For those with a sensitivity to it, eating anything containing gluten is a punch to the gut. But local pizzaiolo Vincent Rotolo’s drive to develop a superlative gluten-free pizza had more to do with his heart.
In 2007, the Brooklyn native was living in New York City when his girlfriend of three months was diagnosed with celiac disease.
“Nobody knew what it was,” he said. “My first reaction was denial.”
That soon turned to acceptance, and Rotolo had a mission.
“I was the general manager of a pizza shop,” he said. “I could figure it out.”
His first attempts, though, were “worse than cardboard,” Rotolo said. But at the dinner parties the couple threw, he kept trying. Then his girlfriend got a job offer in London. Rotolo, 33 at the time, opted not to go along.
“And then I realized what a mistake I made,” he said, tears shining in his eyes. “The only way to fix it was to make it better. I think the fact that I needed to heal from this mistake was the driving force.”
Rotolo kept tinkering with his gluten-free dough, experimenting with various ingredients. He was determined to succeed at developing a crust that would be as good as a regular one.
“It made me feel better about how I handled that matter,” he said. “I didn’t think about it at the time, but for me it was therapy.”
Coming to Las Vegas
At the time, the health of Rotolo’s father in Las Vegas was declining. He moved here in late 2011 with no intention of staying. And then the place started growing on him. He’d worked at Bellagio and Monte Carlo and was general manager at Flour & Barley at The Linq in March 2015. The pizzeria was trying to develop a Sicilian-style crust and Rotolo, who liked the ones at Metro Pizza, appealed to co-owner John Arena.
“The next day, he showed up at the restaurant ready to help,” Rotolo said of Arena, who was a stranger at the time, although he wouldn’t be for long. Rotolo was thinking of opening his own shop and asked Arena for advice.
“Once I lost my dad, I realized I’d better do this,” he said. “I didn’t want to look back and realize I didn’t follow my dream.”
He bought a brick oven and started making pizza at home. He’d throw “pizza parties” that, when he distributed copies of his business plan, revealed themselves as appeals for investment. By October 2016, he’d left Flour & Barley, moved on to Dom DeMarco’s on West Charleston Boulevard, quit because the job was taking too much time from his business development and was an Uber driver.
Arena had encouraged him to participate in competitions and he applied to compete at the International Baking Exposition Show but got wait-listed. Late one evening he got the call: Someone had dropped out, and he could compete if he could be there at 8 in the morning. He made the dough in his brother’s garage and picked some wild arugula from his brother’s garden.
As it happened, his brother, Sal, was grilling steaks for friends. The bones inspired Rotolo to make a bone-marrow pizza.
“There were some world and national champions competing,” he said. “At that point in my life, I’d never sold a pizza.”
He finished fifth, with two of the judges scoring him in the top three.
“I was walking on air,” Rotolo said. “It was a blur.”
He also had developed an appreciation for the cooperative nature of the pizza industry. Arena didn’t charge for his advice, and Naked City owner Chris Palmeri gave Rotolo a missing ingredient during the competition.
And he met a representative from Italy’s Caputo Flour of Naples. Caputo was developing a gluten-free flour and the rep asked if Rotolo wanted to try it. Inspired by a guy at the competition who had won a trip to Italy for his gluten-free, deep-dish pizza, Rotolo decided to develop a Detroit-style version, seeing it as an emerging trend. In 2017, he placed second in the gluten-free division at the International Pizza Expo. He’s since given talks on the subject and trained other international winners in the genre.
The competition put him in the sights of the team that was developing Evel Pie in downtown Las Vegas, and he went to work there as a consultant, staying for about a year. He opened Good Pie in Pawn Plaza on Las Vegas Boulevard in early 2018 and plans to open a much larger spot in the Arts District this fall.
Today, “I’m the go-to guy for gluten-free,” Rotolo said — this despite the fact that he has no sensitivity to gluten himself.
While he says he “still has a long way to go,” he revels in the fact that 82 percent of his gluten-free customers return within a month.
“I’ve been overwhelmed by the reaction from the gluten-free/celiac community,” he said, adding that he gets up an hour early to answer emails from people who heard him talk about his quest on a recent segment of “Chopped” on the Food Network.
“I grew up as a pizza lover,” he said. “People have that connection to pizza and then it gets taken away. I’ve had grown men cry.”
“This was my ticket into big-time pizza-making,” Rotolo added. “Once I got in, I never looked back.
“It represents my childhood, a time when things in my life were innocent and pure.”