Welcome to Intriguing People 2018, our celebration of Las Vegas’ cultural trailblazers and social trendsetters. First up in the series is Vincent Rotolo, a veteran pizza maker with his eyes on the pie.
A pizza made by Vincent Rotolo isn’t just cheese, sauce, pepperoni and crust. What you don’t see are the hidden ingredients: love, honor, respect and reverence. You taste all those things when you bite down on a slice from his new restaurant, Good Pie, which opens February 9 at Pawn Plaza in Downtown Las Vegas.
Each slice is airy yet crispy with just the right amount of cheese and sauce, the fresh ingredients meticulously layered so you can relish every bite. In the case of his signature Good Good, fresh mozzarella tarantellas with sausage, artichoke hearts, grana and oregano. It’s just like Grandma used to make, and that’s what’s at the heart of Rotolo’s mission.
The punctilious pizzaiolo specializes in that familiarity and fondness, channeling the New York nonnas of the ’70s for the lesser-known “Grandma” pie: a thin and crispy 16-inch-by-16-inch pizza sliced like a tic-tac-toe board.
“It came from Italian American grandmothers wanting to nurture their families,” Rotolo explains before vaulting into a history lesson. “Thirty years after this thing was pioneered, in the late ’70s, neighborhood pizza shops started to actually sell it as a pizza product because a whole generation that grew up on it was seeking it out and wanting to recapture that youthful moment when they were nurtured and cared for.”
In the way grandmothers took care of their families, Rotolo hopes to foster the DTLV community. He wants to take it back to when “pizzerias really meant something to a neighborhood.”
“We nurture. How we nurture is making pizza,” the 44-year-old restaurateur says. “Pizza’s important because it is the most shared food of all time. It brings people together like nothing else, particularly in a neighborhood. It’s that meeting place, it’s that area where you want to go and you feel like you belong.”
Rotolo, a New York City export himself, knows a thing or two about that.
Food ran through the Rotolo family DNA. His mother made her own bread. To this day, the aroma of fresh-baked bread brings comfort to Rotolo the way a lavender candle does to others. Despite not having any formal culinary experience, his mother could go to a restaurant, find a dish she liked and mimic it in her own kitchen. “She just had an amazing palate,” Rotolo says. “I never knew anyone else who could do that.”
On weekends, he’d spend time with his father, who lived above historic pizza joint John’s of Bleecker Street in NYC’s Greenwich Village. Naturally, Rotolo got his first gig at John’s, making his first pizza when he was 12. He learned quickly, though, that the real money was in the front of the house. He became a server instead, learned the business and eventually went into management and opened several restaurants in New York.
But while he was making dough in management, he was baking it at home. “In my private life at home, all I ever wanted to do was make pizza,” he says.
It wasn’t until 2010 that he decided that he wanted his own pizza shop. “Everything I’ve done from that point on were just pit stops along the way to getting me here,” he says.
That meant rerouting from New York to Las Vegas in 2011 to be closer to his parents. “They were getting older, and they were not in the best health,” he says.
Rotolo bounced around in the the city—opening 800 Degrees in the Monte Carlo and overseeing operations at Dom DeMarco’s in Summerlin, among other gigs—before making his way Downtown. But first he had to earn his keep and change the way he looked at business.
A conversation with chef Natalie Young five years ago altered his perspective. Bright-eyed Rotolo wanted a piece of the budding Downtown action, proposing a pizza pop-up. Young shut him down, but offered a bit of advice. “‘You have to see what this community needs and then add something to it,’” he remembers her saying. “‘If you come here just looking to be a part of something or take something away, you’re not going to be successful here. My advice to you is to be a part of the community first.’”
Now Rotolo lives just a three-minute walk from his new shop. “I’m a part of the neighborhood, more so than I ever thought I would ever be,” he says. “I feel like I’m home. I don’t feel like a New Yorker living in Vegas.”
This isn’t Rotolo’s first venture Downtown. He was the general manager and head pizza maker at Evel Pie before a reported amicable split in October 2017. While it’s easy to think there’s a Good vs. Evel jab in the name of his new restaurant, Rotolo says “Good Pie” is a maxim.
During a pizza branding summit, Rotolo and others were discussing marketing strategies. One of the guys got upset. “He essentially told us that he doesn’t have a brand, and his brand is to just shut the fuck up and make a good pie. … [He said to us,] ‘No one’s talking about honoring the product. You’re just talking about how many likes you get on Facebook. Do you want to be a real pizza maker or do you want to be Facebook-famous?’”
Those words sunk in like a Chicago deep dish. Ten minutes later, Rotolo purchased the URL for goodpie.com. The rest is, quite literally, pizza history.
When you step into the cozy Good Pie—it’s a small space, more of pickup counter, furthering the New York City vibe—it feels more like a 70-year-old grandmother’s kitchen than a trendy diner. Everything in it has a purpose and a story, from the wooden spoons and 1940s pizza cutters that dangle from the ceiling to the pie itself. Rotolo prides himself on human connection and authenticity. He imports his flour from Italy and gets produce from local farms. Rather than source from big vendors, he goes direct to family-owned businesses, like for his mozzarella, which comes from Aiello Dairy in Brooklyn. “There’s a phone number on their package. I called the number and I spoke to the mother of the guy who runs it today and I told her what we were doing, and we had a moment. And now I know I’m not going to buy cheese from anywhere else other than the Aiello family because I felt like I was talking to my own aunt or my own uncle,” he says.
Rotolo could tell similar stories about everything, from the pans he bakes his deep-dish pizzas in to the butcher blocks he chops sausage on. Don’t get him started unless you have some time to burn: The man is extremely passionate about his craft, so much so that you won’t find bastard toppings, like pineapple.
“We’re taking modern artisan bread-making techniques and going back to the origins of pizza. For me, that means bringing back traditional Italian ingredients,” he says. “Sorry, we’re not serving bacon. Sorry, you can’t get chicken on a pizza here. Because everything we do goes back to: What would Grandma do? My grandma’s not putting chicken on a pizza, so I’m not doing it. And it’s not because I don’t want to or because I don’t think it will sell; it’s because the grandmothers on the wall are watching.”
That last statement isn’t as spooky as it sounds. Good Pie has a designated “Grandma Wall” with photographs of adorable old ladies, from celebrities to the nonnas of Rotolo’s friends. Even “Grandmama,” 6-foot-6 UNLV and NBA legend Larry Johnson’s wigged fictional character, gets a spot. “I grew up idolizing him when he was at UNLV. I was a big fan of his when he was on the New York Knicks,” Rotolo says.
Among Rotolo’s odd collection of grandmas is a 1974 Little Italy Festival cookbook from a town in the Midwest filled with homemade recipes and pictures of the women who invented them. “This might be what my grandma would’ve worn,” he says while shuffling through the pages. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of her, and that’s really sad, but I do have a great recipe from Cecelia Antonini on rice and peas. Who has that?” he says.
“I just can’t wait to have them looking down on us as we cook and as we create all our food, because I think it just makes it more special.”