Few people can say “pizza is life” and really mean it. John Arena, owner of Metro Pizza, a pizzeria chain based in Las Vegas, and professor of UNLV’s Culture of Pizza class, is one of those few.
John made his first pizza at the age of 13, and he has since made it his mission to not only provide Metro Pizza’s patrons with cheesy, sauce-y deliciousness, but also to teach his hungry students more than 2,000 years worth of pizza-filled history.
On opening Metro Pizza: “My business partner and I were living in New York, dreaming of warmer weather when we heard about a guy selling a pizzeria in Las Vegas. He wanted out so badly that he was willing to take a small down payment. It was a no-brainer: We sold all of our belongings and moved West in a borrowed car. On the day we re-opened the shop we only had $30 left to either of our names, but we managed to quadruple the previous owner’s business in six months.”
On teaching pizza culture: “We came to appreciate the role that a neighborhood pizzeria plays in a community. We also realized that we could communicate our values and express ourselves through pizza. The pizza class at UNLV evolved from a desire to elevate the public perception of pizza and ensure that a career in pizza could be viewed as an honored craft, not just some mundane job.”
On viewing history through pizza: “My class begins with a simple premise: There’s a clear evolutionary line from the first leavened bread of ancient Egypt to the designer pizzas coming out of today’s best pizzerias. If you take the time to look at a classic margherita pizza, you can see the entire history of Western civilization—including exploration, conquest, colonization, religious strife and remarkable adaptation. Oh, and delicious cheese.”
On the first pizza ever: “In 79 A.D., when Vesuvius erupted, the Pompeiian cuisine at the time included a dish that we would clearly recognize as a proto-pizza. That said, there were no tomatoes or mozzarella in ancient Rome, but Pompeiians would bake leavened, hand-flattened breads on the stones of domed ovens and season them with olive oil and herbs. They also were partial to a fermented fish paste called garum. That’s why we put anchovies on pizza! Just kidding!”
On chowing down during class: “The best way to understand pizza is to eat pizza. The class lasts 15 weeks with a different regional pizza variation served each week. The highlight of the course is probably when my students learn to make fresh mozzarella and then create pizza using the cheese that they handcrafted.”
On his favorite pizza: “I think in terms of pizza experiences rather than specific pizzas. I’ve had great-tasting pizzas where the experience didn’t measure up, and not-the-best pizzas where the experience was incredibly memorable. I once visited a shop in Oxford, Mississippi where the owner pulled a guitar off the wall and sang me a song about what his pizzeria meant to him. How can you not love that?”
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