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.
Welcome to Flour + Water!
We are happy and excited to be opening our pizzeria in the community of Walla Walla. We are a family-owned restaurant, so we thought it would be great to let you know a little bit about our family!
We are Engjell, Kaleigh, Fiona, Hugo and Remy Vrapi. Engjell is from Albania, but grew up in Rome, Italy. His wife, Kaleigh, is originally a Montana native but moved to Italy to study abroad during college. They met by chance at a restaurant he was working at and, as they say, the rest is history... We eventually got married and started our family in Rome. We moved back to the U.S. in 2005, where we opened our own restaurant in Bigfork, Montana. Our goal was to bring the tastes and flavors of Italian pizza and pasta to our table!
We were very fortunate to be named "Best Pizza in Montana" by Food Network Magazine and to come out on top in the Western Division at the International Pizza Competition in both 2012 and 2014.
From the very beginning, we have been obsessed with creating the perfect pizza. We've spent hundreds of hours playing with various combinations, trying new sauce recipes and searching for the perfect mixture of cheeses. In 2016, we decided the best way to continue our quest for the perfect pizza was to taste as many pizzas as we could. So we sold everything we owned, the restaurants, our home, our cars... everything! We bought a motor home and traveled the world for two years in search of the most incredible pizzas out there! We tasted pizza in San Antonio, New York, Hong Kong, New Delhi, Dubai, and ultimately, in Italy. Which is where both pizza and our family story began. As it turns out, our favorite pizza happened to be in Naples!
Part of our two years of travel was dedicated to finding the perfect pizza and the other part was about finding the perfect place for our family to live. Walla Walla was the first place we visited after leaving Montana and it stuck with us throughout our travels. We decided it would be the ideal place to start fresh, both for our family and for our new restaurant! So here we are, excited and ready to share all we have learned with the community of Walla Walla!
Flour + Water is a simple name because we believe pizza should be simple. We believe in using fresh, local ingredients. We believe in the wholesome goodness of sharing a pizza or a bottle of wine with friends and family. For us, food is about having an experience, not just a meal. Flour + Water is our family's way of sharing our travel and experiences with you in the best way we know... through food and wine!
So sit back and get ready to have some incredibly delicious pizza--the culmination of years of hard work, research and travel in search of the truest expression of simple ingredients like flour and water! Thank you for joining us! We hope you love pizza as much as we do!
Engjell, Kaleigh, Fiona, Hugo and Remy