Chicago’s US Pizza Team Representative Gino Rago

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If anyone can put the misconception that Chicago pizza is only deep dish to rest, it’s Gino Rago.  The owner of Panino’s Pizzeria began making pizza when he was 14 years-old. Besides a quick detour to attend trade school, Gino’s been slinging dough ever since. With three locations throughout the Chicagoland area, Panino’s specializes in a variety of pizza styles including Neapolitan, Sicilian and a Chicago style thin, super-thin, and stuffed pizza. Panino’s Park Ridge location also prepares a New Haven “apizza” and New Jersey style “Grandma Pies”.

Panino’s makes nearly everything on their menu from scratch. Their fennel-seasoned sausage is made in-house and, between all three locations, Panino’s goes through over 400 pounds of sausage per week. Their Neapolitan pizza dough is made with a mother yeast that Gino brought back from Italy 6 years ago to refresh and regrow. Gino and his partners Bruno and Lenny are also the creators of Via Pizzeria 1-2-3, a line of authentic Neapolitan pizza, focaccia, and panzerotti mixes that took over a year to perfect.

This April, Gino was Chicago’s only representative on the US Pizza Team. He and seventeen American pizza makers competed in the World Pizza Championship in Parma, Italy. The competition consisted of 600 competitors from roughly 30 countries. Each pizza maker competed in a specific category that tested their pizza making abilities and skills. Categories ranged from acrobatic dough performances to gluten-free and pan pizza making. Gino joined the team six weeks before heading to Parma, where he competed in the Neapolitan and classic pizza categories.

I sat down with Gino at Panino’s Park Ridge location where we shared a New Jersey style “Grandma Pie” and talked about Gino’s experience competing on the US Pizza Team.

How did you become a member of the US Pizza Team?
When the former US Pizza Team coach, Santo Bruno, used to come to Chicago he’d eat at my restaurant on Broadway Ave. I would see him when I used to go to these pizza shows. I got to know him and I would go to these [trade]shows and make things with him—things I’d be doing here in Chicago. He kept asking me. “Why don’t you join the US Pizza team?” I didn’t know much about it. I gave it a little thought, I looked into it and I decided to do it. I talked to Brian Hernandez [the current US Pizza Team coach]at PMQ. He checked me out and he put me on his team.

You participated in the True Neapolitan/STG and Classico Pizza categories. Were there any pre-qualifying events that you had to participate in before going to Italy?
People who do acrobatics, fastest pizza, or largest dough, do.  I did not participate in any pre-qualifying competitions for culinary because i joined the USPT (United States Pizza Team) too late.

What type of pizza did you make for the competition?
For the True Neapolitan/STG competition I chose the marinara because marinara is one of the first pizzas ever made in Italy, before the margarita. This pizza was made with tomato sauce, garlic, oregano, basil and olive oil and contained no cheese. For the Classico Pizza competition I called my pizza the Cala- Barese because it was part of Puglia and Calabria. I did a pizza with a toasted wheat flour that the people in Italy use, called farina di grano arso. I used that as my dough. I went with a sausage called Artisan N’ djua, from a local guy who owns a restaurant in town called Agostino’s. I did fresh mozzarella, arugula, parmesan, red and yellow cherry tomatoes, burrata cheese and I garnished it with balsamic syrup. I got over 600 points for it.

Did you do anything to prepare for the competition?
Oh ya! I prepped. I made the pizza. I serve a version of the pizza here in the restaurant. I wanted to see what was local in Parma so I had to change it up a little bit because they said you get more points if you present the judges with local ingredients.

What does the winner of the competition receive?
They get some prizes—somebody won a half-price oven or something. But, really, you do it for your country and to get your name or your restaurant out there.

For many of the members, including yourself, it was your first time competing in Parma. Do you have a different approach in mind for competing next year?
I think their approach is a little more simple. But, then again, the guy who won the classico pizza competition won with anchovies, eggplant, bread crumbs, caciocavallo cheese, buratta, mozzarella, and tomatoes. God bless him.

Via-Pizzeria 1-2-3 is available at Panino’s locations and a variety of Chicagoland grocers including Captuto’s and Tony’s Finer Foods.

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About Author

Erin Nederbo grew up in Chicago's Jefferson Park neighborhood. Her writing has appeared on UpChicago.com and in New City. Her favorite pizza topping is sausage.

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