- Master pizzaiolo Chris Decker of Metro Pizza chatted with PMQ’s Brian Hernandez about how he creates some of the best pizzas in Las Vegas.
- Instead of catering to the tourist crowd, Metro Pizza focuses on the locals while offering a wide variety of pizza styles, from New York and Sicilian to square-cut and stuffed pies.
Bright lights, water fountains, mini volcanoes. Las Vegas is famous for a lot of things, and pizza is fast becoming one of them. In a town that sees tourists from all over the globe year-round, your pizza game must be on point, and Metro Pizza’s game definitely is. This is due in no small part to a pizzaioli named Chris Decker.
Decker has been slinging pies under the tutelage of the great John Arena for the last 24 years, and he shows no signs of slowing down. On the contrary, he has broken away from the crowd and created some of the most delicious and beautiful pies Sin City has seen to date.
Metro Pizza currently has four locations in Las Vegas and a fifth in Henderson, Nevada. PMQ’s Brian Hernandez sat down with Chris in 2018 and picked his brain about how to thrive in a tourist town, what drives his creations and why he loves pizza so much.
PMQ: What is your earliest pizza memory? Maybe a smell, something visual, or maybe you were walking down the street and someone chucked a slice at your head?
Decker: You know, I have a couple. Growing up, my Dad always made pizzas on Fridays at home. So, when I was young, it was cool to watch him do that and take part in it. He didn’t have anything to do with the pizza-making world or even cooking, but for some reason he always made pizzas on Friday. Then, when I was young, there was a really great restaurant called Duff’s in upstate New York. There was this really old man whose job was to make pizzas, and his work station was right in the middle of the restaurant. He would let us come up and play with the dough and show us how he was making the pies.
PMQ: How did you end up getting started in the business then?
Decker: I’m from upstate New York, and when I was in college I made pizzas, just kind of for fun. Then I transferred out here to UNLV, and I didn’t want to go home one summer, so I applied at Metro Pizza in 1997, and I ended up staying. I think what I love most about it is the creativity, working with my hands, the instant gratification of seeing somebody take a bite and loving it. Seeing that right away is something that keeps me motivated pretty much every day.
PMQ: How much freedom do you have to play around with recipes that may or may not go on the menu?
Decker: I get to play around every single day with something. If we did the same menu items that we have for the last 20-plus years, I would go insane, you know? You have to keep it fresh. So, I try to do something different at least a couple times a week. Over the past few years [Metro Pizza co-owner John Arena] has said, “Go ahead and do what you want. Run it as a special and see how it goes.” But as far as getting it added to the menu, it really depends. There are a lot of things that we really like that perhaps our customers aren’t quite ready for. You have to really focus and tap into what you think your customer base will embrace. And there are a couple of things I make for John and [co-owner Sam Facchini] that they really like, so at least that’s job security for me!
PMQ: Let’s dig a little deeper into your pizza tastes. What’s your favorite ingredient to work with?
Decker: Well, the one we use the most, so I think it’s the one I can’t live without, is olive oil. The Corto olive oil that we use is just great. I love everything about it. I love the flavor of it when I do side-by-side taste tests. To me, it’s second to none, and I use it every single day. Actually, I guess it is my favorite, because without it, I can’t really do anything.
PMQ: Aside from the high quality of the food, what is one unique aspect of Metro Pizza and what you do there that keeps the people coming in day after day? A signature item, a gimmick, tap dancing bears? Something that is Metro Pizza and Metro Pizza only?
Decker: Well, a lot of people always ask, “What is Metro Pizza?” It’s metropolitan pizza. Everyone that lives or visits here is from somewhere else. So we try to do styles from all over the country, the different metropolitan areas. Traditionally our pizzas are New York-style, but we also have thin-crust pizzas, pizzas cut into squares. We have stuffed pizzas, we have thick crust pizzas, Sicilian pizzas. We have all of these different things because Las Vegas is a melting pot. To me, that’s the one thing that’s kept us going. We try to be your neighborhood pizzeria. And even if we don’t have a style from where you come from, I will say, “Tell me about it, and I will try to make something for you.” And they never forget that.
