Italian chef Paolo Pancotti in Ahuriri makes the best pizza in the country. His loyal Pizza Pazzi customers know that already, but now Mr Pancotti has the title to prove it.
The head chef at Milk and Honey Cafe and Restaurant and the adjacent Pizza Pazzi was awarded the top honour at the New Zealand section of the Global Pizza Challenge in Auckland on Wednesday.
His original recipe for his famous "bestiale" pizza - a thin-crust pizza with gourmet buffalo cheese, parma ham, homemade pesto and Italian parmesan - secured Mr Pancotti a top-40 place at the cook-off at Auckland's Langham Hotel, where he went on to claim the ultimate prize.
Pizzas were judged on originality, balance, creativity and "an excitement factor".
Mr Pancotti said the conditions were challenging, as the chefs had 20 minutes to make eight pizzas in a foreign kitchen and in front of an audience of more than 200 people. But his Italian upbringing put him in good stead to take the win.
Mr Pancotti was born in Milan and was already "playing" with pizza dough at the age of 2.
"Being Italian, pizza for me is like pies for a New Zealander," he said. "We had pizza two or three times a week. It was always on our table."
In September he will travel to Sydney to compete against 15 other top chefs in the Global Pizza Challenge final.
Mr Pancotti has been the head chef at Milk and Honey since 2008 and in November he and wife Sass Russell joined forces with owners Sean Burns and Nic Scotland to open the Italian-style pizzeria.
Mr Burns said he was not surprised at Mr Pancotti's win, because having an Italian-style pizza made by an authentic Italian chef was a point of difference.
Richard Stevenson from Hell Pizza in Napier made sure the Bay was well represented in the competition.
Mr Stevenson made the finals with all four of his entries. "With the competition aimed at the boutique Pizza stores and restaurants I didn't do too badly," he said.