The crust is too dense.
That is the consensus that John Arena and Vincent Rotolo have come to on the back patio of Downtown’s Evel Pie, where Rotolo works. They’re testing gluten-free pizza crusts for a competition Rotolo is planning to enter, and the first specimen—while perfectly fluffy to the untrained eye (namely, mine)—has been deemed lacking. Arena, the cofounder of Metro Pizza, examines the rectangular pie, as the two pizzaiolos go back and forth on possible solutions: more or less oil? What’s the temperature of the starter—the flour, yeast and water mix from which dough is created?
This is the mad-scientist part of pizza making, the stuff that comes long before the pie is sliced up and served on plates. It’s the moment that turns someone who makes pizza into an evangelist for what Rotolo calls “the most shared food of all time.” And, in a way, it’s the element that best mirrors the journey of both the cook and the pizza itself: ceaselessly striving to hit a living, constantly shifting idea of “perfection,” measured against both the present and the past.
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Everyone grows up around pizza.
It’s the Friday-night dinner treat toward which a family works, the balm that soothes a tough Little League baseball loss, the go-to date night, the sustenance that fuels collegiate all-nighters. But the paths to the other side of the pizza counter—to becoming the cook rather than the customer—are as varied as the styles of pie.
For some, pizza is in their bloodline. Arena made his first pizza almost 50 years ago, at age 13, in his parents’ pizzeria. Tony Gemignani, owner of Pizza Rock and one of the industry’s leading names, started in his brother’s restaurant in 1991. But not everyone has a direct family connection.
For Chris Palmeri, the journey to opening his Naked City Pizza began when MGM Grand brought him to Las Vegas from Buffalo, New York, to help open Diego, the resort’s since-departed upscale Mexican restaurant. He quickly ascended to executive chef, but the big-business life wasn’t for him. So he ended up where so many other Las Vegas residents go when they’re frustrated by work: Dino’s. But instead of drinking away his sorrows, he would sling hot dogs in the parking lot to the drunks and drunks-to-be of the local institution.
“I decided I didn’t want to work for a corporation anymore,” he says. “What can I do that I don’t think is being done out here? It wasn’t going to be a fine-dining experience. So we started with hot dogs. And [then] a pizzeria was obtainable. [Buffalo-style of pizza, with a thicker crust and cup-and-char pepperoni] wasn’t really represented out here, so I thought it was kind of a unique thing we could do.”
Years of sweat equity and one life-changing appearance on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive Ins and Dives later (“The night before we were on the show we did $600, and the night after we did $3,000”), Palmeri has four locations, including Naked City Tavern, where his signature Buffalo-style sheets sit side by side with sandwiches, chicken wings and experiments such as duck confit lasagna.
Rotolo, too, jumped from fine dining to pizza, working first at Bellagio’s Le Cirque and Circo. But while the white-cloth world was a great introduction to Las Vegas, pizza remained his passion, dating back to his first pie at John’s of Bleecker Street, a Greenwich Village institution since 1929. Rotolo consumed every pizza blog and YouTube video, bought his own oven at the annual International Pizza Expo and spent (and continues to spend) years perfecting his dough.
“There’s a powerful connection between pizza and the people who have come in and out of your lives at different times,” he says. “Whether it’s that thing your mom made, or that dinner to celebrate a special day—it’s that deep.”
That connection may best be explained by his search for the perfect gluten-free crust. It started with a girl, her Celiac disease and Rotolo’s attempts to share his love of pizza with her.
“We started having these ‘dinner parties,’ but it was just us, pretending all of our friends were coming,” he says of his dough’s test runs. “She moved to Europe, and I kept trying, on my own, to make a great gluten-free pizza, in a way to stay closer to her. And the better it came out, the closer I was, and it would help me think about her and not be sad.”
He pauses for a moment to compose himself.
“If you care deeply about what you’re creating, whether it’s for someone you love or for your own creative process, it’s going to be special.”
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The standout visual in Metro Pizza is a wall-size map of the United States, with area landmarks (Mount Rushmore, a San Francisco street car, the Pentagon) and illustrated food-based avatars (apples in Washington, bread in the heartland), a kid-friendly compliment to a pizzeria seemingly custom-designed to appeal to the entire family.
Downtown, the eye-catching feature of Pizza Rock is a life-size long-haul truck cab that doubles as a DJ booth. The aesthetics of Arena’s and Gemignani’s places might be different, but each has taken what they share—a passion for the art of pizza—around the world, bringing a wealth of knowledge gleaned from competitions and other pizzerias back to their kitchens.
For Gemignani, that travel has led to a packed trophy case. Of 12 World Pizza Championship titles, he won the first in pizza acrobatics (think dough tossing) in 1995. In 2007, he became the first American to ever win the World Championship Pizza Maker title in Naples, Italy.
