TELLURIDE – Telluride’s Brown Dog Pizza staked its first big claim to fame last September, when co-owner Jeff “Smoke” Smokevitch’s notorious Via Italia 313 Pizza took second place at the American Pizza Championship in Florida.
The 313, so-named for the Detroit area code whence this pizza (and Smokevich himself) originally hail, wowed judges with its crispy yet airy deep-dish crust (baked in a special blue steel square-shaped pan) smeared with whipped ricotta cheese, whole milk mozzarella and Wisconsin white cheddar cheese, then piled high with dry Italian salami, red Italian and sweet picante peppers, and arugula.
Hanging the American Pizza Championship plaque alongside the Brown Dog’s other sports-themed memorabilia, including Smokevitch’s own jersey from his days as a linebacker on the National Championship-winning University of Michigan football team, Smokevitch agreed that the achievement was a good one. But, he was quick to add, not good enough.
In an interview with The Watch after his win last fall, Smokevitch said: “I plan to keep competing until I win.”
And in the true spirit of competition, that’s exactly what Smokevitch did.
Smokevitch and his Via Italia 313 took home the gold at last month’s World Pizza Games in Las Vegas, putting this collegiate athlete-turned-pizza virtuoso on the map as one of the preeminent Detroit-style pizza-makers on the map. Judges named his pie the very best of all in the American Pan division, earning him the title of World Champion – and Smokevitch has the trophy to prove it, a memento that will no doubt find its place among the other championship banners and plaques adorning the walls at Telluride’s beloved sport’s bar and (now) internationally famous pizzeria.
The kudos he earned from his fellow pizza-makers, including his original pizza “coach” (and 12-time pizza world champion Tony Gemignani), proved a highlight of the World Championship win, Smokevitch says, but the personal recognition as a world-class pizza chef has proved to be just the sauce on the crust, so to speak.
“This is all about promoting the Detroit-style pizza,” Smokevitch says of the rigorous preparations he undertakes for events like the World Pizza Games, which include mixing dough in his Bellagio hotel room (using dechlorinated water brought from Telluride) in the trusty Kitchen-Aide mixer (also brought from Telluride); searching high and low throughout Las Vegas for a specialty Italian food markets that carry his favored kind of dry salami; and, ultimately, taking his born-at-9,000-feet recipe to a commercial kitchen at an event attended by 6,000 people – and hoping it will work.
As he explains, only a few years ago hardly anyone in the pizza industry had even heard of Detroit-style pizza, a style of square deep-dish pie that boasts a light and crispy one-and-a-half inch crust with cheese smeared right to the edge and rich red sauce daubed over the top of a sea of melted cheeses. The Brown Dog is still the only restaurant in Colorado that serves Detroit-style pizza that Smokevitch knows of.
“My goal is to educate and promote about this style of pizza,” he explains of his presence on the international pizza competition circuit.
With his win at the World Pizza Games Smokevitch won a berth to the Italian World Pizza Championships, coming up April 14-16 in Salsomaggiore, Italy. Other pizza gurus have warned him not to take the Via Italia 313 to this traditionally minded competition, since the Detroit-style may be just too new-fangled for the Italian pizza purists likely to be judging the competition.
But Smokevitch is sticking to his guns.
“If I can do well there, that will solidify the Detroit-style as the new style of pizza, not just for the U.S., but worldwide,” he said.
And, if Smokevitch has his way, someday soon the Detroit-style will be as well known as its more familiar cousins, the New York and Chicago. And who knows? Maybe Little Ceasar’s and Pizza Hut will start featuring pizzas topped with arugula; a sure sign that this Telluride-bred pizza chef has made his mark in the culinary world.