Chef Chris Palmeri wasn’t satisfied until his career took a dive — dive bar, that is. Now his decadent, blue-collar grub draws a global crowd
Moon Doggies isn’t the type of place you’d expect to find Oscar and Carolyn Goodman. But on a Wednesday night in September, mayoral royalty paid a visit to the tiny dive bar on Arville Street. They weren’t there to soak up the cheeky surfer décor, or chat with the heavily tattooed barstaff. They were here to sample the cooking of one of Las Vegas’ up-and-coming culinary superstars: Chris Palmeri.
In a town overflowing with classically trained fine-dining chefs, Palmeri is an unlikely star. He commands his tiny kitchen in a ratty T-shirt rather than chef’s whites, and his menu boasts pizza, sandwiches and wings. Yet he’s made Naked City Pizza inside Moon Doggies one of Las Vegas’ top dining destinations, and is in the process of expanding his empire with two new ventures.
It’s an unlikely career path for a chef who seemed on the fast track to fine-dining stardom. By the age of 25, the culinary school dropout from Buffalo had secured the executive chef position at the MGM Grand’s upscale Mexican restaurant Diego. There, he had the privilege of working with the restaurant’s consultant, Rick Bayless — arguably America’s top Mexican chef. But he soon felt he was underappreciated.
“Eventually, the honeymoon part of it wears off. And it was time to have some compensation,” he says. “But when I asked, the whole mentality changed.” Frustrated, he quit, and for six months he was out of the restaurant world completely. “I just really didn’t want to get back into the giant-hotel-on-the Strip thing anymore.”
In fact, he did a 180, teaming up with an old friend from Buffalo, P.J. Schaeffer, on an unlikely venture. “You do what you know, and you do what you can afford,” says Palmeri. “And at the time it was a $3,000 hotdog cart.”
Feeding the karaoke crowd
Guinea Pigs Hotdogs set up shop every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night in the parking lot of Dino’s Lounge in the rundown Naked City neighborhood, feeding the karaoke crowd. Topping their dogs with homemade relishes, chili and cheese sauce, the cart was a hit, and the partners soon expanded to open a full-time venture called Naked City Sandwich Shop in a tiny space adjacent to Dino’s. It was an immediate critical success. But they couldn’t parlay that into any sustained business.
“It started off like crazy,” Palmeri recalls. “(But) it was before all this downtown stuff, and it’s kind of a crappy location. … The longevity of it wasn’t gonna be there — we knew that.”
As the two struggled to keep the business afloat, another struggling businessman was about to enter Palmeri’s life. Bobby McKinney was fighting hard to keep his bar Moon Doggies open.
“The recession hit me really hard,” McKinney says, remembering early 2010. “I had lost one bar, and I was losing this one. And I realized I had to get some food in here.” One of his bartenders encouraged him to visit Palmeri and Schaeffer’s sandwich shop. “I went down, and researched them and looked at them. The food was excellent; it was out of this world.” He didn’t hesitate. “I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. I just said, ‘Whatever you need, whatever it takes, I want you up here.’”
With differing business philosophies, Palmeri and his partner Schaeffer soon severed ties. Palmeri took over Naked City Pizza Shop in Moon Doggies, while Schaeffer retained the hotdog cart and sandwich shop, which he soon folded. (Currently a corporate chef at the MGM Grand, Schaeffer didn’t respond to an interview request.)
Bar food? Call it ‘ultra-casual’
Naked City Pizza Shop wasn’t anything close to a formal restaurant. And like his hotdog cart and sandwich shop, it offered ultra-casual cuisine — in this case pizza, sandwiches and wings.
But this wasn’t the usual pizza shop fare. Palmeri’s pizzas may be the only example of Buffalo-style pizza in Las Vegas. They’re cooked in a rectangular pan, similar to Sicilian style, but with a thinner crust. And the chef’s specialty pies boast insane combinations of toppings. (The Stinger, for example, comes with chicken fingers, sirloin steak, three cheeses, sweet and hot peppers and onions.) The restaurant’s french fries and hot subs are just as creative and delicious. Palmeri says all of the dishes harken back to his roots.
“Buffalo is working-class and comfort food,” he says. “I grew up with that, so I know that stuff. I know pizza. I know chicken wings. I know sandwiches and hotdogs.” But he also knew the local culinary scene. And his friends from the Strip soon began patronizing Naked City after work.
“We would have people from Ghost Bar and N9NE Steakhouse and The Playboy Club eating at Moon Doggies — in a pizza shop.”
To accommodate that crowd, he began adding daily specials that drew on his fine dining background. And today, he frequently prepares that haute cuisine alongside his beloved casual fare. As Naked City’s fame grew, it eventually caught the attention of Food Network superstar and Las Vegas native Guy Fieri. When Fieri featured the shop on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” last year, things really blew up.
“We went from being a $200 to $300 restaurant a day to being, some days, $2,000-plus,” Palmeri says, still in awe of the show’s effect.
Today, the slightly renovated Naked City draws customers from around the globe. But Palmeri isn’t satisfied. He and McKinney are preparing to open Desnudo Tacos (Naked Tacos) next door to Moon Doggies. There, he’ll draw on his Mexican cooking experience to serve the under-21 crowd not permitted in the bar. And a second Naked City is in the works on Paradise Road.
If his partner has his way, it won’t stop there. “I’m trying to push for franchising eventually,” says McKinney.
But Palmeri plays it humble. “I don’t know if I’m trying to build an empire,” he says. “I don’t know what I’m doing.” Clearly, however, he’s doing a lot of things right.
Naked City Pizza inside Moon Doggie’s bar, 3240 Arville St., 243-6277, nakedcitylv.com
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Guinea’s Pie: Taking its moniker from Chris Palmeri’s own nickname, this is clearly one of his favorites. It’s also the pizza that got Guy Fieri’s attention when he visited Naked City on “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” The chef uses two types of cheese: mozzarella and ricotta. He also tops the pie with meatballs, spinach and his homemade garlic sauce. It can be a little on the messy side, but one bite and you’ll know why loyal customers will travel across the valley just for a slice.
Short Rib: You’ll have to be lucky to try out Palmeri’s short ribs, because he only offers them on his specials menu every few weeks. But it’s worth following Naked City on social media, just to see when they’ll be available. Served with a potato cake, sauce and a salad, this isn’t a new dish. “It’s the identical dish I came up with and sold at Diego,” the chef says. “But we had to sell it for like $40 at Diego.” At Naked City, he only charges $15. “I’m still making money off it. But now somebody else can afford it; it’s a whole new demographic.” — A.M.