PMQ: How do you market to Las Vegas locals and keep Metro Pizza top of mind locally in such a saturated market?
Decker: We sponsor nights through the school PTA. They print out flyers, and when those are turned in, the customer gets a discount, and we donate those sales back to the school. We also partner with Catholic charities and 3 Square, which is the food bank out here. We do a lot with them. I think it’s important, if we are going to be a part of this community, which we have been since 1980, you have to give back, because at the end of the day we all live here, and we don’t want the town to suffer. If the town suffers, then we suffer.
PMQ: Is there one ingredient you will never use?
Decker: For me, it’s mayonnaise. I hate it. I can’t even look at it.
PMQ: You mean mayonnaise as an ingredient on a pizza?
Decker: Just in general! At Lulu’s, the bakery which I also work in, you’ll see that there’s no mayonnaise on any sandwich or any salad dressing, nothing. To me I think people use it as a crutch. I know it is not typically a pizza topping, but I’m sure someone, somewhere, somehow has used it on a pizza, and I just can’t do that.
PMQ: On the opposite side of that coin, what is one ingredient you don’t use at the restaurant that you would like to experiment with?
Decker: We had burrata on the menu for a while about 10 years ago. I think we might have been ahead of our time, or our customer base just wasn’t quite ready for it yet. No one quite knew what it was. I think we would benefit from bringing that back. It’s so delicious, super-sexy, and everything about it is great.
PMQ: So, do you think people are just a little more educated now about good ingredients for pizzas? A little more likely to step outside their comfort zones?
Decker: Absolutely. Ten or 15 years ago, the Food Network and cooking shows were just getting started. There was no Instagram, Facebook was just gaining its footing. It was only Emiril, really, on TV. Look at how we’ve evolved since then. The average customer knows a lot more and pays more attention to things like that. And let’s be honest, 10 years ago it wasn’t as sexy to be a pizza-maker as it is now. They’re regarded as great chefs along the strips and in all the major hotels. Everyone knows the most famous pizza-maker in their own town now, whereas before, they used to just be the local place to go and then it was forgotten about. Even five years ago, we were still making really good pizza, but no one cared about who was making the pizza.
Brian: You credit cooking shows and Instagram for opening people’s minds as far as trying new ingredients?
PMQ: Yeah, and trust. Trust goes a long way. With Metro having been in town such a long time, our customers trust us, and they know we’re not going to try to “pull a fast one” on them. I think, when you go into a higher end restaurant, you trust the chef. So, if you see a tasting menu, you’re like, “Let’s roll the dice!” because you know you’re going to get a really good product. It’s the same kind of deal for us (pizzaioli) now. I think the customer has learned to trust their pizza-makers as well.
PMQ: Overall, what is the best type of marketing that Metro Pizza does to keep the butts in the seats?
Decker: We don’t necessarily focus on the business off the strip. We try to be Las Vegas’ neighborhood pizzeria. We want the locals to come. We do have that [location] in a casino a block up from the strip and the airport location, but first and foremost, we want families to come here and eat. We’ve had generations upon generations come here to eat. You’ll see everything from grandparents down to their grandkids that come here. We’ve done christenings, then their confirmations, then their weddings, on up to birthdays for their kids. We want to be a part of this community. We don’t really market to tourists as much. Of course, we want them to come, but most of all we want that local customer because we know they’re going to come back. Repeat business is where it’s at.
PMQ: Vegas is an ever-growing city. Do you do any new mover marketing (NMM) for new residents?
Decker: We have done new mover marketing in the past. That’s one thing I think we need to get better at, trying to create new business. You don’t want to get caught up in the situation where your customers are dying. Sorry to be so blunt, but you get that with loyal customers after 40 years in business. You need to keep the new people engaged and always strive for new customers. It’s funny you mentioned all the pizzerias in Vegas. [In 2018] they released the “best of” voting cards and, for the pizza category alone, there were 52 nominations. I mean, think about that. So, you ask, “How do you stick out?” You just grind, do the best you can every day. You hope your employees have the same mind-set and drive, and hopefully you’re doing better than the next guy.
