LAKEVIEW — Don't let the fact that Panino's Pizzeria is in a strip mall fool you.
The Lakeview restaurant, quietly nudged between a 7-Eleven and a nail salon at 3702 N. Broadway, is the brainchild of a pizza Olympian — well, sort of.
Panino's owner, Gino Rago, was one of 17 people on this year's U.S. Pizza Team, a group that represents the country at a competition in Italy among the world's pizza makers.
He was selected for the first time this year, competing in a Neopolitan pizza category and a general pizza category at the World Pizza Championships in Parma, Italy, last month. Next year, he'll be competing again.
"It's a little nerve-wracking," Rago said. "But it's fun."
Serena Dai explains the different events at the "Pizza Olympics"
The U.S. has had a pizza team at the World Pizza Championships — many call it the "world cup" of pizza, Rago said — since 2000, according to PMQ Pizza Magazine, which created the team.
As with Olympics sports teams, the pizza team has a coach and a selection process.
Coach Santo Bruno visited Panino's for the first time several years ago after local food personality Steve Dolinsky named the restaurant's Neopolitan margherita pizza the best in the city.
Rago started seeing Bruno more at trade shows afterward, and this year, Bruno recommended to PMQ that Rago be added to the team. Others join after winning regional competitions.
Besides contests in taste categories like best gluten-free pizza and best Neopolitan-style, contestants vie to be the fastest pizza maker or the best at "pizza acrobatics."
"We keep our eye out for up-and-coming pizza makers as well as seasoned veterans," PMQ's Brian Hernandez said in a story about Rago's appointment. "If you have skill in the kitchen, we are interested."
For Rago, the experience was unlike any other he'd had since he started making pizzas with his Italian immigrant parents at age 12.
In lieu of an Olympics village, a small hotel where everybody roomed with strangers on single beds just inches apart from each other served as the digs for the U.S. Pizza Team during their week together. And in place of matching Ralph Lauren sweaters, each competitor donned matching windbreakers outside the kitchen and white chef jackets while in it.
But like the Olympics, the two-day event is a high-pressure situation.
The competition is in a large venue similar to McCormick Place, with more than 600 other busy people from 30 different countries.
Though much of the dough prep and gathering of supplies happens before the competition, the ultimate judgment comes after a pizza dough is rolled out, topped off and cooked in a tense 15 to 20 minutes on a stage, Rago said.
Judges watch. Competitors watch. Cameras watch.
"I make pizzas here in front of people," he said, "but it's nothing like where you're on TV and they’re taping you and stuff."
Rago ended up not placing in his individual competitions. From the U.S. team, only Jamie Culliton of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based Grimaldi's Pizza placed in the top three in a category. He took second place in Freestyle Acrobatics, a category that's a combination of dancing and dough-tossing, with a routine to Justin Timberlake's "Suit and Tie."
But Rago said he had a solid performance and was happy with his scores.
And even though individuals on the team were competing against each other, too, Team USA got to know each other and ultimately helped one another in Italy.
Now, Rago said, he has a better feel for the judge's tastes for next year's competition. His entry to a classic pizza competition had Ndjua salami, arugula, two kinds of cheese and two kinds of tomatoes.
He suspects the judges looked for fewer ingredients in winning pies, he said.
"The judges are Italian," Rago said. "You gotta really win their hearts."
Panino's Pizza, 3702 N. Broadway, also has locations in suburban Evanston and Park Ridge.
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: