Windsor-Essex pizza maker up for international recognition. Could he be named best in the world?

Pizza-maker Dean Litster of Armando's Amherstburg handles dough while practicing his art. (Dalson Chen/CBC - image credit)
Pizza-maker Dean Litster of Armando's Amherstburg handles dough while practicing his art. (Dalson Chen/CBC - image credit)

You could soon be able to say Windsor-Essex has one of the best pizza-makers on the planet — with no hyperbole.

Dean Litster, owner of Armando's Amherstburg and Armando's Leamington, has made the list of 200 international contenders for the title of top pizza chef in the world, as decided by The Best Chef awards.

"I was caught off guard. I didn't expect that," admitted Litster — who's also known by his personal logo, Professor Zaaa.

"I feel like it's going to be quite the accomplishment. Not just for myself or the brand of Armando's, but also for Windsor-Essex."

Pizza chef Dean Litster answers interview questions outside his pizzeria, Armando's Amherstburg.
Pizza chef Dean Litster answers interview questions outside his pizzeria, Armando's Amherstburg.

Pizza chef Dean Litster answers interview questions outside his pizzeria, Armando's Amherstburg. (Dalson Chen/CBC)

The Best Chef is an annual awards event backed by "a world community of passionate food lovers."

Since 2017, the organization has recognized, ranked, and awarded chefs for "exceptional contributions to the culinary world." Two years ago, a separate title was created for The Best Pizza.

Candidates are decided by a voting panel of 60 food professionals, including journalists, critics, bloggers, and photographers, with representation from every continent.

According to The Best Chef, voters are required to have "extensive knowledge and love for pizza."

A virtual voting process that includes the candidates themselves will reduce the list to a number of finalists and special category winners.

Litster is one of only three Canadians on the list of this year's candidates — the other two being Ryan Baddeley of Toronto and Thomas Schneider of Winnipeg.

Italy, predictably, has 55 candidates on the list.

Part of The Best Chef awards list of candidates for Best Pizza chefs in the world.
Part of The Best Chef awards list of candidates for Best Pizza chefs in the world.

Part of The Best Chef awards list of candidates for Best Pizza chefs in the world. (The Best Chef/Instagram)

If Litster makes the finals on Sept. 30, he'll be attending an awards ceremony in Milan, Italy.

"I always have my head down and I'm working hard. It's nice to see some recognition," Litster told CBC Windsor.

Of course, Litster is no stranger to accolades for his pizza. In 2018, he emerged as the champion of the Canadian Pizza Summit. In 2019, he was named Chef of the Year by Canadian Pizza magazine.

He's also placed third in the annual International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas.

Pizza-maker Dean Litster of Armando's Amherstburg lays toppings on a pie.
Pizza-maker Dean Litster of Armando's Amherstburg lays toppings on a pie.

Pizza-maker Dean Litster of Armando's Amherstburg lays toppings on a pie. (Dalson Chen/CBC)

Now 38 years old, Litster reckons he has devoted the majority of his adult life to pizza perfection. He started working for Armando's at 15.

Asked what's been the difference-maker in his storied pizza career, Litster suggested it's his willingness to experiment and venture outside the box. "I always like to kind of do things a little different, in my own way. I'm not afraid to try different things, I'm not afraid to put myself out there."

A finished "Super" pizza at Armando's Amherstburg, courtesy of pizza chef Dean Litster.
A finished "Super" pizza at Armando's Amherstburg, courtesy of pizza chef Dean Litster.

A finished "Super" pizza at Armando's Amherstburg, courtesy of pizza chef Dean Litster. (Dalson Chen/CBC)

For example, while Litster is proud of the growing fame of Windsor-style pizza, he doesn't feel constrained by the tradition. "I like that I can bring things like the round-pepperoni ranch-based pizzas, or piped ricotta on top of pizza — things that weren't really heard of in Windsor-Essex."

"We're always working on new Detroit-style pizzas... It gives myself and my other chefs the opportunity to become more creative, to come up with combinations that might be a little bit off the beaten path, and try to bring something special to the table for our customers."

Dean Litster's personal logo (Professor Zaaa) at Armando's Amherstburg.
Dean Litster's personal logo (Professor Zaaa) at Armando's Amherstburg.

Dean Litster's personal logo (Professor Zaaa) at Armando's Amherstburg. (Dalson Chen/CBC)

All that said, Litster has strong opinions on what constitutes the original form of Windsor-style pizza. "Galati cheese. Shredded pepperoni. Canned mushrooms. Absolutely."

And Litster feels word of Windsor-style pizza is still spreading. He noted that Hormel Foods has recently started packaging "ribbon pepperoni" — a product that the company unabashedly says was "inspired by the pizza stylings of Windsor, Ontario."

"That tells me that Windsor-Essex as a whole is making such a huge impact on the pizza scene," Litster said. "Something that was strictly a Windsor thing — shredded pepperoni — is going to now become a North American thing. Which I think is actually really cool."

Judy Shepley smiles while waiting for her pizza at Armando's Amherstburg.
Judy Shepley smiles while waiting for her pizza at Armando's Amherstburg.

Judy Shepley smiles while waiting for her pizza at Armando's Amherstburg. (Dalson Chen/CBC)

Judy Shepley, a customer of Armando's Amherstburg for more than a decade, believes Litster's pizza is "absolutely the best."

"The crust is important. And it always has a generous amount of fixings on the top," Shepley gushed.

With a box of her favourite "Super" in her hands (cheese, bacon, mushrooms, green pepper, and pepperoni), Shepley was unequivocal in her praise for Litster's work.

"I've had it in the States, different places, different pizzas, all over — but I prefer this to anything else."

The exterior of Armando's Amherstburg.
The exterior of Armando's Amherstburg.

The exterior of Armando's Amherstburg. (Dalson Chen/CBC)