“Et Tu, Bruno?”

Is it Bruno di Fabio, the fun-loving friend and happy-go-lucky pizza guy? Or Bruno di Hyde, selling his soul for a win?

We arrived in Salsomaggiore after a grueling 7-hour ride from the Almalfi Coast, thanks to Bruno’s penchant for driving at the speed of sound. This time I was grateful because the Alfa Romeo we were promised in Rome was totalled. The rental company gave us a smaller Fiat that barely fit us and our bags. The back-seaters (myself and Mike) were stuck like caterpillers in a coccoon.

From San Francisco: Audry, Nancy and Tony Gemignani with Bruno and Leo from Chicago.

I can truly say that Bruno di Fabio is one of my few best friends. Having him as a friend entitles this bearer to countless hours of fun, ruthless and even criminal banter. He is interested in everything under the sun, a curiosity that would make mere mortal scientists’ heads spin. He can also be sensitive and honest at the most inappropriate moments, saying stuff like, “You know John, that’s why I like you, you’ve got the sharpest wit I’ve ever encountered.” (Then the zing.) “Now if only your pizzas didn’t taste like s—- .”

Bruno enters your life like a bullfighter strutting into the ring, wearing only a thong. You must pay attention to him. He demands it. With just a cock of his head and inquisitive eyes, he can either bore a drill-hole into your face or gently taunt you with his smooth charisma.

Two World Champions, Tony Gemignani and Bruno di Fabio; The World Pizza Champions en masse.

After countless years of coming to Salsomaggiore, Italy, I was about to have a front row seat in a play called “The Bruno di Fabio Tsunami” (I would have used “Dog Day Afternoon” but it was too whimpy.)

For his pizza’s ingredients, Bruno dragged us around Sorrento looking for spicy salami and Burrata cheese (a very rich ricotta-like cheese from Puglia). He didn’t quit whining until he purchased some bright green Cerignola olives that would, as he said, “Put the lid on the coffin of all my competitors, including you, John.” Tony Gemignani, owner of Tony’s Napaletana in San Francisco, made a pizza with Campari and reduced blood oranges that was truly brilliant.

Both these guys are undoubtably the best pizza makers in the country. They live for pizza, make it every day, and know all the different kinds of dough, processes and ovens that define good from bad. You may find alot of hot-shot celebrity bakers and chefs with million dollar P.R. firms making the “Top 25 pizzerias” lists of best pizzas, but it’s true pizza men like Tony and Bruno who really live the life.

Tony and Bruno’s Pizza Teglia entrants. Both were calm cool and collected throughout the competition.

(Let’s digress.) It all started in my hotel room at Hotel Valentini. I had just finished cleaning and sanitizing the antique desk in my room as Bruno dumped a pile of All Trumps high-gluten flour into a bowl and added his biga that we had made in Positano.

“So Bruno, I hear they made a new category this year,” said Tony, dressed all in black, his tattoos showing. He lay back on the bed. The smile on his face told me there would soon be laughter followed by yelling.

“Really?” Bruno said as he kneaded the flour into the biga and added more yeast, malt and water.

“Yeah. It’s called ‘last place’ and they did it just for you, chump.” Tony laughed, which cut through the tense room like wildfire.

“Funny Tony,” said Bruno. “Hey, who won last year?”

He and Tony went on and on until I jumped into the fray.

“You hot shots got nothin’ on my pie,” I said.

“That’s because there is nothin’ to your pie except bad taste.” Bruno laughed with a nasal gaffaw. “Face it, John, you’re my friend and I told you before, you’d be much better off if you just quit this pizza dream while you’re ahead. The humiliation for a guy your age may take it’s toll…heart attack, stroke or even leperosy.”

On into the night it went. Tomorrow we would see which pizza truly ruled. That old tense anticipation reverberated throughout Salsomaggiore. Who would win? Who would lose?

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