Vegas Pizza Makers Score Big In NYC

June 25, 2024 was a very good night for the Las Vegas pizza community.

When Italy’s Top 50 Pizza organization unveiled its 2024 list of the Top 50 U.S. pizzerias at a star-studded ceremony in New York City’s iconic Chelsea Market, two Las Vegas restaurants made the cut. Tony Gemignani’s Pizza Rock, located in Downtown Las Vegas and the Green Valley Ranch resort, was listed in the #28 spot, while Chinatown’s 00 Pie and Pub (“Double Zero”) came in at #45. It’s the first time Las Vegas, completely absent from the list until 2023, scored multiple entries.

“It’s not really two out of 50; it’s two out of 78,000,” notes Metro Pizza’s John Arena, an internationally recognized pizza expert and tireless promoter of Las Vegas’ pizza community.

“There are 78,000 pizzerias in the country, and two of [the Top 50] are from Las Vegas. I think that’s fantastic.”

Arena also has some personal reasons to celebrate this year’s list. Truly Pizza, his Dana Point, California collaboration with Metro Pizza’s Chris Decker and Double Zero’s Michael Vakneen, debuted at #42 on the list after less than a year in operation.

To put these wins into perspective, I asked Gemignani, Arena, Vakneen and Decker for their thoughts.

2023 Set The Table, 2024 Ups The Ante

It was only a year ago that the greatest competitive pizza maker of all time, Tony Gemignani, officially put Las Vegas on the international pizza map, when his decade-old Pizza Rock (which has locations Downtown and in Green Valley Ranch) secured the city its first appearance on the prestigious Top 50 USA list. This also made Gemignani the first pizzaiolo with two pizzerias in the Top 50, as his San Francisco restaurant Tony’s Pizza Napoletana has been included on the list every year since 2019.

A few of Pizza Rock’s many styles

Gemignani may hail from California, but as Metro Pizza’s John Arena has stated, “Tony belongs to the world.” And by 2023, the 13-time World Champion had six pizzeria brands with dozens of locations throughout California and Nevada (and up to 100 Slice House franchises in the works). The fact that his Las Vegas flagship, Pizza Rock, was chosen for inclusion on the list was a major nod to our city’s growing pizza bona fides.

The 2024 list reinforced Gemingnani’s status among the very best of all time and Pizza Rock’s status as one of our nation’s best pizza experiences. It also brought Las Vegas into the exclusive company of only six cities with multiple pizzerias on the list. It raised one of Las Vegas’s rising-star pizzaiolos, Michael Vakneen, to new heights while rewarding him and a pair of Las Vegas pizza legends for their work in California.

The G.O.A.T.

For a superstar like Tony Gemignani, who has repeatedly shattered records and set new standards, 2024’s Top 50 USA was just another reminder of why many, including John Arena, have long referred to him as the pizza world’s  G.O.A.T. (greatest of all time). Vakneen calls him a “living legend.” Decker says he’s one of those “that pave the way for everybody.”

Tony Gemignani (right) w/ Al Mancini

Yet, when asked about this year’s awards, Gemignani was humble and quick to recognize others.

“It’s an honor for the last two years, Pizza Rock was in the Top 50 pizzerias in the U.S., along with Double Zero [this year],” he replied to my request for comment.

“There are so many amazing pizzerias in our country, and it’s great Las Vegas is being recognized for its amazing pizza. It’s a great feeling.”

Rising Star

When asked about his own two wins, Vakneen seems a little flabbergasted.

“I couldn’t believe that a guy from Las Vegas would be able to be on the list two times,” he says. “I think the only other person who’s ever done that is Tony Gemignani. So I’m following in good footsteps.”

However, those who know the young restaurateur’s career realize he’s been on this path for a while.

Neo-Neapolitan Pizza From 00 Pie & Pub

By the time Double Zero began serving neo-Neapolitan pizzas on Spring Mountain Road last summer, around the same time Truly began offering its American Artisan pizzas in Orange County, Vakneen was already known to Las Vegans for the excellent New York slices he serves at Pop-Up Pizza in The Plaza. He was also a member of Gemignani’s World Pizza Champions competition team and the winner in the non-traditional category at the 2022 International Pizza Expo. And yet, he says, Top 50 Pizza is different.

“This is essentially the Michelin Guide of Pizza,” he told us, before revealing what it was like to hear Double Zero’s name called first for Las Vegas as he sat with general manager Erica Bell and pizzaiolo Josh King, surrounded by his heroes.

“You’re around the podium with other incredible people in our industry: legendary people like Chris Bianco, Uno Pizza Napolitano with Anthony Mangieri. [It’s] people who have been on the list in previous years, people that you look up to, and people that have influenced your whole career. That alone was so unbelievable.”

Truly Legendary

As remarkable as that is, Vakneen says it was even more special to accept Truly Pizza’s award because of his relationship with John Arena and Chris Decker.

“If you know John Arena,” says Vakneen, “he’s a legendary human being. And Chris is essentially his son. And I call myself his grandson. So we have a very special bond. It’s very unique. It’s a one-of-a-kind thing. And to kind of bask in that glory together, and to have him kind of shining down and looking down on us, just being so proud, you could feel the energy.”

Vakneen says he’ll never forget what Arena said to him afterward.

“It was a very special moment. I kissed John on the side of the head. … And he looked into my eyes, and into Chris’ eyes, and said, ‘I’m proud of my boys.’”

Decker concurred on the significance of the moment, calling it one of the greatest moments of his career – right up there with joining the World Pizza Champions team.

“I cried and I ran home to my wife,” he says. “Because she knows how hard we work and how much that meant to us. Now there’s a fire inside us to be even better.”

Arena, a longtime mentor for local pizza makers and advocate for the local pizza community, cherished the opportunity to share the honor with people he loves and admires.

“I got to be with Chris Decker,” he says of the evening. “For me, there’s nothing better than that. … He deserves that recognition. Michael deserves that recognition.”

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