I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I moseyed into The Island Pub last Sunday. It was their fifth annual pizza contest, and I imagined myself an observer (for the sake of my new food column), perched on a barstool with an Arnold Palmer and a notepad. Much to my surprise I was offered a seat on the judges' panel by The Island Pub's owner, Rick Kasnick. Good thing I skipped lunch.
After twelve slices of pizza, it felt more like a pizza eating contest, but nay, our job was to determine the most delicious three pizzas of the bunch. First, second, and third place winners not only receive prizes (this year: $250 cash for first place, $150 in gift certificates for second place, and $100 in gift certificates for third place), but a prestigious spot on the menu for the coming year. As the menu states, "Be sure to enter this year and become immortal!"
Immortality through pizza may be a stretch, but the event has certainly lured more and more contestants. This year there were between 70 and 75 entries. Contestants fill out a simple form, building their pizzas from a list of sauces, cheeses, and toppings, with room for special instructions. Each pie uses The Island Pub's signature crispy-chewy brick oven crust. Entries are accepted through the month of April, and are reviewed by the head cooks, Zak Fisher, David Anderson, and Nick Courtis, who pare down the stack to 12 finalists. On the big day (usually in early May), a group of randomly selected customer-based judges sit down with pens and score sheets, as the kitchen churns out the 12 finalist pies.
"We try to get 16 judges," said Kasnick, "because there are 16 pieces of pizza per pie. We cut them into really small pieces, because you have to taste 12 different pizzas."
The Island Pub prides itself on being a neighborhood hang out, with its unobtrusive façade, and stylishly laid-back atmosphere. As fellow judge Blair Marcotte put it, "There's something about this place that just makes you want to get involved."
"It's very customer-centric," added her husband, Jim Marcotte.
When I asked the Marcottes how they were chosen for the panel Jim replied, "We were pulling by on our bicycles earlier today."
As soon as the kitchen gave the green light, we were seated at a long table and served pie after pie, some piled high with toppings, some spartan and simple, some delicate and sweet, and some explosive in flavor. I counted only one without raw or roasted garlic on it, and was surprised by how few used traditional marinara sauce.
Although there was little discussion about the pies (we were too busy chewing and writing), the winners definitely generated sparks around the table. The second place winner, a pizza called "Loco Luau" by Jon and Kristen Stearns, drew a lot of comments about the sweet/hot interplay between barbecue sauce, Canadian bacon, pineapple, and jalapeño. Third place winners, Linda Daniel and Aleeza St.Clair, stoked the panel with the earthy succulence of crimini mushrooms and toasty pine nuts against the spicy zip of Italian sausage.
But it was the first place pie that seemed to bring a reverent sort of hush to the table. For a moment, all the clinking of tableware and glasses and jovial mutterings stopped, and we all just stared. "The Don" by Nat Lazzaretti was in my opinion the most beautiful and dare I say transportive pizza of the bunch. Little white clouds of fresh mozzarella floated on a canvas of bright tomato sauce, along with crimini mushrooms, parmesan cheese, pepperoni, Italian sausage, shaved garlic, sun dried tomatoes, and fresh green basil. For a split-second upon tasting it, I was in a Naples pizzeria. I've been looking forward to my next trip to Italy via Douglas Island ever since.
The Island Pub, located at 1102 2nd Street in Douglas, serves food from 11:30 am to 10 pm, seven days a week. Prices range from $12.50 to $18.95 for pizzas, and from $4.95 to $11.95 for appetizers, salads, sandwiches and wraps. For more information call the Island Pub at 364-1595.
Ginny Mahar is a trained chef and food writer who works at Rainbow Foods. She writes about all things "food" in Juneau, from cooking with local ingredients to restaurant news and food events. View more of her food writing at ginnymahar.blogspot.com.
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