In fashion, politics and even investment, image can be everything. Often it’s even the same when it comes to food, where restaurants with great marketing can survive, even thrive, despite serving nothing particularly interesting, nor having great prices, or even great service.
That isn’t the case with downtown’s Pizza Rock, but image plays into its story in a different way.
From the outside, the Ogden street eatery, which took over the former Celebrity Theatre space (so that the punk bands could relocate to Fremont Country Club, apparently) feels like a boardwalk tourist trap; all reclaimed wood and tattooesque signage and macho sloganeering. The slice counter by the front door only adds to that, making you believe it’s all they offer (if it was, you really wouldn’t be so bad off - but more on that below).
There’s just one thing: that sideways-stencilled macho slogan “Respect the craft,” isn’t just some goomba ballgrab. Pizza Rock truly does respect, if not worship, the craft of pizza making. And not just one style of pizzamaking either.
All of it.
Pizza Rock is the brainchild of Tony Gemignani, a man who needs no introduction if you happen to move in the inner circles of pizzamania. “Tony G,” who also owns Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, Capo’s, and Tony’s Coal Fired Pizza in San Francisco, and another Pizza Rock in Sacramento, was the first American to win the World Pizza Cup in Napoli (yes, it’s a thing) as well as winning “Best of the Best” at Vegas’ own World Championships, and a massive list of other gold medals and accolades, for Roman style, for pizza tossing, for just about any category in the name of a pizza.
And that image might make you expect a geeky, fussy, purist kind of place.
Instead, Pizza Rock is a deceptively casual, unpredictably encyclopaedic temple to the Gods of ‘Za. Yes, there is Napoletana pizza (proofed in wood boxes and baked in a 900 degree Stefano Ferrara oven burning oak, almond and cherry wood, San Felice 00 flour), but there is also American/New York style (550 degree gas brick oven, big slices), Chicago Cracker Thin style (650 degree gas brick oven, Ceresota flour), New York/New Haven style (700 degree brick oven, All Trumps/Caputo flour), California style (900 degree, Caputo flour), Sicilian (550 degrees, thick rectangular pan), and last but not least, a Romana style (700 degree electric brick oven) that is actually three pizzas in one long ‘flatbread’ style strip.
Do all those details matter? They do, and a lot in fact, when you see the differences side by side, variations as distinct as cuts of beef (compare prime rib to skirt steak) or lettuces (iceberg to rocket).
A traditional Margherita ($16) comes as a piping hot paper thin soft crust, unevenly round and charred, blooming with bright San Marzano tomato and basil aroma. The Food Network Challenge-winning Cal Italia ($18) has a buttery-flaky crust, topped with asiago, mozzarella, parmigiano-reggiano and gorgonzola cheeses, prosciutto, fig preserve and balsamic reduction for an addictively salty-sweet balance.
The Boss ($32) is a Sicilian-style behemoth (not sure even 3 people could tackle it), with thick focaccia-like but almost crunchy crust, topped with generous bacon, natural case pepperoni, Molinari, Linguica and house made Italian sausages, mushrooms, peppers, onions, olives, cherry tomatoes and garlic.
I’m stuffed just thinking about it!
And though it might seem like an afterthought, the New York style slices here are even notable; huge plate-fillers with flavorful crispy-soft crust and quality toppings.
Not every creative version hits a home run, though. the Pizza Campari ($16) is a somewhat overinvolved West Coast cousin of the Napoletana that confuses things with two kinds of peppers, smoked pancetta, and Campari-blood orange reduction, covered with a salad full of escarole, cherry tomatoes and loose goat cheese. It didn’t translate.
There are appetisers - tender, sweet-sauced classic meatballs and tangy, light fried artichokes in spicy sauce - as well as pasta, stromboli and sandwiches, too.
Trying to work your way through this menu would be a time-consuming and caloric exercise, so in order to report on the diversity offered here, I’m unashamed to say I got to experience an invited tasting, dragging along my two favorite eaters for assistance. Yes, we got special attention, but it doesn’t mean any of the pizzas were any different, or even made by Tony G, who doesn’t seem to visit Vegas much more than any of our other celeb chefs. That’s unfortunate, but to the credit of his pizzaiolos, maybe not too essential.
As I wrote a few weeks ago, pizza is speeding towards a critical mass these days, not just in downtown (with Radio City, Pop-Up, Wild, even the venerated Uncle Joe’s) but on the Strip and throughout the valley. Some spots are marginally stronger in some ways on the plate, some have more inviting interiors.
But Pizza Rock is the one place you can get almost any kind of pizza that exists on the planet, and in a very good if not great version. That not only makes it unique in Vegas, but nearly anywhere. Along with the diversity of the menu and large format of many pizzas, the size of the room makes it particularly good for large parties (they also have live and DJ music on weekend nights).
If you love pizza, and I mean really, seriously, outtamyway LOVE pizza, you owe it to yourself to spend some time here.
PIZZA ROCK, 201 North Third Street, 702-385-0838, www.pizzarocklasvegas.com. Patrons are welcomed to use the Downtown Grand casino’s complimentary valet.
E.C. Gladstone is a Las Vegas-based food writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @ecgladstone. Go to nowimhungry.com and sipsavorswallow.com for more of his musings on food and drink.