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CROWE'S NEST

Former USC quarterback Brad Otton scores with pizzeria chain

Brad Otton, the former USC quarterback and Rose Bowl star, decided the lifestyle of the college football coach wasn't for him. So he started Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana in Nevada and later expanded to Salt Lake City; a third location will open this summer in Pasadena.

April 16, 2011|Jerry Crowe
  • Settebello Pizzeria owner Brad Otton tosses dough in the kitchen of his restaurant in Henderson, Nev.
Settebello Pizzeria owner Brad Otton tosses dough in the kitchen of his… (Leila Navidi / For The Times )

Brad Otton, a former USC quarterback and Rose Bowl star, realized that the long hours and nomadic lifestyle of college football coaching no longer appealed to him.

So he called an audible.

He traded pigskin for pizza.

If that sounds like a radical shift, the easygoing proprietor of two highly successful artisan pizzerias insists that it was years in the making.

Otton, a Mormon, says he'd always wanted to open a business and that he knew he'd found a potential winner when he fell in love with Neapolitan-style thin-crust pizza while on a two-year mission in southern Italy in the early 1990s.

"I understood how good it was," he says, "and I wondered why no one was doing it here in America."

Otton opened Settebello Pizzeria Napoletana in Henderson, Nev., six years ago and in Salt Lake City two years later.

Zeroing in on a discriminating clientele, Settebello has been a hit with critics and successful enough commercially that Otton plans to open a third location this summer in Pasadena.

Outside the Playhouse District space that will house his latest venture, the 39-year-old father of three explains during an interview, "We kind of appeal to that food critic, foodie crowd."

Hoping to open several other Southland locations over the next few years, Otton chose Pasadena for the first because he liked the city's "vibe," he says, and not because that's where he scored his greatest athletic triumph.

On Jan. 1, 1996, the Weber State transfer passed for a career-high 391 yards and two touchdowns in helping USC to a 41-32 victory over Northwestern in the Rose Bowl.

Otton and Kyle Wachholtz had split time at quarterback throughout the 1995 season, often from quarter to quarter. But in the lead-up to the Rose Bowl, former coach John Robinson says, "Otton just kind of asserted himself. We went to a more wide-open passing game and he just seemed to handle it. He played exceptionally well, and I left him in the whole game."

The next season, as a senior, the 6-foot-6 Otton completed an overtime touchdown pass to Rodney Sermons against Notre Dame, ending USC's 13-game winless streak against the Irish.

It was his last hurrah.

Anticipating an NFL career, Otton was shocked when his named went uncalled during the 1997 draft.

"That," he notes, "was a bad day."

Unbeknown to him, Otton had failed a physical at the NFL Scouting Combine because of a balky left knee that he'd first seriously injured when he was 12.

Signed by the Washington Redskins as a free agent, he says he opted for knee surgery on the eve of training camp in order to leave open the option of collecting on a Lloyd's of London insurance policy he'd purchased before his senior year.

"If I could go back and do anything again, I would go back to that day and just keep playing," he says. "But it was one of those things where everything was coming to a head and I had to make a decision."

A year later, given another shot by the Redskins, Otton reinjured his knee and retired, collecting on his insurance.

"I don't want to say I quit," he says, "but I definitely wish I could go back and do things a little differently."

Otton, son of a hugely successful high school football coach in Tumwater, Wash., eventually reunited with Robinson at Nevada Las Vegas, where he served as quarterbacks coach for two seasons.

"It's addictive," Otton says of coaching, "but I don't know how those guys do it with young families. You're gone before [your kids] wake up, and by the time you get home they're in bed."

Robinson anticipated a bright coaching future for Otton, noting that the former quarterback was "one of those people that I think everybody liked — kind of a cool guy who didn't say a lot but had a good relationship with the guys he coached."

Robinson, though, says he also sensed a bit of wanderlust in Otton, recalling that he listened to Italian music on radioitalia.it in his office and often spoke glowingly of his time in Rome.

In 2005, after Robinson retired, Otton acted on his impulse, packing up his family and heading to Naples to train for three months to become a pizzaiolo, or pizza maker.

Otton, realizing he was more a businessman than an artisan, hired a more experienced pizzaiolo before opening his restaurants. The eateries are among about 50 in the United States that have been certified by the Verace Pizza Napoletana Assn., which recognizes pizzerias that meet a strict set of guidelines based on traditional practices.

This isn't your grandfather's pizza: "We're not really competing with the chains offering $5 pizzas," Otton notes.

The reviews have been glowing. A reviewer for the Salt Lake City Tribune called Settebello's pies the best in the city. And: "In fact, it's some of the best pizza I've had anywhere."

The Las Vegas Review-Journal raved, "Wow, is it good."

Otton is not surprised.

The odds against succeeding in the restaurant business are astronomical, he knows. "But I just felt like this was something so different and so good there'd be a market for it.

"The thought of failing never really crossed my mind."

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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