Pies Created by a Neighborhood Paisan: Former Husker Feeds His Friends With Gusto
Oct 01, 2020 08:54AM
By Joel Stevens
Photography by Bill Sitzmann
Nebraska football player. Financial manager. Bar owner. Football coach. Radio host. Restaurateur.
Matt Vrzal has worn many hats.
As the owner of Piezon’s Pizzeria in Omaha, Vrzal has taken a decidedly circuitous route to successful pizza joint owner. He’s worked in finance. He’s coached offensive line at a handful of high schools—and still does at Skutt Catholic. He’s an occasional sports radio talk show host on 1620 the Zone.
But it’s slinging homemade pies—made from hand-tossed dough, with their own sauce, layered in mozzarella and fresh ingredients, all baked on a 650-degree stone—where Vrzal, 46, has found his home.
“I like it when people tell me I can’t do something,” Vrzal said of those who questioned opening a pizza place in a crowded Omaha market. “That’s their opinion. The rubber is going to meet the road and we’ll see who’s right. I’ve won some of those and lost some of those.”
Those same people told him it was a bad idea to walk on at Nebraska over scholarship offers from Iowa State and Wyoming. Vrzal did his own thing. He played in 31 games at Nebraska, won two national titles in the 1990s, and forged lasting friendships. He tackled the pizza business with the same tenacity he did as a walk-on more than 25 years ago.
“Now you’re in business and you bear down and make great food with great service and seven years later, here we are,” he said.
Circuitous may not quite sum up Vrzal’s route to restaurateur.
Vrzal was 24, working as a market rep for Anheuser-Busch in Lincoln, when he bought into Lazarri’s Pizza and another bar. A few months later, he bought into an ownership group for Lincoln watering holes the Sidetrack Tavern and the Lizard Lounge.
“In six months, I went from working at Anheuser-Busch to owning four bars in Lincoln that I frequented a lot,” he said. “Everyone will tell you; everything is about timing.”
Vrzal, who still has the build of a former lineman, is a self-described people person. His colorful storytelling style bounces from his days playing for Ken Fischer at Grand Island High School to his days as a Husker walk-on to watching his beloved Chicago Cubs and back to football as metaphor for life.
“Football is the best game to prepare for your life, better than any game, anywhere,” he said. “Because your team, your organization’s success, relies on 10 other people at any given time. Everyone has to be working for a common goal all the time.”
After a decade in the bar business and the death of his father, Vrzal was ready to move on. He sold his share in the Lincoln bars and put his finance degree to work. He joined the suit-and-tie life and went to work as a financial adviser.
It wasn’t for him.
He gave it up and bet on himself. He and two business partners decided to open a pizzeria in Omaha.
And Piezon’s was born.
Vrzal admits it was an ambitious plan: a takeout-only pizza place near 156th Street and West Center Road that would pride itself on being a part of the neighborhood.
“If we service well, our product speaks for itself,” he said. “If you provide great service then you have something cooking.”
The Piezon’s name is a play on the Italian word for friend (paisan) but the pizzeria actually owes its name to an appliance. A Blodgett 1048 Deckstone oven to be precise.
“We put the ‘pies on’ the stone to crisp the crust,” he said. “So, we checked if Piezon’s was available and it was for $9.99 a month. I bought it for 20 years.”
Vrzal soon bought out his two partners.
After five years, Piezon’s outgrew its 1,000-square-foot, takeout-only location and moved a few doors down to its own building in the same retail strip. The current spot is over 3,000 square feet and has a dining room. A patio is expected to be completed late this fall, if the weather permits.
Piezon’s serves more than 900 pizzas a week from a menu that’s as personal as it is unique in a manner Vrzal has come to call “perfect on purpose.”
“We only have one expectation at Piezon's and it’s to be perfect,” Vrzal said. “Coach Osborne was always looking for the perfect practice and the perfect game. It’s something you’re never going to achieve but if everyone in there is working with you trying to achieve it every night, then a lot more will go right than wrong.”
Piezon’s vibe is as neighborhood pizzeria as it comes. The menu is the same: pasta and salads; subs, wings and calzones. But it’s the pizza that brings customers back again and again.
The homemade pies come in a dozen varieties. The names of the pizzas are inside jokes or references to Vrzal’s friends and family. The menu descriptions, colorful stories in their own right.
Vrzal had no pizza-making experience before opening Piezon’s. He doesn’t consider himself a chef and the fine art of making a pizza is no art at all, he says. It’s quality ingredients and attention to detail.
“We’re not building bombs, we’re making pizzas,” he said. “We’re pizzamakers, not chefs.”
Many former Huskers have tried to capitalize on their success on the field as restaurateurs, with varying degrees of success. Vrzal didn’t want to pigeon-hole his place as just another Husker place.
“I don’t mean that in a bad way,” he said. “We’re a neighborhood spot. People chirp at me, ‘Why don’t you have your jersey up?’ or ‘Why don’t you have pictures up?’ Because you can go anywhere and see that stuff. We’re just a neighborhood pizza spot [where] you can bring your kids and have a nice dinner. I’d rather talk to people than point to my jersey on the wall. We wanted more substance than style.”
He continued, “I think we’re doing OK.”
Visit piezons.com for more information.
This article was printed in the October 2020 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.