PMQ: So, now we’ve come to the “Scott Weiner’s Lightning Round,” where I throw three ingredients at you and you tell me how you would use them on a pizza. They tend to be a little weird. Ingredient No. 1, probably one of my crazier ones: pickles.
Decker: Funny enough, we use pickles on a pizza called the Flying Piggle. We put carnitas [BBQ pork] on the pizza, and when it comes out, we top it with French fried onion rings that were soaked in buttermilk, and then bread-and-butter pickles. That’s actually one I created as a special for the National Finals Rodeo when it was in town. That was one that actually got added to the menu for a long time. On the menu it said, “Who would ever put pickles on a pizza? We’ll do it when pigs fly.” Hence the name, the Flying Piggle.
PMQ: What about eggs?
Decker: Yes, a while ago I had an egg pizza that we were doing with sopressata, cacciocavallo cheese and fried egg. That was delicious. Again, it had pickled peppers on it too, so you can see a pattern forming. But it did break down that cacciocavallo cheese, which is super-rich. And that pickled pepper with the egg … I just love egg on a pizza. There’s something about getting it just right so the egg yolk kind of becomes a sauce. I love it, I’d put egg on pizza every day if I could.
PMQ: Wow! This is just way too easy for you, man. But I like it! Let’s see if we can trip you up. Let’s go with figs, and this is a tribute to U.S. Pizza Team member Gino Rago. It’s his favorite ingredient.
Decker: Now, I would love to put figs on a pizza, but that fig season is so defined, especially out here. When you get them in, you better buy them because the next day they’re all gone. The classic flavor of prosciutto, arugula and fig is awesome. I love that combination. The super-bitter green with the sweet fig is great. We’ve used them a couple times. I like to use them in the bakery for different seasonal toasts. Just a ricotta toast with some fig and honey? That’s hard to beat. That’s comfort for me right there.
PMQ: What is the best part of Metro Pizza that has kept you working there for more than 20 years?
Decker: You know, working side by side with people you actually get along with and like, like two legends like John and Sam. I mean we just get along. If people got along with their bosses like we get along, it would be different. I don’t really think of them as my bosses. I mean, yes, I have to answer to them, but we work together as a team. I think that’s what’s kept me here for so long. Working side by side with them and growing with them. It’s great to work side buy side with people that are collaborative and loving.
PMQ: I know for a fact that John Arena is one of the kindest, humblest, most sharing men in the industry. I don’t think anyone would disagree.
Decker: That’s the thing. He’s always calm. That in itself is very helpful. You know for a fact how stressful this industry is. Someone calls off, someone’s in a wreck, someone has the flu. You might be going crazy with all those different things, and then he’ll come in and say, “OK. We can do it this way or that way,” and by the end of the day you’re done. But in the moment, he’s always calm, and that’s the one thing that is great. Anyone who knows him can attest to the fact that he’s always a calming force and teaching, and to work side by side with him is great for me, for anyone.
PMQ: I did hear something about John the other day on the Facebooks or the interwebs. I think it was Will Brewer calling him out on the size of his forearms. I didn’t pay attention during my time with him, but is he like Popeye? Does he have giant forearms that can crush spinach cans?
Decker: Ha-ha! People don’t know, but he has been practicing karate for like 40 years and is a black belt. So as gentle as he is … he can bend you in seven ways and make you scream for mercy. So, don’t test that. You don’t want that side to come out!
PMQ: I will take your word for that. Mr. Arena will bend me in two! What is the biggest lesson you have learned from John or Sam that you would pass on to others.
Decker: Empathy. Other people’s feelings. No matter if it’s customers, employees, your product delivery guy. No matter who it is, John and Sam have shown me to take a step back and consider the other person’s point of view. Empathy is probably the most important thing I’ve learned from them. You can learn to be a better pizza maker from anyone. You can’t learn to be a better person from just anyone.