Growing up in an Italian-German family in Shaler, Eric Von Hansen got to know the culinary specialities from his Mom and Grandma, especially their pizza.
“We ate a lot of Grandma-style pizza,” he said — dough left over from baking, left to rise on a pan, topped with “whatever you had in the refrigerator.”
Now the chef at Caliente Pizza & Draft House, Von Hansen tried his hand at the creation, and it turned out well — so well that his Mee-Maw pie was named the best pizza in America at the Pizza World Championships in Parma, Italy, earlier this month. Caliente’s creation, which competed in the pizza taglio division, was the only American competitor to take home a prize.
You can find the Mee-Maw pizza at Caliente’s five locations (Aspinwall, Bloomfield, Hampton, Monroeville, and Mt. Lebanon) starting May 1. We got to try a slice in advance and find out what makes it so special.
The Mee-Maw pizza starts with a five-day fermented dough topped with olive oil and five-year aged parmesan. Then, there’s the rapini, peppered bacon, shallots, garlic, onion, and crushed plum tomato.
Next up is the key to this dish: The porchetta.
Finally, it’s topped off with shaved black truffle pecorino romano, salt, pepper, and more aged parmesan.
For the competition, Von Hansen sourced every ingredient from Italy, drawing inspiration from a 10-day food tour he took alongside Caliente’s owner Nick Bogacz. The parmesan came from Parma, the porchetta from a small butcher in San Gimignano, and even the water for the dough was Italian tap water.
So, how is he going to make sure the dish still holds up outside of Italy?
Von Hansen said he worked to source ingredients that tasted like the ones he found in Italy.
The rapini comes from a local purveyor, the parmigiano-reggiano comes from Greco in the Strip District, and the porchetta will be imported from Italy.
“I’m not going to find the true (porchetta) that I got from a gentleman in Florence, but I’m going to do him justice and do one as close as humanly possible,” Von Hansen said.
Eric Von Hansen in his Aspinwall kitchen.Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
Like Grandma used to make
No doubt, the ingredients make this pizza special. But there’s another special quality as well.
The pizza is named “Mee-Maw” as an homage to Von Hansen’s Grandmother and Mother, and he takes that seriously.
“Putting it on there with a little love just like Grandma,” he said in the kitchen while spreading rapini across the dough.
His Mom, also called “Mee-Maw” in their family, taught the chef how to cook and she has yet to try his latest creation.
“She always told me, ‘I know it’s going to be good because you make it with love.'”
The Pizza World Championships pitted more than 2,000 competitors against one another in an epic battle for pizza excellence. A panel of judges scrutinized each competitor in a four-day tournament, monitoring everything from taste to kitchen organization.
Caliente’s team competed against 160 American entrants for their prize.
This isn’t the former fine dining chef’s first award for his pizza. He took home major honors at the International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas, including the world championship in the 2016 Pan division with the “Quack Attack” duck pie, first place in the Non-Traditional Northeast division for a “Hangar Steak” pie in 2017, and the Non-Traditional world championship in 2018 for his “Wagyu Beef Truffle Fromage.”
Now, he can add an international award to the list.
Grating cheese at the speed of lightning.Rossilynne Culgan / The Incline
Love at first bite
So, is it actually the best in America?
Well, I’ve eaten a lot of pizza (like, possibly more pizza than any human ever should). From Chicago deep dish to Brooklyn style to Colorado pizza with honey. Does this top Giordano’s or Grimaldi’s or Beau Jo’s? Honestly, it’s tough to say without tasting them all at the same time.
But I can tell you this pizza was special. I expected it to be too salty, the combination of porchetta and bacon and my tastebuds (which very rarely encounter meat). I anticipated that the spongy-looking dough wouldn’t get crisp enough. I lamented the lack of red sauce.
At first bite, I realized all of my concerns were unfounded. The crispy porchetta had an almost sweet taste, rather than the saltiness I feared. The dough maintained a soft quality but crisped to a golden brown on the outside, making for a hearty crunch in each bite. I didn’t miss the red sauce.
I went back for seconds and thirds. Then, I even brought leftover slices to my coworkers pushing it on them with an insistent “Eat! Eat!” just like every Italian Mee-Maw or Nonna I’ve ever met. It’s the kind of pizza that’s good enough to devour yourself — but it’s even better to share.