When Brad Otton opened the original Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana in Henderson in 2005, he wasn’t trying to start a revolution. The former USC quarterback and UNLV football coach was merely trying to share his own personal pizza discovery, the thin-crust, soft-dough, simply topped and quickly charred pies he ate four times a week during his two-year Mormon mission in Italy.
“The first day I worked in a restaurant was the first day we opened,” Otton says via phone from Newport Beach, California, where he’s prepping the eighth Settebello store. “I felt like we had the pizza pretty much covered, the same pizza that was such a staple of my diet living in Napoli. We knew we were going after a niche market, but given that no one in town was doing anything unique other than Metro Pizza, it seemed like a good place and time to do it.”
Settebello suffered through early struggles due to an obscure location on Horizon Ridge Parkway and a learning curve—Otton and longtime chef Carmine D’Amato had to educate local diners more familiar with greasy, broad, New York-style slices on how authentic Neapolitan pizza was supposed to look, feel and taste.
Once Las Vegas got accustomed to that taste—and the beautiful simplicity of that crust—we couldn’t get enough.
“I think the recession actually really helped us, because we were attracting the foodies who maybe weren’t going to the Strip to get a steak so much,” Otton recalls. “You could come get a $10 or $12 pizza and still get very high quality.”
Almost nine years later, Otton has moved his original pizzeria to a popular spot at the District at Green Valley Ranch, opened a second Las Vegas area store at Village Square and expanded to Utah and California.
Whether or not Settebello is your favorite spot, one thing is certain: It helped jump-start a local pizza renaissance. Today, dough for dough, cheese for cheese and sauce for sauce, Las Vegas belongs in the discussion of the top pizza cities in the country.
Pizza is arguably the most beloved food in America.
“It is easy, fast and recognizable, but also delicious and filling in an extremely satisfying way,” says super chef Mario Batali, whose Otto Pizzeria at the Venetian’s Grand Canal Shoppes serves up thin, crisp pies to steady streams of hungry tourists. “I love all pizza, from the authentic Neapolitan to the crispy pane frattau of Sardegna to the thicker focaccia variations from Genoa to the New York City slice and the California creative toppings movement headed by Wolfgang Puck. I even love Chicago deep-dish pizza, which Jon Stewart calls ‘a bread bowl filled with tomato soup.’”
Batali’s other pizzeria is the more critically acclaimed Mozza (in Southern California and at the Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore), a collaboration with “bread Zen mistress” Nancy Silverton. Mozza is something new—an inspired evolution on traditional Neapolitan pizza, with a crust that is both chewy and crispy-charred, a bit of sweet and sour in each bite—and its huge success is proof that there’s an insatiable appetite for this traditional, communal food. Everybody loves pizza.
With its thin crust and by-the-slice convenience, New York is usually the pick for the top American pizza city, but Chicago is right there, anchored by deep-dish heartiness. Boston, Philadelphia and Detroit have their own regional variations, and on the West Coast, San Francisco is the pizza favorite. You also can’t ignore Phoenix, Arizona, as it’s the home of Chris Bianco’s Pizzeria Bianco, the American pizzeria at the forefront of the modern pizza movement.
What makes Vegas pizza so great? The most obvious factor is something that no other pizza city has. Let’s call it Las Vegasness.
“It’s probably never going to be acknowledged as such, especially by locals, but Las Vegas is one of the best pizza cities,” says John Arena, co-owner of Metro Pizza and instructor of the only university-level pizza class in the country at UNLV. “When you talk to professionals in the industry who come here every year for Pizza Expo, they always talk about how great it is here.”
The International Pizza Expo hits the Convention Center every March, the largest show of its kind in the world. Arena points to all the various pizza makers who come to town for the conference, along with food journalists and folks like Scott Wiener, who runs a pizza tour company in New York, as an indicator of our city’s stature. “You see that the industry has very high regard for Las Vegas,” Arena says.
Is it hard to believe that a diehard New York guy like Scott Wiener, who has been featured on Food Network, Travel Channel and in the Wall Street Journal, would give pizza props to Las Vegas?
“I’m in Vegas two or three times a year, and I actually get a lot of people from Vegas on our tours and I always ask them what they’re into, like Metro or Settebello,” Wiener says. “They’re surprised, because maybe Las Vegas is not what you think of when you think of pizza cities. But it’s been great to check out new spots there like Pop Up Pizza, Five50 Pizza Bar, Due Forni and Dom Demarco’s.”
According to Wiener, the perfect New York slice, most authentic Neapolitan pie or heartiest slab of Chicago deep-dish is not what makes a great pizza city. “Variety is the key,” he says. “If your town has one pizzeria that’s really good, that does not make you a good pizza town. The reason New York is a hotbed is its variety of dining styles, and Vegas has the same thing.”
What made New York pizza great in the first place, Wiener says, is access: “All these customers walking down the street, past your building where they can get a slice. Vegas has that traffic, too, on the Strip, a mixed cultural consumer base from all over the place looking for a taste of home or something new.”
