Here’s a culinary story: An acclaimed chef with successful restaurants in Chicago gets called to the Las Vegas Strip. He opens a fine dining room in a fancy new casino, and the food is great. Chef and casino agree to collaborate on another restaurant, this time something more casual. A pizza joint.
The question: How excited should you be about this pizza joint?
Shawn McClain is the chef. Sage is his first Vegas restaurant, at Aria, considered by most to be one of the can’t-miss dining destinations on the Strip. And Five50 Pizza Bar, set to open late this spring where Aria’s Skybox sports bar originally resided, is that pizza joint. And your excitement level should be pretty high, depending whether you love pizza. Which you do.
“The stakes are always high in Vegas. You always want to put your very best foot forward,” McClain says. “And we never take anything lightly. There are too many good chefs and restaurants in Vegas to do that. We want this project to be a long-term success, but also a home run right out of the gate.”
If this sounds like serious talk for a pizza place, well, good. McClain, who lives with his young family in Michigan and still owns and operates Green Zebra in Chicago, will be moving to Las Vegas for around nine months to focus on perfecting Five50. He made the same move to open Sage in late 2009. In a city where the big-name chefs typically visit their Vegas restaurants a few times a year, all-out dedication makes a big difference.
More importantly, it proves the pizza joint is just as important as the fine-dining restaurant. “I love pizza. I’ve eaten it in a lot of different places. And people have very strong opinions about pizza, which is great,” McClain says. “Our pizza is closer to East Coast-style, that’s our inspiration. I would never call it New York-style or New Haven-style, but it has characteristics of those.”
Five50 pizza will be similar to traditional Neapolitan pie in that it will be quick-fired in wood-burning ovens, but McClain is working on a “real integrity in the crust, still on the thin side but structured.” The secret to his pizza dough is a 48-hour fermentation cycle that adds flavor.
Beer is the other main component to the project. FIVE50 will have 12 taps, and each keg will be outfitted with its own regulator and pump so the brews can be served to the optimal specifications. The focus will be on North American craft beers, including a rotating local selection, plus a diverse selection of bottles.
McClain says he’s up for the challenge of what is essentially his most casual restaurant concept to date. “We want a relaxed atmosphere, lively and loud, tons of energy, a lot of motion,” he says. “The price point and the setting may be more casual, but we look at it all the same—it’s all about the guest experience. Everything has to be spot on.”
He’s hoping Five50 will be ready to open at Aria in May.