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Dining: Pies with a Past

Pizza oven
Photo by Alex White

Yukon Pizza has a special 122-year-old ingredient

Alex White grew up with some pretty special breakfasts: Pancakes and waffles made with his family’s heirloom sourdough starter, passed down through five generations from his great-great-grandpa Gilbert, whom White says started it in the Yukon Territory in 1827. When White left home in Reno to attend UNLV for film school in 2007, his dad handed him his very own Mason jar of the family sourdough. And now White is using that sourdough for pizza.

It all started in college, when White would host casual pizza parties for friends, tossing in his sourdough starter. Then he had his first taste of Neapolitan-style pizza at Settebello in Henderson. “It was this ‘aha’ moment,” he says. “I want to actually try to figure out how to do this the best that you can do it.” A few years later, he says, he got to the point where his pizza was what he’d hoped it would be, and Yukon Pizza was born. Today, White hosts frequent pop-ups and catering events around the valley.

A Neapolitan-style pizza is pretty different from your typical New York slice. For one, the crust is very light and thin. “It’s not a crispy style crust; it’s more a wet kind of foldable crust,” White says. The toppings are generally pretty simple, the pizza itself is fairly small (“It’s kind of a personal-size pizza”), and you’ll often find plush, blistery bubbles along the edges from the intense heat of the wood-fired ovens they’re cooked in.

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The oven part is key: Wood-fired pizza ovens can reach well into the 900-degree Fahrenheit range, meaning a Neapolitan pizza will cook to perfection in 90 seconds or less (a Roman-style pizza cooks a little longer at a lower heat). That high-heat bake also means that most home cooks aren’t going to be able to do Neapolitan-style at home. All of this might sound pretty intense, but there’s more on the list — and there’s even an organization based in Naples that can bestow a VPN (Verace Pizza Napoletana, or “true Neapolitan pizza”) certification on pizzerias that meet their standards.

But for all his pizza prowess, White will never be able to get a VPN certification, thanks to the one ingredient that makes his pizza special: his sourdough starter. VPN pizzerias must use commercially produced yeast. A sourdough starter, in contrast, contains generations of wild yeast cultivated from the air in a bubbly, gooey mixture. “It’s a little more involved process, and it’s also much more reactive to the environment you’re in,” White says. He’ll make adjustments to the recipe according to the humidity, temperature, and weather. The starter gives the crust just a hint of sourdough’s tart profile. And in the case of the White family’s sourdough, its 122 years of care and feeding have given it a little something extra.

“It’s pretty hard to find 100-plus-year-old sourdoughs that are as readily available as mine,” White says. “It’s got more maturity to the sourness — some young sourdoughs will be much more punchy, or sour sour.” You get the sense, too, that you’re tasting a little bit of Western history: This is a sourdough that came from a mining camp in the Yukon Territory, weathered an earthquake in Seattle, traveled through San Francisco, L.A., Reno and, now, Las Vegas. Whether you care about the backstory or not, you’re getting a delicious pie: It’s cheese and tomato married on a light and airy crust, overlaid with bright basil and a touch of woodsmoke. You can’t help but think great-great-grandpa Gilbert would approve.

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