Ask an Omahan about pizza, and prepare for things to get impassioned.
Make the question about La Casa — the iconic Omaha pizza spot that’s celebrating 65 years in business this year — and prepare for the conversation to get seriously divisive.
“I love that pizza,” one person will tell you. “Been eating it for 40 years.”
“La Casa Pizzaria was our first date,” another recalls. “Been married 22 years.”
“Our family’s mainstay,” says another.
“The best in town,” a fourth says.
“Tastes like stinky feet.”
“On par with pizza served in public schools.”
And one reader, who decided not to mince words: “I hate everything about La Casa pizza.”
Nicole Jesse, whose grandfather Joe Patane opened La Casa on Leavenworth Street in 1953, has heard them all, both good and bad. And you know what? She’s OK with it.
“You have to be receptive to both the criticism and the compliments,” she said. “You can’t be everything to everyone.”
Patane certainly didn’t expect to be. In fact, Jesse reckons he wouldn’t have ever believed his little restaurant on Leavenworth would be going strong in 2018. (Though, to be fair, the restaurant sold out of food halfway through its very first evening in business.)
Jesse, who runs the restaurant with her brother Joel Hahn and his son Brandon, chalks the restaurant’s ongoing success up to its truly singular pizza, a pie that many have begun to call “Omaha style” pizza. (Jesse’s cousin, Anthony Vacanti, runs the west locations of La Casa.)
La Casa pizza has an unusual crust, with an edge almost biscuit-like in its flakiness. Diners can get it topped with either mozzarella or pungent Romano cheeses (or both). The sauce isn’t a bit sweet, a departure from the tomato sauce at other old-school Omaha Italian joints. And there’s no skimping on the meat — I’ve heard the pizza referred to as a “meat carpet,” and it’s scarily accurate. A thin, even layer of tiny crumbles of hamburger top what’s probably the restaurant’s signature pie.
For a true “Omaha style” experience, add mushrooms and onions to the ground beef. (That’s Omaha native and director Alexander Payne’s personal favorite combination.)
“It is very different if you are used to a certain style of pizza,” Jesse said.
It’s tough to identify just one thing that makes a La Casa pizza different; it’s really all of the elements together that make it stand out.
The sauce is made in-house. The crust is, too — Jesse calls it a “bakery-style” crust — and it doesn’t include yeast. It’s baked in a special gas-fired rotating deck oven and the bottom of the pizzas get grilled, another singular feature.
And why Romano cheese anyway?
“It’s the cheese my grandfather liked,” she said.
All those elements together make it, as Jesse said, “an acquired taste.”
Kara Perchal describes herself as a “La Casa skeptic turned lover.” Jesse said she’s not the only one: for many diners, it takes a few tries to develop a taste for La Casa.
A few years after La Casa opened, it began its still-bustling takeout business.
Chris Dolezal remembers picking up pizza from La Casa with her dad when she was a kid.
“Dad was so excited with the smell of the pizza that, after we picked it up, he got pulled over.” Dolezal and her sister carried the pizza home. Midtown Omahans seem to have carried Dolezal’s excitement into the modern day.
“Sunday night, the carryout window at the Leavenworth location is a place where discerning center-city Omahans meet and greet,” wrote Rick Jeffries. “If in a very hot small room that smells like garlic.”
A few years ago, the restaurant began shipping pizzas around the country, following in the footsteps of Runza, another local icon that boxes its food and ships it all over.
Mary Beth Ehlers’ daughter, who lives in Texas, just had three shipped to her house.
“For the mere sum of $103,” Ehlers told me. “She hasn’t had their pizza in three years and she has a hankering for it rather badly.”
It didn’t hurt the restaurant’s business when Payne filmed his latest movie, “Downsizing,” in Omaha and included shots of the restaurant’s exterior neon sign.
“He’s such a great guy,” Jesse said. “Being a regular customer and talking to other people has a big impact for us. Word of mouth advertising is always the best.”
In 2014, the La Casa food truck hit the road, serving slices at lunch and dinner all over town to quench the hankering of people who don’t live near 44th and Leavenworth.
The truck’s schedule gets booked months in advance, and Jesse said it’s part of the restaurant’s effort to stay relevant for a modern, younger diner. Now, lots of La Casa lovers have their first slice from the truck.
“It would be easy to just continue the way we always do and not change anything, and some things we do not want to change,” she said. “But you can’t become stagnant.”
La Casa will also open a third location in West Omaha later this year, this one operated by Vacanti.
The La Casa customer has gotten older along with the restaurant, but the truck, along with those long-time customers, keep the restaurant going, bringing in kids and, eventually, grandkids.
“The people here are very loyal and supportive,” she said. “And very passionate about the pizza.”
That’s the understatement of 65 years.