Bigfork pizza makers Kaleigh Brook and her husband, Engjell Vrapi, were considered the underdogs by many when they arrived in Las Vegas last week for the International Pizza Challenge.
With their best recipes in hand, the Sun Mountain Trattoria/Pizzeria owners went head-to-head with some of the world’s best pizza chefs, including fifth-generation Italian pizza wizards.
“When we mentioned that we were from Montana, the other competitors jokingly asked if we even had pizza in Montana,” Brook said.
But Brook and Vrapi had the last laugh.
While they didn’t win the overall Best Pizza Maker of the Year, they came in second in the nontraditional division and fourth in the traditional division, competing in the Western Region against dozens of pizzerias from throughout the Western United States.
“By the end of the competition, people were coming up and shaking our hands, complimenting us on our pizzas,” Brook said.
Regional winners advanced to the final challenges, both of which were won by famous Italian pizza makers.
Brook and Vrapi entered an Italian sausage and white cap mushroom pizza on a whole wheat crust in the traditional competition, then jazzed things up with a garlic, gorgonzola cheese, red onion, roasted red pepper and pepperoni pizza on a whole wheat crust for their nontraditional entry.
At their Bigfork restaurant, that pizza is on the menu as “The Best Pizza Ever.”
The couple bought Sun Mountain Trattoria/Pizzeria as a turnkey restaurant in May 2010. They’re changing the name of the business to When in Rome next month.
The name change reflects where the couple’s story begins.
Vrapi, 27, grew up in Roskovec, Albania, and emigrated to Italy on his own to look for work after he’d finished the eighth grade.
“I ended up being taken in by a school for boys without families in Rome,” he said. “There they tried to integrate us into the community by teaching us the Italian language as well as giving us technical skills like making pizza, cutting hair, carpentry and computer programming.”
After a year at the boys school, Vrapi ventured out on his own and got a job as a waiter in a vegetarian restaurant. He waited tables for the next six years, working at various renowned Roman restaurants and soaking in the intricacies of the Italian food and wine industry.
In 2004 Vrapi met Brook, a Montana native who was a student traveling and studying in Rome. They fell in love, got married and had a baby girl, Fiona, while still in Italy.
They moved to Bigfork in 2006 and Vrapi looked around for waiter jobs, but instead was offered a job in the kitchen at La Provence Restaurant in Bigfork.
“At La Provence, a new fire started inside me to become a chef,” Vrapi said. “I had worked as a waiter for six years without realizing that my true calling was in the kitchen.”
Focused on his passion to become a chef, Vrapi headed to the prestigious New England Culinary Institute where he earned a degree in culinary arts.
It took a while to get back to Bigfork. After he interned at a restaurant in California, the couple moved to Chicago for a year, where he worked as a chef and Brook took wine classes to become a sommelier.
“We didn’t get used to the big city and decided to move back to Montana and open up our own restaurant,” he said.
Brook and Vrapi kept Sun Mountain’s same whole wheat New York-style pizza, but expanded the menu to include Mediterranean and Italian pasta dishes and appetizers.
But pizza remains the restaurant’s specialty.
“A lot of people tell us it’s the best pizza they ever had,” Vrapi said. “That gave us the courage to go to the competition.”
Thanks to a dedicated pizza-loving community, Sun Mountain has developed a strong customer base, with January business nearly equal to the busy summer month of June, Vrapi said.
The business is located at 8270 Montana 35 in a small strip mall. Eventually the couple would like to relocate to within walking distance of downtown Bigfork, but likely will wait until their mortgage is paid off in seven years, Vrapi said.
Brook recently gave birth to a son, Hugo, so life is full for the young couple.
Vrapi always finds time to try new pizza combinations, though.
“I have to be creative,” he said. “Today I made a candied bacon pizza with walnuts, spinach, strawberries, with a balsamic reduction. It’s a twist on the classic salad.
“I gave it to the customers for free and they loved it,” he said.
Brook said they’re already looking forward to the international competition next year.
“We are planning on going back to win,” she said. “We already are cooking up some great ideas to be more competitive with the Italians.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at email@example.com.