Winning accolades and participating in competitions around the world served a dual purpose for the Northern Californian. Any sort of press can help an independent pizzeria stand out in a crowded field, of course, but it also helped him expand his menu; the Las Vegas Pizza Rock locations’ menu includes Neapolitan, New York, Detroit, Chicago tavern and Sicilian styles, among others.
“It’s all about personal growth,” Gemignani says. “It’s all about how you adapt, how to make it better. Sometimes in our day-to-day lives, we aren’t challenged. It makes me want to do better. When I come back from competitions, you’ll see things change on our menu from those moments.”
For Arena, who has a closetful of T-shirts from pizzerias as far away as São Paulo, Brazil, every trip is a chance both to learn and to spread his passion for the food. That not only introduces him to unique ideas, but also to unique characters, like the one he met at an anonymous pizzeria in the South.
“I was about to leave, and [the owner] said, ‘Before you go, I want to do something for you,’” Arena says. “And he pulled a guitar off the wall, and he started singing a song he had written about what his pizzeria meant to him. It practically brought a tear to my eye. … And it reminded me that’s what a pizzeria is: It’s a way to express who they really are.”
And when that knowledge comes back to Las Vegas, it gets spread around. Unlike the culture of secrecy that has long been associated with pizza makers—secret dough recipes, secret ingredients—the diversity of the city’s pizzerias has allowed an open sharing of ideas, tips and thoughts.
“We’re keepers of the flame, not preservers of the ashes,” Arena says. “I look at it as a relay race. The people who came before passed us a torch, but it’s not our job to run in place. It’s to run forward and pass it on to the next generation.”
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Google Maps can’t quite take you to the end of the world. The closest it will get you is St. Rose Parkway, and from there you navigate yourself down some poorly (or un-) paved roads, the last one dead-ending right before BLM land.
That’s where Alex White has set up his folding table for the moment. Toppings are arranged in Tupperware containers; a plastic bin is filled with pizza dough, measured out into single-serving balls; and an Italian wood-fire oven capable of reaching 900 degrees and cooking a Neapolitan-style pizza in 90 seconds flat is heated and ready to work.
“Welcome to the end of the world,” he says.
“This is the most elaborate start to a kidnapping ever,” I reply.
This is Yukon Pizza, a combination of a century-plus-old sourdough starter, the very modern idea of mobile eateries and the passion of White, its 28-year-old proprietor.
It begins, as all pizza does, with the starter, which has been in his family since 1897. White can trace the geographic path his family has taken through the generations in that dough: from the Yukon, to Anchorage, to Seattle and eventually down to California and, now, the Nevada desert. “My dad handed me a Mason jar with a starter when I left for college, essentially like, ‘Here’s the family heirloom,’” White says.
A concern such as White’s may be a model for the next steps in the pizza world: How can high-quality establishments make their products more available to a populace in love with delivery? With Yukon, White is looking to do so by bringing the means of production to the customer; he will work his first wedding in April (in conjunction with Victoria Hogan’s FloraPop pop-up wedding company), bringing his nearly decade-long obsession with creating the perfect Neapolitan to a couple’s perfect day.
The idea of taking this passion for pizza out of the restaurant and to the people is no surprise. The cliché of calling a new phone app the Uber for any service underlines the modern obsession with convenience. Gemignani says that capitalizing on app-tracking features may be behind the next round of innovation, with pizza kitchens on wheels serving up on-demand slices. “You would know where that mobile guy is, and as it’s getting delivered to you, it’s being made within the car or truck itself,” he says.
There’s some evidence to suggest that delivery-pizza fans may be willing to embrace a better pie, too. Pizza Hut’s same-store sales fell by 2 percent in the fourth quarter of 2016. Domino’s falls below the customer satisfaction benchmark in the yearly study conducted by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. And in nearly every other restaurant category, the trend is toward quality, whether it is better ingredients or more innovative recipes.
“It’s the same thing as the other artisanal crafts—cheese, beer,” Palmeri says. “People are sick of eating mass-produced food. Now you’re seeing all these pizzerias with not only great dough, but people getting creative with it. That’s starting to be appreciated.”
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Creativity is what spurs on back-porch tasting sessions such as the one Arena and Rotolo are having Downtown at Evel Pie. Rotolo asked me to return after our first discussion to try out a gluten-free pizza, topped with mushrooms and vegan cheese; two of these three attributes would have been considered silly a decade ago.
The resulting pie has little in common with the greasy personal pan pizzas from the Pizza Hut of my childhood. The crust is light-years away from the crackerlike “gluten free” options offered by the major chains; it is raised and fluffy, but crispy on the bottom, almost Sicilian style. The faux-cheese is surprisingly, almost impossibly, creamy. But the idea of sitting outside at a picnic table, enjoying a slice with friends, is the same as it was during my formative years.
“It takes you back to a place when things were a little more simple for you,” Gemignani said a few days earlier. “The older you get, you want to get those feelings back.”