Wednesday, June 13, 2012 | 11:02 p.m.
I meet John Arena way out in the northwest valley. The word sprawling is used often to describe the outlying suburbs of Las Vegas, and nowhere does this word seem more appropriate than here, the neighborhood known as Centennial Hills. But between broad stripes of residential tracts empty and occupied, generic shopping centers and beige-gray desert, there’s something under construction. It’s the new Metro Pizza, at the corner of Cimarron Road and Sky Pointe Drive, set to open in early July.
There are four Metro Pizza locations in Las Vegas already, but the fifth will be special. As Arena shows me around his pizzeria-to-be, he explains why this new restaurant is significant, in his ever-humble way. Any conversation with him, or with his cousin and partner Sam Facchini, begins with the pizza business and develops quickly, and warmly, into something more meaningful. It’s not unlike the way dough becomes more pliable when worked with care or how that dough can become a meal for a family, or how that meal can become a foundation for everything else. It’s always more than pizza.
Centennial Hills has seen some particularly rough times lately. The ZIP codes of 89030 and 89031, which make up the space between North Las Vegas and the master-planned community of Providence, were two of the most foreclosed-on areas in the country when the recession was slapping Southern Nevada silly. As in other parts of the valley, things have improved slowly. Any new business could be a big boost.
“We wanted to be the business that did it,” Arena says. “We thought, this is a year’s worth of construction jobs here when no one was doing anything.”
The neighbors are excited about it, he says, noting people have been driving through to ask when Metro will open. “This community needed a little local place like this, a nice place to sit down. Someone has to step up and take the risk if the community needs a shot in the arm," he says. "If we’re all hiding under the bed, where’s it going to come from?”
Taking risks is nothing new for Arena and Facchini. They came to Vegas on vacation from Brooklyn in 1979 and returned to town the following year to open Original New York Pizza with Arena’s father on Flamingo and Sandhill roads. In their first days of business, high school students rode horses to the store. To broaden their scope beyond “New York” pizza—and to pay homage to other great pizza cities—they renamed the business Metro when they opened a west-side restaurant in 1986.
- Metro Pizza Locations
- 1395 E. Tropicana Ave., 736-1955.
- 4001 S. Decatur Blvd., 362-7896.
- 1420 W. Horizon Ridge Parkway, 458-4769.
- Ellis Island Casino, 4178 Koval Lane, 312-5888.
On June 1, the pizzeria celebrated 32 years in Vegas, and in some ways, the semi-rural sprawl of the northwest is a lot like Vegas was when the cousins arrived. “There are a lot of people out here who already know us,” Facchini says. When I call Metro’s new neighborhood an island, he counters: “If you drive around, you’ll see it’s a very nicely populated island.”
If you drive around Centennial Hills, you’ll also notice an overwhelming presence of fast food outlets, video poker bars and big franchise dining spots. Mom-and-pop eateries have struggled here; a great one, Indian Curry Bowl, closed months ago. Not every local operator has the right tools to make it work.
“When this town hit a million people in the late-’80s, all the major chains were planting flags here. That created new challenges for all of us,” Facchini says. “We were competing not only for customers but for employees, thanks to the giant casino boom.” That challenge taught Metro’s owners to teach their staff: Even though our price point is low, every customer is having a hard time deciding how to spend their money. So make them all feel welcome, and always be grateful.
The northwest Metro is a copy of the Tropicana and Henderson stores—same family-friendly space, same New York City subway tile in the kitchen, same muted tones based on the colors of food. Most importantly, it will have the same soulful menu, a wide range of pasta, salads, sandwiches and appetizers, like garlic and Romano cheese fries and minestrone soup. There are different styles of pizza, from stuffed pies to an ultra-thin crust, simple margherita. One menu section pays homage to America’s original pizza makers, recipes straight out of New York’s Little Italy. The variety is particularly important to Arena, who travels frequently and uses his “vacations” to work in pizzerias young and old across the country. He needs to keep learning, and not just for the pizza history class he teaches at UNLV or to update the map of great American pizzerias on Metro’s walls. “If you’re not preparing for your next generation of customers,” he says, “you’re on your way to being a dinosaur.”
