Throwing dough, breakdancing and spinning multiple pizzas at once all while simultaneously running a successful pizzeria is all in a day's work for local chef and pizza acrobat Scott Volpe.
Volpe, owner of Fiamme Pizza on Sunrise and Swan, recently claimed the title of World Champion of Pizza Acrobatics for the third time.
Pizza acrobatics is arguably the most fun category at the World Pizza Championships, held annually in Parma, Italy. Pizza masters and dough spinners from around the world come together to celebrate all things pizza and to prove their chops at spinning dough.
Working in an L.A. pizza restaurant, Tucson native Volpe discovered his love for pizza and the culture that surrounds it. Starting as a dishwasher and moving his way around to work most of the positions in the kitchen, Volpe picked up some dough and tried to copy the masters.
"When you are around people that are so passionate, it rubs off on you," Volpe said.
Volpe saw the smiles and laughs from restaurant goers when the chefs spun dough, and decided he wanted to try. After warranting laughs from his failures, and ribbing from the restaurant manager, Volpe started to get a feel for pizza acrobatics.
Volpe's first venture into the ESPN-covered sport was at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas.
"I didn't really take it seriously until I got to Vegas," Volpe said, "then I thought, 'Wow, I'm not ready for this.'"
The competition inspired Volpe, however, and he vowed put in the effort to step up his skills.
"I said wait until next year, I'm going to come back and you guys are going to remember me," Volpe said.
It was at one of the competitions in Las Vegas that Volpe met his friend and mentor Nino Coniglio.
Coniglio, who owns six pizzerias and four other businesses in New York City, has made his mark on the pizza industry, both in the culinary and acrobatics categories.
As a past winner of the Caputo Cup, Champion Pizza Maker of the Year at the Las Vegas Pizza Expo and mastermind behind the Brooklyn Pizza Crew, Coniglio was entertained by Volpe, who joked around with him not realizing who he was talking to.
But Coniglio saw potential and energy in Volpe that lead to their friendship and mentorship.
"He's literally like the hardest working dude in pizza," Coniglio said of Volpe, explaining the amount of work he puts in with his mobile oven at farmers' markets, at Fiamme Pizza and with practicing acrobatics.
"I came out to see him and I was shocked," Coniglio said. "You just worked like 20 hours straight then you got up and do it all again."
Volpe, however, modestly downplays his efforts, explaining that he wouldn't be where he is today without a lifetime full of mentors.
When it comes to his moves, Volpe studies breakdancing with local dance groups in Tucson, picking up new skills and—with Coniglio's help—applying them to pizza acrobatics.
"Sure I told him to do it, but he had to do it," Coniglio said of Volpe's breakdancing. "He put in an insane amount of work."
Volpe practices pizza acrobatics for a minimum of 30 minutes a day leading up to the competitions, and explained that spinning pizza is definitely a sport.
"You are basically an athlete," Volpe said. "And when you travel all that way [to Italy] your body has to be right."
The sport is one of friendship and comradery, however, rather than cutthroat competition.
"It's like a track meet, friendly competition," Volpe said. "It's not like football where you really hate the other guy."
The pizza competitions are a place where small business owners and chefs network and share tips and tricks of the trade.
"Our main competition is the big chains," Coniglio explained. "We want to bring the industry closer together to help each other."
If there's one thing true pizza chefs dislike, it's the mass-produced, bread-heavy greasy pizza that controls the American market.
When Volpe decided to get serious about opening a pizza shop, he moved to Italy to study the art of pizza making. He became fluent in Italian and learned the secrets of the cuisine. He brought his knowledge back and applies it to everything he does.
"I put the same effort into my acrobatics as I do into my pizza," Volpe said.
Most of the ingredients Volpe uses at Fiamme are imported from Italy, along with the recipes and techniques.
"90 percent of the time, the guys that do the acrobatics, their pizza sucks," Coniglio said. But not Volpe. "He makes the best pizza in Tucson, the best Neopolitan in the Southwest."
Not only has Volpe taken home trophies for his acrobatics, but his culinary accolades are growing as fast as his business. At the World Pizza Championships, Volpe competes in culinary categories and has come in the top ten.
In 2017, he was awarded the prestigious Rising Star Award at the Caputo Cup. In Naples, Italy, there are two important factors essential to the pizza-making world, Caputo Flour and Ciao Tomatoes.
Costantino Cutolo, the son of the owner of Ciao, died of stomach cancer when he was only 40 years old. As an essential part of the modernization of the factory and a beloved figure in pizza making, the Rising Star award was added to the prestigious Caputo Cup competition in his honor.
"The award is given to a young person rising up in the industry," said Fred Mortati of Orlando Foods, a food importer of fine Italian ingredients and friend of Cutolo. "They have to have passion, professionalism, dedication and hard work. Scott Volpe really checks all those boxes."
Mortati explained that skill in pizza making is a requirement for consideration of the award, but the winner is someone who goes above and beyond making great pizza.
"Because it's named in honor of Costantino, it's really a great achievement," Mortati said.
Despite his achievements and accolades, Volpe continues to strive to improve. While still focusing on pizza acrobatics, his wins in that category have made him hungry to win in the culinary rounds. Volpe explained he will continue to compete in pizza acrobatics, but he is switching his focus to making the best pizza possible.
For Volpe, the most important part of his pizza is the dough. Fiamme makes a fermented dough that rests for at least 24 hours, providing a thin crust with irregular bubbles framing the buffalo mozzarella and fresh ingredients.
Tangy tomato sauce compliments classic toppings cooked to perfection. Antipasti, calzones and dessert Nutella pizza are also on the menu, along with a rotating special.
Every Monday, classic margherita pizzas are half price. Tucked in the back of a Safeway parking lot, this tiny pizza joint is a true hidden gem, and if you're lucky, Volpe might just spin a few pizzas for you.