<strong>EVER SINCE THE PLAZA </strong>Hotel and Casino reopened in September with trendy restaurants and swanky new furniture, I have actively encouraged people to call it the Plasmo. Why? Because the refurbished downtown establishment opened on the heels of the Cosmopolitan and appeared to be co-opting its buzzy urban vibe.
It wasn’t just the contemporary furniture from the unfinished Fontainebleau. Instead of indie rock at the Book & Stage, the Plaza has indie theater in the edgy Insurgo Theater space. It doesn’t have the Chandelier Bar, but you can pair cheap drinks with putt-putt golf at the Swingers Club. I practically rolled my eyes when I heard the Plaza was opening a pizza place. The Cosmo’s “secret” pizza had been out of the bag for months. Surely the Plaza’s Pop Up Pizza would be a pale imitation.
You could smell the pizza from the sidewalk. The air carried layers of yeast, tomato and bubbly cheese. It’s a definite improvement over the old smells (urine, sweat, feet) that lingered outside the original Plaza.
The pizza place is tucked inside the south end of the Plaza. It consists of a counter and about 10 plastic tables. A low wall topped by a fake hedge separates the bright restaurant from its casino host.
Partner and chef Michael Vakneen leaned against the counter. He quietly asked how my husband and I had heard of the place. I told the truth — that I’d been sent by my boss the check it out. After all, this isn’t a proper restaurant review. I leave those to the professionals. And no critic with an ounce of professional courtesy would review a restaurant on its seventh day in business.
But Vakneen seemed pretty confident in his product. He didn’t say anything about working out the kinks. In fact, he launched pretty quickly into his grand vision for the place, with the six pies on the counter serving as a foundation for a sustainable operation that would eventually involve local suppliers and urban greenhouses.
Vision is one thing and pizza is another. But the pizza here is great. The crust is thin and crisp, with just enough structure and tooth to hold up to toppings that included, in my case, half-moons of waxy potato. If Vakneen can execute his locavore vision as well as he tosses dough, then I expect Las Vegas to supplant Berkeley within the next few years.
“I told Oscar Goodman that I was going to make a meat pie and call it Goodman’s Goodfella,” Vakneen said. “But he told me he doesn’t eat meat on his pizza, so I made a vegetarian one.”
The Goodman features spinach, potatoes and caramelized onions. I had it with a drizzle of garlic oil. It didn’t need any meat.
My husband, son and I had three pieces — the Goodman, a meat pie called the Fremont and a cheese slice. All were excellent. We skipped the vegan pizza, even though it looked pretty tasty for fake cheese. Pop Up Pizza has two beers on tap, Stella and Rolling Rock, and a decent selection of sodas and juice.
It’s also got at least one thing you won’t find at the Cosmo: a little bit of old downtown Vegas. We saw a bride and groom exit the chapel after a Tuesday evening ceremony. We watched a sullen kid in a Spider-Man costume wait for his father to finish gambling. And we listened as Vakneen reasoned with an elderly man with an oxygen tank and a personal scooter, who was upset because he couldn’t smoke inside the pizza parlor.
The Plaza may have gotten a facelift, but it’s still the same old locals joint. Now it has a top-notch pizza place, where you can get your pie with a side of downtown character.