As lucky as the neighborhood is to have its own proven family pizzeria, it’s only half the equation. The new Metro will be attached to a small bakery, Lulu’s Bread & Breakfast, which should open a few weeks after the pizzeria.
“Mine was a family of bread bakers before they were pizza makers,” Arena says. “My dad started out working at a bakery on Mott Street when he was 16 years old. Everything was coal-fired then, and he fed the ovens. It was a tough job.”
Honoring what came before is pretty important to these guys. Arena has been dreaming of returning to family traditions. He runs down his vision: Fresh bread popping out of a five-deck brick oven. Display cases showing off pastries, sweet treats and fresh salads. A cook line awaiting orders of sourdough waffles or a hot, cheesy panini. A serpentine, stainless steel communal table in the middle of the room with power jacks and free Wi-Fi. Kids with bikes and dogs on the patio. It’s a pretty picture, one the Metro team has been planning for years.
The Lulu’s on the Move food truck launched early last year, spreading the word by way of decadent beignets and potato-chorizo breakfast tacos. Top Chef Desserts winner Chris Hanmer signed on as a consulting chef. He’ll teach classes in the bakery at night, when Lulu’s will be closed for business but open for private parties and pop-up dinners. On the business side, Lulu’s will be a hub for all the baked goods to be served at all Metro restaurants. Arena sees three more Lulu’s locations opening up around town in the future.
Of course, family is the thing. “My dad’s very excited,” Arena says. “He’s 85 years old. He’s irrepressible. He’ll probably be in here wanting to work.”
The day after Metro Pizza opened its Henderson location in 2007, the guys found this plot of land in Centennial Hills. “We were thinking it’d be two years, but it turned out to be five,” Arena says. Big plans lose momentum when banks tighten up and lending grinds to a halt. It happened all over Las Vegas, even on the Strip. And it happened to Metro, but the guys didn’t reconsider their plans. They’d already committed.
“We never fathomed it, never entertained the idea of abandoning the project,” Facchini says. “We had too much in it, financially and emotionally. It was always a very important piece of our future growth, so we dug in our heels and figured out how to make it happen.” Even though the company almost “drained the swamp” of income, Facchini says he never thought it wasn’t happening. Even after their first bank went out of business, they held onto the land and kept hammering away until they found financing.
“To be able to do that was always our goal, someday,” Arena says. “We came to town with 30 bucks in our pocket, so it took awhile, but to be able to do that now, in this economy, with a $5.5 million project ...
“It takes a special kind of person to stay with essentially a mom-and-pop company when you can go get a job at any hotel,” he said. “And there’s got to be some kind of payoff to be able to tolerate us for 25 years.”
It’s easy to understand why Metro Pizza has persevered and stayed successful, but I keep wondering how these two cousins from New York are so uncommonly generous and grateful amid the stress of the restaurant business. The spirit of their company is collaborative in a world that is hyper-competitive. The odds are good that every decent pizzeria in town has an ex-Metro worker in the kitchen, but there is little anger when the inevitable staff poaching takes place.
Arena and Facchini are mentors for their employees and other aspiring restaurateurs; Bread and Butter owner/baker Chris Herrin and Sloppi Jo’s food trucker Jolene Mannina are but two examples.
Miki Agrawal owns Slice, a pizza joint in New York’s West Village. She met Arena years ago, before she hooked up with Tony Hsieh’s Downtown Project and started planning an upcoming expansion to Vegas. “John grew up in this business, and he has a real love affair with it,” she says of Arena. “That’s something I admire. I knew when I first met him that I wanted to have him around.” Arena provides some guidance, “but he’s very selfless,” Agrawal says. “He says, ‘You don’t need me.’”
Everybody needs that kind of help, and the Metro guys never seem to grow tired of giving. It’s because they feel they’ve already received so much, according to Facchini, who revels in the opportunity to serve a third generation of customers their favorite food on Friday nights.
“People tell us things they remember, people who worked for us, and say that we set an example for them, stuff they could pass on to their children,” he says. “At the time, we thought they weren’t paying attention to us, but they actually learned stuff about life from the people they were working for who have now become their friends.
“You can’t put a price on it or really describe how that feels. I just hope you experience it one day.”
See, more than pizza.