For years, gangsters simultaneously robbed and patronized John Arena's pizzerias. They also happen to make some of the best pizza in America.
The pizza was good. But the suppliers were murder. Literally. John Arena, a third-generation pizza man whose Metro Pizza in Las Vegas currently ranks among the best in the nation – its square offering recently finished third out of 400 in the pan pizza competition at this year’s International Pizza Expo – came up in the sharp elbowed world of New York pie shops.
Arena and his cousin Sam Facchini worshipped the Sicilian-style, sauce/cheese/sauce topped pies at Brooklyn’s L&B Spumoni: “It was the neighborhood institution where everybody went. Since the 1930s, they have been perfecting square pizza, using a lot of Romano.” As tradition dictated, in an Italian twist on the bar mitzvah, Arena made his first pie at age 13. More recently, he contributed to producing the Guinness-certified world's longest pizza at 6,333 feet.
He and his cousin got into the family trade, working at Centurion Pizza in Nassau County, on Long Island. The place was run by their uncle Rocco – who had an unwanted partner: the other kind of Family. As recently as the 1980s, linens, jukeboxes and cigarette machines were all mob controlled. “You were told who you had to use for all that stuff,” says Arena. “You were told who to buy your cheese from. Same with olive oil. And everybody listened. I don’t know of anyone who wanted to find out what would happen if you did otherwise.”
Guys would come to break your windows? “There was a component of that,” he answers drily.
The mob influence – which, one way or the other, permeated most immigrant businesses, via UN-worthy leagues of strong-armers — loomed in the periphery around Arena and the family business. “We knew this wasn’t the way it was supposed to be,” recalls Arena. “But it was drummed into me that people work hard to carve out lives and a guy comes at the end of the week for his envelope. I hated it and my dad hated it. He hated seeing what it did to a community.”
Rocco recognized that his nephews wanted to get away from all that, spread their wings and have a shot at creating a business rather than a single shop.
He all but dared the boys to do so in 1980 when he told them about a pizzeria for sale in Las Vegas.
Jazzed, a young Arena envisioned running the pizzeria poolside, sipping tropical cocktails and soaking up the desert sun. To get there, he and Facchini sold their cars, depleted their savings and bought the Vegas pizzeria off of a guy from Queens. “He hated Vegas,” recalls Arena, who recognized immediately that the pool-and-cocktails dream would be deferred indefinitely. “We walked in, the guy handed us his keys, told us where to send a check every month [to pay off their purchase of the business] and didn’t even show us how to turn the lights on. He just took off. This guy was so afraid of people stealing his secrets that he removed the knobs from the oven and hid them so nobody would know the temperature he baked pizza at. But we felt free.”
While nobody told the cousins who to order their linens or olive oil from – “There was only one of everything in Las Vegas. Who knows why? Maybe somebody decided that the best way to control competition was to not have any” – they encountered another issue: Tony “The Ant” Spilotro. He was the real-life mobster who served as the model for Joe Pesci’s psychotically violent character in “Casino.”
A man to be feared, the Ant did business in the neighborhood where Arena and Facchini had their freshly christened Metro Pizza. “Spilatro and his guys didn’t shake us down; they burglarized us,” recalls Arena. He had, least in part, left New York to get away from one kind of mobster only to encounter an even worse one in Las Vegas. “We had a video arcade in the store. Once a month, right before the money was to be collected, they broke in and took what they thought was their share.”
Upon discovering the first robbery, Arena called the local police. “They came in, looked around and nonchalantly told us that it was Spilotro’s crew,” says Arena, taking the hint that nothing would be done to stop them. “They would pry the back door and pull it off with a car. Or else come down through the roof. Then they busted open the machines and emptied them. The company was probably in on it. We would change the pickup day and the guys always knew. There would be a couple thousand dollars in there and they would hit 10 places in a night.”
Strangely enough, though, Spilatro and his crew-members had good taste in pizza. They came in all the time to buy pies, acting as if nothing was amiss. From his background in New York, Arena knew better than to make a fuss: “In the mind of that kind of sociopath, our arcade-money equaled the tribute he had coming in exchange for allowing us to do business in the neighborhood. At a certain point we stopped calling the cops. We’d come in, sweep up and open for business.”
After 15 months of this, Arena and his cousin shut down the arcade. Break-ins ceased and Metro thrived. There are now six shops spread across Las Vegas where their signature pie surfaced by accident. It happened in the mid '80s, when a call came from the Golden Nugget's food-and-beverage manager: Frank Sinatra was in town and wanted a bunch of square pies, made New York style. Arena and his cousin were ready. They had long ago reverse engineered the beloved L&B pizza of their youth and prepared one for Ol’ Blue Eyes. He liked it and kept ordering. Same for Wayne Newton. A pre-Presidential Donald Trump had pies delivered to his jet. When Jimmy Carter came in for pizza, secret service agents commandeered the kitchen while the former president went table-to-table, introducing himself to patrons.
Metro’s Sicilian pizza, made from a deliciously chewy dough, fermented for five days, ranks as the pie to order for those in the know. As for Spilatro, he faced a less than noble death, in 1986, after outliving his usefulness to the mob. When it’s suggested to Arena that he couldn’t have felt too bad about the Ant being made to disappear, the pizza man softens. “He was still a human being. I wasn’t going to hold a grudge over some quarters.”