Pizza makers debate what makes a great slice

Several area pizza makers said a good pie has to start with a good foundation.

“You have to have good dough,” said Nick Frankos, owner of Buena Vista Cafe in Warren. “That’s the key.”

Nicole Brewer, who owns Tiger’s Den Pizza in Newton Falls with her husband, Alexander, swore by their sauce.

“When we took over from Oven Fresh, we changed the sauce and saw our sales double,” she said. “It’s a good sauce.”

Others argued it’s the perfect balance of crust, sauce and cheese that make the difference.

“It’s everything,” said Ken Haidaris of Sunrise Inn in Warren. “The dough has to be handled just right. We slow cook our sauce, and you have to use quality cheese. It’s like a Reese’s Cup. Separately, all its ingredients are just OK, but put them together and it’s incredible.”

Those pizza vendors and others will get to put their philosophies to the test at the third Slice of the Valley, a Warren Rotary fundraiser, on Sunday at the Metroplex Expo Center in Liberty.

This year’s event will feature 19 area pizza places competing for the judges’ votes for best cheese pizza and best specialty pizza and the attendees’ votes in the people’s choice category.

This is the third year for Slice, and Belleria Pizza — which has 12 locations in Trumbull, Mahoning and Columbiana counties — has won best cheese pizza each of the first two years. Owner Bill Liberato said he believes all three main components are important.

“It’s just the top-of-the-line quality ingredients that go into a recipe that’s been transferred from my grandmother to my mother and down to us,” he said. “We have never sacrificed our quality.”

Ianazone’s, which started in McDonald in 1984 and has grown to 14 locations in northeast Ohio, also has finished in the top three for best cheese pizza both years and won people’s choice in 2017. Owner Jim Ianazone also stressed the importance of quality control.

“We make dough fresh every day,” he said. “Our dough has a 12- to 15-hour shelf life, then it gets thrown out. We make sauce every day and even use our own special blend of cheese that gets made in Wisconsin.”

The cheese blend features 60 percent provolone and 40 percent mozzarella (with 3 percent milkfat in the mozzarella), Ianazone said.

Ianazone’s has given out more than 1,000 slices each of the last two years, and the employees who work the event donate their time.

“It’s good for the community and helps out a lot of different places, like the Warren Family Mission,” Ianazone said.

It’s also a good way for the businesses to introduce their product to new customers.

Terri Barbe, general manager of Russo’s Pizza in Mineral Ridge, said they noticed new customers after participating in last year’s event in Warren. And with this year’s show in Liberty, she expects it to reach potential customers from a different part of the region.

Even established businesses can get a boost. Buena Vista opened in 1943, but it’s still best known for its fried chicken.

“To compare apples to apples, Sunrise is known for its pizza, but it also sells fried chicken,” Frankos said. “We’re known for our chicken but we also sell pizza. It’s a good way to get our product out there, and we think it’s pretty darn good.”

That’s one of the reasons Primanti Bros. participated in the 2017 edition of Slice. General Manager Mike Gallo said it was a way to let people know that the Pittsburgh-based restaurant, which opened a Niles location at Eastwood Mall in 2016, did more than sandwiches. Primanti Bros. ended up winning the specialty category with its steak pizza.

“It’s just something different,” Gallo said. “Not a lot of places have that. We use Angus steak with peppers and onions on a white pizza base. There are not a lot of pizzas like that out there.”

That doesn’t mean they’re going to bring it back this year. Gallo said he wanted to keep their plans a surprise. Many of the other competitors also were keeping their specialty pizza entries secret in advance.

Ianazone said his staff will be bringing a variety of specialty pizzas to Slice of the Valley, and Frankos said Buena Vista will serve its Grecian pizza.

“It’s a huge seller, and we’re Greek,” he said. “We put Italian greens on a Greek pizza with tomatoes, onions, hot peppers and feta.”