BIGFORK – Engjell Vrapi heard a few chuckles in Las Vegas at the International Pizza Challenge.
Surrounded by some of the best pizza chefs in the world, representing restaurants throughout the West, Vrapi was the only Montana chef at the event, which was held at the beginning of March at the Las Vegas Convention Center. He might as well have been from Mars.
“They thought we were talking about some city somewhere, like maybe Montana, New York,” Vrapi said. “They didn’t know we were talking about the state. They didn’t even know if we had pizza in Montana.”
Vrapi owns Sun Mountain Trattoria/Pizzeria with his wife Kaleigh Brook. While competitors might not have taken Vrapi and Brook seriously at first, by the end of the challenge Sun Mountain was widely recognized.
The Bigfork pizzeria competed in the International Pizza Challenge’s Western Division against restaurants from California, Colorado, Oregon, Arizona and Washington. A few came from Chicago, a city with a rich pizza tradition.
In its division, Sun Mountain placed fourth in the traditional category for its Italian sausage and white cap mushroom pizza and second in the nontraditional category for “The Best Pizza Ever,” which features garlic, gorgonzola cheese, red onions, roasted red peppers and pepperoni. Both pizzas are made on a whole wheat crust. “The Best Pizza Ever” was named by customers.
The competition featured some of the pizza world’s bigger names, including Antonio Starita, who owns one of the most famous pizzerias in Naples, Vrapi and Brook said. Besides being Montanans, the couple also stood out for what they weren’t: Italian.
“Everyone spoke Italian and Italians were everywhere,” Brook said. “It was like the Sopranos all over again.”
Not to mention, they only own one restaurant.
“We were definitely the smallest pizzeria there,” Brook said. “Everybody else had between two and 25 restaurants.”
Vrapi and Brook took over Sun Mountain Trattoria/Pizzeria in May of last year. They have created an atmosphere inside that is much more homey than one might expect from its strip mall location on Montana Highway 35 in Bigfork.
In addition to its pizzas, the restaurant also serves up dishes such as mussels, carpaccio, carbonara, pasta con verdure, gnocchi con gorgonzola and more. A carefully selected wine list is also offered.
All of the food reflects Vrapi’s wide-ranging influences and elite culinary training. Vrapi, 27, was born in Albania and moved to Rome after eighth grade. For years, he worked in Rome’s restaurants, becoming infatuated with the pursuit of excellent food. In Italy he met Brook, who was studying abroad.
Eventually, the couple made it back to the U.S. Vrapi attended the New England Culinary Institute and interned at a prestigious California restaurant that had a two-star Michelin rating.
The Sun Mountain Trattoria/Pizzeria entered a garlic, Gorgonzola cheese, pepperoni, red onion and roasted red pepper pizza, seen at top, in the nontraditional division of the International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas. The pizzeria’s Greek pizza, with spinach, feta cheese and olives, is seen as well.
Vrapi and Brook spent time in Chicago studying the culinary scene there. Once they discovered that opening up their own restaurant in the big city at their age was a nearly impossible task, they decided to head back to Brook’s hometown of Judith Gap in central Montana.
The couple then heard about an opportunity to take over Sun Mountain. They acted decisively and Vrapi, who also spent a year in Greece, finally had his own restaurant to showcase his diverse culinary capabilities. Since opening, Vrapi said the restaurant has been consistently busy, even in the shoulder season.
Over the next month, Vrapi and Brook will make a series of changes to their restaurant, including renaming it “When in Rome.” They will also adopt more of a white linen setting for dinners. Brook, however, said they will stay true to their roots and not become overtly fine dining.
“We’ve traveled a lot and the best food has come from the humblest places,” she said.
Now that they have more of an understanding of how the International Pizza Challenge works, Vrapi and Brook plan on entering again next year, with their eyes on the top prize. Vrapi said he can see why many pizza chefs keep coming back for more competition every year.
“It’s kind of an addiction,” he said.