Tall, blue-eyed Brad Otton—a devout Mormon and former college football coach—doesn’t necessarily fit the image of the pizzaiolo. But the 36-year-old proprietor of Settebello, a pizzeria in the Las Vegas suburb of Henderson, Nevada, is as passionate as any Neapolitan nonno about his pies.
Otton followed a path typical of a talented player. He was groomed by his father, Sid, an accomplished high school coach in Washington state. In 1996 as quarterback, he led USC to a Rose Bowl victory, then went on to beat Notre Dame for the first time in 13 years. A brief pro stint followed, before a recurring injury ended his career. Then Otton moved on to coaching, eventually landing at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
His next step wasn’t quite as predictable: In 2005, when his boss at UNLV retired, Otton quit and headed to Naples, wife and two kids in tow, to train for three months to become a pizzaiolo.
For all its seeming impulsiveness, the decision was years in the making. Back in 1990, as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Otton had ended up in southern Italy on his required two-year mission. “There aren’t a lot of people there who are interested in changing religions—it was more about being an example, and letting other people see what Mormons are,” he says.
It wasn’t easy at the outset. “The first six months all you’re doing is thinking about how much better America is,” Otton says. “And then all of a sudden, something just snaps in your head.” Friendly and easygoing, Otton immersed himself in his surroundings so much so that “the Italians just fell in love with him,” says his wife, Deanna. “He knows all about their music and soccer and culture, so he just fit right in.”
Up until then, “As far as I knew, Pizza Hut was the be-all end-all,” Otton says. Then he tried his first slice in Salerno: “I’d never tasted anything like it—the char and the wood-burned taste. That’s when you realize, man, this is what pizza really is.”
When he returned to the United States, la bella vita called to him, especially as he struggled with a frustrating knee injury. “Italy was the thing that took my mind off it,” Otton says. So when he proposed an Italian pizza school adventure, “there was a mixed reaction” among their friends, but “I thought was the perfect fit,” says Deanna. Otton was also looking for “something where I was a little more in control of the time I got to spend with my family and in control of my own destiny.”
While in Naples, Otton spent his days in classes on technique and nights helping out in a restaurant. “I learned pretty quickly that it would be years before I’d be able to teach anyone anything.” He decided to hire a more experienced pizzaiolo, Carmine D’Amato, to train him and his employees.
Back in Nevada, they had a few kinks to work out, such as how to hold the dough at a consistent temperature in 115-degree desert heat. “The first day I worked in a restaurant was the first day we opened, so I had no idea what I was doing. We made lots of mistakes,” says Otton. But his obsession with quality prevailed.
The tomatoes are San Marzano; the flour, from Molino Caputo, is silky smooth. “If we can’t get the exact product they use in Napoli, we try to find the best substitute in America, no matter the cost.” That goes for the cheese, which they get through Grande in Wisconsin (Vegas is too far to ship fresh Italian fior di latte mozzarella), pancetta handcrafted by Salumi in Seattle and salami from Fra’ Mani in Berkeley. The 800-degree oven was custom made in Naples, and even adjusted for Otton’s six-foot-six frame.
This dedication has paid off. Both the Henderson Settebello and its sister location, which Otton opened with his partner Michael Brooks in Salt Lake City, have been certified by the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association, a group that recognizes pizzerias that meet a strict set of guidelines based on traditional practices. The original moved from an out-of-the-way strip mall to a high-end shopping center off the freeway recently, doubling its seating capacity (it will officially open in three weeks); in Salt Lake City, they’re expanding and adding an artisanal gelateria next door (that’s expected to open in two weeks).
From quarterback to pizzaiolo may seem like an odd career trajectory, but to Otton, it makes perfect sense: Making pizza is “a lot like sports, you just gotta keep working at it, keep practicing, and keep trying to make a perfect product.”