Darek Wozny didn't have to visit the Free Press website during the last four weeks to know how his restaurant Santa Ana Pizzeria & Bistro -- the winner of this newspaper’s Munch Madness II competition -- was faring in the competition, a March Madness-style bracket that pitted 16 of the city’s top pizza restaurants against one another.
(Talk about a fight to the finish; as late as 10:30 a.m. Thursday – 90 minutes before the contest ended — Santa Ana and Red Ember, the runner-up, were deadlocked, with 2,915 votes each.)
"It didn’t seem to matter what I was doing, whether I was at the bank making a deposit or at a school board office dropping off a catering order, somebody would stop me and say, ‘Hey, Darek, you’re in the lead," he says, seated next to his wife Debbie, in their stylishly decorated, 50-seat dining room at 1631 St. Mary’s Rd.
Debbie says even the mother of their babysitter got caught up in the action.
"A few weeks ago, she sent me a text message saying, ‘Don’t worry, all my friends are voting for you guys, too,’" she says with a chuckle.
While Darek replies, "Hmm, I’d have to think about that one," when asked why he believes his business came out on top, Debbie interjects, remarking, "Excuse me, but that’s an easy one.
"If you’ll allow me to brag on my husband a bit, it’s largely because of how committed he’s been to customer service, since the day we opened," she says, giving him a playful poke in the ribs.
"Not only is he usually the one cooking your meal, he also makes a point of stopping by your table to say thanks for coming in, plus he’s the person delivering your noon-hour catering order."
(Darek laughs when Debbie mentions the latter, explaining the reason he still performs that duty is because of the six years he spent behind the wheel of a car, delivering pizza for Dominos. "I did that so long, I know the city inside-out, especially the shortcuts," he says.)
Obviously, Darek is elated Santa Ana finished first. At the same time, he admits to being a bit flabbergasted.
"When we were matched up against Santa Lucia in the first round, I told everyone I know not to even bother voting... that there was no way we could beat them," Darek says, adding he "knows the guys there, they make a great pizza.
"What I also said was it was going to be Santa Lucia against Red Ember in the final. So for us to go up against Red Ember -- which Debbie and I always enjoy going to in the summer, when their food truck is parked at the (St. Norbert) farmer’s market -- and actually win? Yeah, I’d be lying to you if I said that wasn’t a big surprise."
Runner-up voted for competitor... until the finals
For his part, Steffen Zinn, co-owner of the Red Ember, was simply pleased to be part of the proceedings period, let alone be this year’s second-place finisher.
"For sure, I never expected to make it to the end, given some of the places on the list," Zinn says, seated at Red Ember’s location at The Forks Common, which opened in November 2017.
"When you consider all these great spots like Casa Grande that have been around for 40, 50 years, there’s so much history involved. I mean, it’s hard to compete against somebody’s childhood memories, so yeah, I kind of thought those old-school places would carry the day."
When asked why he thinks Red Ember, whose menu features an array of creative pizza combinations, did so well in the voting, he says perhaps it’s because Winnipeggers' pizza tastes are evolving.
"From the start, we haven’t let ourselves be limited by tradition or anything like that," he says. "Sure, we’ll always serve a pepperoni and mushroom pizza — we call that our ‘gateway’ pizza — but that’s how we gain people’s trust, I think.
"They’ll go, ‘OK, that’s an easy choice,’ but then, after they eat it and see how our sauces and spices are different than places they go to ordinarily, the next time they come, they might take a risk and get something with purple cauliflower or toasted brussels sprouts on it, instead."
As for Santa Ana Pizzeria & Bistro, his opponent in the final, Zinn only had this to say: "Hey, that’s a great pick. I mean, I was voting for Santa Ana the whole way through. Well, up until the last week. I couldn’t really vote against myself, right?"
Thanks to the nearly 30,000 people who took the time to vote in our pizza competition, as well as to everybody who left comments online, tipping us off about places we might have missed this time around.
We’ll be back next March with another competition. While we still have 11 months to decide what foodstuff to feature next (some have proposed sushi, which we could certainly roll with) if you have suggestions of your own to pass along, send 'em to email@example.com.
As always, thanks for reading.
— David Sanderson