GREENVILLE — When Dan Uccello begins crafting a pizza, he may appear to be a chef following a simple recipe, but in his mind, the process goes well beyond the realm of the kitchen.
In cooking up his latest creation Wednesday at Flo’s Pizzeria Ristorante on Plainfield Avenue north of Grand Rapids, Dan used a sense of care and detail one might expect from an artist painting on a canvas.
“Pizza is art, and that’s it exactly,” he said. “When we create these pizzas, you almost don’t want to eat it.”
Dan and his brother, Davide Uccello — owners of three pizza restaurants including Flo’s Pizzeria Ristorante & Sports Bar in Greenville — took their pizza talents to Parma, Italy, in May to compete in the 26th Annual World Pizza Championship.
The brothers were on the United States Pizza Team after competing well in pizza competitions in Las Vegas and Ohio, with some unexpected success.
Hundreds of pizza chefs from more than 30 countries made their way to the worldwide competition to compete for the title of World Champion in 10 categories. It was in the category of “classico” that Dan was shocked to hear his name called for the best pizza in the United States.
“Going to Italy was supposed to be just for the experience, competing at a national level, but we came out with an award for best pizza in America,” Dan said. “But this was a team effort. When we were out there, the U.S. Pizza Team really helped me out in how to compete at an international level.”
Dan’s award-winning pizza is officially called “Pizza D’Italia” and he describes choosing each ingredient as being a tie to his own Italian heritage. Rather than a traditional pizza sauce, Dan uses a fig preserve to spread on hand-tossed homemade dough.
“I chose fig preserves because our family is from Sicily and figs are huge in Sicily,” he said. “I grew up around them on my grandpa’s farm. I wanted to use an ingredient that really had some history behind it while also having a good balance with the pizza.”
Next, Dan places slices of fresh mozzarella cheese, followed by the sprinkling of some gorgonzola and asiago cheeses.
From there, the pizza bakes for a little more than eight minutes. Dan then tops the pizza with arugula to create a barrier between the heat of the pizza and the next ingredient, slices of prosciutto di Parma.
He tops the pizza off with black and white balsamic pearls.
“This pizza is supposed to be a light pizza, so it’s very light on everything — a great summer pizza,” he said.
It’s that last ingredient of balsamic pearls that Dan says may have helped him create the “Best Pizza in America.”
Upon traveling to Italy, the Uccello brothers lost their luggage for four days, which included most of the ingredients for their pizzas. This resulted in an impromptu shopping trip throughout Italy to acquire their ingredients.
“We were supposed to use a balsamic glaze,” Dan said. “ But the glaze we found was too sweet, so a team member suggested using the pearls. I had never even heard of them before, but we ended up using them, and it was beautiful. It looks like caviar on pizza.”
Throughout their experience, the brothers used much of their time away from the competition to enter the kitchens of cooks throughout Italy.
“We went out to eat two to three times a day to learn about the restaurants and their menus,” Dan said. “We were able to actually get back in some of their kitchens and watch and cook with them. You can’t get a better experience than that. Everything was fresh. When we were cooking fresh seafood, they were rolling in carts of fish that were still moving.”
The trip served as a learning experience for the brothers to bring back new ideas to their restaurant business in West Michigan.
“Pizza is very different over there than it is over here. Not just the style, but the significance of it. It’s a culture,” Davide said. “People live, breath and die with pizza. Their father was a pizza maker, their grandfather was a pizza maker. So for a lot of the people we were competing against, this is all they know.
“Learning from that, and bringing it back, is something that means a lot to Dan and I, because we were born and raised in Italy,” he continued. “We’ve been making pizza for about 10 years now. When we went over there, you start to realize the difference between true, authentic Italian pizza and pizza here. So for us to be able to bring this authenticity back to the United States, it’s what we’re going to keep doing, and we love to do it.”
Overall, Flo’s was a contributor with three pizzas at the competition: Dan’s first-place “Pizza D’Italia,” a “Rustica” pizza, and a “Pizza di Calabria.”
While the pizzas are not yet regular menu items, a special event Monday at the Greenville Flo’s location will allow patrons a chance to order all three. Paired with beers from Perrin Brewing Company of Comstock Park, the pizzas will be available to order from 5 to 8 p.m. or as long as ingredients last.
“I bought a lot of ingredients,” Dan said with a smile. “If we have ingredients left over we’ll carry the pizzas out throughout the week. The customers are absolutely loving this pizza so far. We only serve it as a 12-inch pizza right now, and it’s such a light pizza, that most people are eating the whole thing.”
Davide said the “Pizza D’Italia” offers a nice contrast between sweet and salty flavors.
“It’s sweet, with the fig preserves that Dan has put on there, but it also has the saltiness of the prosciutto, and bitterness of the arugula,” he said.