BY CHRIS SMITH/The Press Democrat

Fred Poulos, the community-engaged owner of Mombo's Pizza in Santa Rosa and Sebastopol, is back from Las Vegas and the International Pizza Expo.

A highlight was the world pizza bake-off. Fred didn't enter, but he got a kick out of seeing the Best Traditional Pizza award go to a Santa Cruz/Bay Area pizzeria chain called Pizza My Heart.

Fred opened the first Pizza My Heart with former partner Keith Holtaway in Capitola in 1981. Their East Coast-inspired pizza was a hit, and so was the artwork that Fred used in his decor and promotional materials.

Rather than come right out and claim to be making New York-style pizza, thus risking the wrath of displaced New Yorkers leery of any pizza made much west of the New Jersey Turnpike, Fred decorated Pizza My Heart with his photographs of New York street characters.

One day a cartoonist named Awest came in for a slice, then told Fred he loved his pizza and also his street portraits. He proposed that he draw caricatures of some of the people in the photos.

Fred liked the idea, and he loved the cartoons that Awest drew. Soon, most of Pizza My Heart's ads and promotional materials featured a cartoon character wearing a porkpie hat and Raybans.

Fred left the business in 1989 and his partner later sold it to the current owners. Fred came to Sonoma County and in 2002 opened Mombo's Pizza across from SRJC in Santa Rosa. He expanded to Sebastopol three years later.

And he brought back the cartoon character now firmly identified as the face of Mombo's.

Fred didn't compete in the great pizza-making challenge in Vegas last week, but he was happy for a chef from Pizza My Heart - now a 21-store  restaurant chain - to win the Best Traditional Pizza prize with a classic creation of pepperoni and portobello mushrooms.

Fred also didn't mind noticing an online comment from someone who read about the award on the Santa Cruz Sentinel's Website. The post says, "If  you want a original Pizza My Heart pizza you have to drive to Sebastopol, CA where the original owner has Mombo Pizza with the same old cartoons."