That kind of diversity is what pushes Las Vegas into the upper echelon of pizza cities. We have loads of neighborhood New York-style shops, and widely respected East Coast pizza makers like Grimaldi’s and Dom Demarco’s—an offshoot of Brooklyn’s legendary Di Fara—have set up shop here, too. Settebello has pizza Napoletana on lock, as does Novecento Pizzeria, and Due Forni doubles down with both Neapolitan and Roman pizza styles. Northside Nathan’s has been feeding Las Vegans Detroit-style pizza—square pies with a thick, buttery crust—for almost 15 years. And from Buffalo—perhaps one of the more obscure regional pizzas, certainly hard to find outside of upstate New York—comes Naked City Pizza Shop, from former Strip restaurant chef Chris Palmeri.
“I love the pizza back home in Buffalo and there was nothing like it out here, so I always wanted to open a pizza shop,” Palmeri says. “Buffalo does comfort food really well. It’s never going to be Chicago or LA or New York with big-name restaurants, but there are so many small neighborhood bars and restaurants. It’s what I grew up eating.”
Palmeri started with a Downtown hot dog cart, then a small sandwich shop and then moved into the dive bar Moon Doggies and took over the kitchen. Naked City landed a spot on Guy Fieri’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and now whenever the episode is broadcast, Palmeri gets a huge bump, including tourists taking cabs to taste his everything-from-scratch pies. Naked City recently opened a second location east of the Strip.
“I’ve been here 11 years, and since we opened four years ago, I’ve seen another Buffalo place pop up, numerous Neapolitan and a couple Chicago places,” Palmeri says. “We are becoming a really good pizza town. We just don’t have the history. We’ve only been doing it for the last five or 10 years, but doing it as well as anyone. You have to be consistent over time.”
Las Vegas is different from other iconic cities, because it doesn’t have a signature dish, like the Philly cheesesteak or the New Orleans po’ boy sandwich. That goes for pizza, too; There’s no such thing as Vegas-style pizza, while a great pizza city like Chicago has four predominant styles: deep dish, cracker thin, stuffed and cast-iron. (You can get great versions of the first two in Las Vegas at Amore Taste of Chicago.)
Since Las Vegas is a place where pizza eaters from all over the world reside, maybe the best strategy for a pizzeria to truly make an impact is to offer a bit of everything. That’s the philosophy at Metro, which has survived and thrived for almost 35 years in Las Vegas, and it also describes the approach at one of the city’s most popular new restaurants, Pizza Rock.
“Tony Gemignani is recognized as one of the most decorated pizza makers in the world,” Arena says. “Not only is he a showman, but he’s one of the most knowledgeable pizza guys anywhere. You bring him into the mix and put all these things together, and Las Vegas doesn’t take a backseat to anybody.”
An instant hit since opening last year at Downtown 3rd, Pizza Rock has five different types of pizza ovens, makes multiple recipes for different doughs daily, and serves 11 different styles ... until Gemignani adds more. The Neapolitan pies are among the city’s best, but so are the New York and Chicago pizzas. The Romans are three pizzas in one, a long rectangle of deliciousness covered in three distinct topping sets. The Sicilians? Forget about it. Nothing else in town comes close.
The success of Pizza Rock, which will expand soon to Green Valley Ranch Resort, is not surprising considering Gemignani’s pedigree, including his game-changing San Francisco pizzeria, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. He built that restaurant “to be an institution, something people all over would know about.”
Gemignani helped San Francisco become a great pizza town, and now he’s doing the same thing in Las Vegas. “I knew Pizza Rock would work here, but it’s been twice as successful as I thought,” he says. “When you think of San Francisco, it’s very food-centric, and the out-of-the-box pizzas—like clams and garlic—are the front runners. As we move outside of the Bay Area, it’s very meat and potatoes, you know ... pepperoni and sausage. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s pizza—you don’t have to get that serious about it.”
Gemignani, another pizza educator who’s constantly traveling and teaching, has been coming to Vegas for 20 years now. “Las Vegas has as many styles as you can offer, compared to anyone else,” he says. “Are they all as good as it gets? No, but it’s getting better.”
The scene continues to grow and diversify quickly. The latest trend mimics the Chipotle model, where patrons pick their ingredients and build an individualized pie. Local examples include the west side’s Custom Built Pizza, the fast-growing Novecento and the LA transplant 800 Degrees, which will open its second Strip location at the SLS this month.
Otton says new and different pizzerias have only helped the development of Settebello. “It’s inevitable that these companies are finding their way to Las Vegas, and honestly it’s helped us because it creates a better culture in the city. People look around and see opportunity. I hope there’s room for more.”
Ever the pizza philosopher, Metro’s Arena says Las Vegas is a place where pizza is a part of how people identify themselves.
“People cling to pizza as being a symbol of their origins, and they’re very reluctant to let go of the idea that wherever they came from had the best pizza,” he says. “Las Vegas has people from everywhere, which creates a fun mishmash of opinions, but it also contributes to how people don’t realize what a real treasure Las Vegas is when it comes to pizza.”