MGM National Harbor Perfects a Crispy Edge in Events
Mobile wood-fired ovens and a chef’s lifetime of passionate pizza-tweaking impress groups.
Jason Johnson will stop the world and melt for you. Or 500 of you.
He'll melt his cheese, that is, onto the perfect Neapolitan crust. The MGM National Harbor executive chef’s intense focus on perfecting pizza and sharing the finished product—not just with restaurant customers but on a much larger scale in events, with mobile wood-fired ovens—has been sharpened for decades. That deep experience has culminated in a fast and furious F&B hit at the Maryland hotel and casino that both floors guests and keeps up with the pace of pleasing big groups.
“Pizza is my favorite food, hands down,” says Johnson. “I grew up with my grandmother’s cooking. She was an Italian woman from the Bronx who used to make these beautiful rectangular sheet-pan pizzas. Everybody in my family would go crazy every time she made them. My cousins used to ask for Zizi’s pizza, because ‘zia’ is aunt in Italian. So, because of my grandma, Zizi’s is the name of the pizza-by-the-slice we have here.”
Zizi’s is but one venue, among the many F&B outlets at the property, that offers pizza, including a quick-service restaurant that does pizza, as well as an Italian restaurant with Naples-style pizza, in addition to the two mobile wood-fired ovens they have for events. So, management has no plans at the moment to add more ovens.
“I think we’re good for right now,” Johnson quips. “They’ve had an intervention with us; we’re done for a little while.”
Originally from upstate New York, Johnson has worked in New York twice, Los Angeles, Las Vegas twice, and now in the D.C. area. “Whenever I find a new neighborhood, I always have to find the best pizza places. It’s my go-to,” he says. He’s a regular at the International Pizza Expo. Pizza books fill his office shelves; art featuring pizzas lines the walls. He’s kind of into pizza.
Johnson’s self-taught perfection in pizza really began to take shape when he used to have a wood-fired pizza oven in his backyard in Las Vegas and would host dinner parties. The high temperature capability of the oven and the consequent shorter bake time to get the pie just right gave him faster production. “It’s a great piece of equipment, because I could cook by myself for 25 to 30 people, while socializing,” he explains. “Not only pizza, but you could roast steaks, fish, and vegetables and feed a great many people in a short period of time. Here, it’s a great value-add for our operation.”
It was in those backyard cookouts that Johnson experimented with different dough recipes and worked on the fermentation cycle and how many days out would yield the best products. He has arrived at “a traditional Naples-style dough with 00 flour, water, yeast, a little olive oil, and salt, to keep it traditional,” he says, increasing passion in his voice.
“We make it on a three-day cold fermentation process. If I make it today, three days later we’re able to use it. This process gives the sugar enough time to digest and transition into the CO2, which leads to the bubbled blisters you find on the pizza. It also transitions into the alcohol, which enhances the aroma and texture of the dough. And sometimes you’ll find with Neapolitan-style pizza, if you make it this morning and use it tonight, the texture may be a little soft, but when you go through the fermentation process, a little more moisture leaves the dough, and you get a crispier product—which isn’t always typical to a Neapolitan-style pizza.”
This dough is purpose-built for the wood-fired ovens MGM National Harbor uses.
“You need to be able to make a pizza dough that matches the oven you’re going to cook it in,” he says. “If I make a beautiful Naples-style dough and try to cook it at 550 degrees in a deck oven, it’s not going to brown, caramelize, and crisp up. But if I take that same dough and put it in a wood-fired oven at 800, 850, or 900 degrees, you get the beautiful leopard spots and blisters and bubbles, and the bottom crisps up perfectly. There’s a perfect marriage of the right heat, oven, and dough—and even down to how you shred your cheese so that it melts perfectly in the time it takes to bake the crust.”
An Eventful Pizza Experience
One can imagine how impressed an event guest is when he or she walks up to a pizza station and tastes a slice of pizza that’s just come out of one of the wood-fired ovens, imbued with the benefit of every minute Johnson ever spent in his backyard and in the kitchens of hotel properties to nail the experience for them. The win-win extends to the hotel’s ability to turn out plenty of ideal pie for big crowds because of the short bake time. But before guests even taste it, the two self-contained, mobile, blue-tiled ovens serve immediate curb appeal.
“With the way the pizza world has exploded over the last few years, and so many places have wood-fired ovens, we felt that having the oven as the focal point of a party or reception—when you walk in and see the open-fire cooking—it enriches the experience,” says Johnson. “And now you see these Naples-style concepts cooking at 800 degrees. It’s only a 60- or 90-second bake to have this amazing, authentic Naples-style pizza. So, it works really well for an event, because we’re giving the customers the ambience they’re not getting anywhere else, and they’re also getting fresh product, straight out of the oven to them. Usually in events, we’re executing food at a high level, but it’s rarely coming straight from the fire to the plate.”
Frank Fraser, director of catering and conference services at MGM National Harbor, says that pizza stations in other, more typical pizza stations at other hotels can’t compare. “Pizza that comes out of a regular oven and goes under a heat lamp is not the same kind of product as this, which comes out a little bit scorched underneath and is a more authentic product,” he says.
Johnson says for many events the client asks for the ovens to be included as one station among others. “They may have a raw bar oyster-shucking station, sushi, and also the pizza oven station,” he says. “It’s great to have pizza ovens available for parties, but it also gives us a leg up on the competition. Where everybody else is firing pizzas in ovens in the back and then rolling them to a station, our guests can actually watch the live wood-fire cooking and taste them as they come out of the ovens.”
The team sets up a station they set up around the ovens, which includes a wood bin, an ash box, work tables, and a rolling refrigeration unit for storage of all the pizza components, including sauce, cheese, basil, and other toppings. “It’s like a professional kitchen we just roll out to our patio,” Johnson says. “We do décor such as dried oregano on the stem, cans of tomatoes, bags of flour, fresh basil, and mozzarella.” The standard event menu is a “greatest hits,” Johnson says, but they can do any style of pizza and any combination of toppings.
The ovens, which are stored in the back hallways of the banquets and catering department, are strictly used outdoors on the terrace, since indoor use would require hoods and other accommodations for the intense heat. But, the terrace is adjacent to the ballrooms.
“All we have to do is open our doors, and the ballroom has floor-to-ceiling windows,” Johnson notes. “People inside the ballroom can still see the station.”
Johnson’s team fires the pizzas at the stations, slices them, puts the slices on plates, garnishes them, and puts the plates at a nearby station where guests get the plates, or they can walk up to the oven work station itself and watch the action and get pizza there.
Though the pizza production is fast in the super-hot ovens, for groups of 400 to 500, Fraser says they also use freshly cooked pizzas as backup if the demand is imposing. For smaller, groups, all pizza served is straight from the oven to the plate.
During site visits by group clients, Fraser says they will roll the mobile ovens out onto the terrace, and the blue, ceramic-tiled, dome-shaped beauties sell themselves and the pizza component, before they’ve even tasted the product. “Quite often, clients will ask what they are, and it sometimes point them to figure out something to use them for and incorporate them into the event,” he says.
And sampling the pie often seals the deal. “Everyone loves it,” Fraser says. “It’s the best pizza product I’ve ever had in a banquet environment—like walking into a really cool pizza joint and getting a great pizza.”
With the visual impact, aromas, textures, and flavors of the pizza stations, MGM National Harbor believes it has a significant competitive edge.
“We play at a different level,” Johnson says.