on Wednesday nights and to other venues throughout the week including the monthly Second Saturdays Downtown. But if he’s not too busy, he will give you a show to go with your bubbling Margherita pie.
Volpe has worked in restaurants since he was a teen growing up on the northwest side. He played basketball at Mountain View High School and later at Pima Community College before going to California. Once he landed the job in the pizza restaurant, he said he found his passion.
“I kind of fell in love with it. I’ve had a lot of training and a lot of guidance the last five years,” he said, adding that he has studied pizza making in L.A., New York and Italy.
His Fiamme Pizza Napoletano is a simple operation; he hauls his wood-fired oven on the back of a trailer and sets up with covered seating areas. Sometimes he gets friends or family to work with him, but on most nights he’s a one-man show.
Volpe said the U.S. Pizza Team competitions are fun, but they also are good for business.
“I go to all these shows and people ask me if I’m the owner. It helps me get new connections with distributors, and people from all over the country come visit me to try my pizza,” he said.