From a seat at the counter in front of the wood-burning pizza oven, you can see everything -- or at least everything that matters. A wire basket of brown eggs sits on the counter along with a bowl of pomegranates or persimmons and some cadmium red African daisies stuck casually into a vase. The fiftysomething woman behind the counter, dressed like a rich bohemian, her hair tucked up with barrettes and amber hanging from her earlobes, is Nancy Silverton.
Thwack! She attacks the billowy edges of a pizza that's just emerged from the oven, cutting the crackling crust into four quadrants with a rolling pizza cutter. Holding her thumb over the neck of an olive oil bottle, she splashes a little oil over, then rubs a bundle of dried oregano between her palms like somebody making a fire, showering the fragrant leaves over a simple tomato pizza.
To garnish the next pie in line, one with a loose, light tomato sauce garnished with saffron-colored squash blossoms, slit and spread out like the rays of the sun, she digs a spoon into a container of soft, creamy burrata cheese. She moves to the next pizza in line, a classic Margherita, hauls a bouquet of basil from a glass of water and clack, clack, clack -- snips the leaves with a pair of scissors so that the leaves fall directly onto the pizza in artful disarray.
Her signature style
THERE'S something so sensual about Silverton's relationship to food and her aesthetic that's entirely her own -- direct, focused, uncompromised. She doesn't primp or fuss over her food. It's not art-directed or scripted. But it is entirely original and recognizably hers. And even if you're an Italian purist who's scandalized that she doesn't make pizza exactly like they do in Naples or someone who finds her food too simple and wonders what all the fuss is about, it's precisely this: Her food is vibrant and alive.
That Margherita is a beautiful melding of fresh milky mozzarella delivered almost daily from Mozzarella Fresca in Northern California, with a light tomato sauce and the fresh, fragrant basil leaves on a crust that's both tender and crackling crisp on the bottom, blistered and smoky from the wood-burning oven. A pizza of funghi misti means mixed mushrooms on a soft carpet of tangled cheeses -- Fontina and Taleggio, with a sprinkling of thyme leaves.
The woman next to me, ignored by the couple she came with, badgers the pizzaiola with questions. "Ooh, what's that?" she asks.
"Fennel sausage for the fennel sausage pizza, " he says. He takes meatball-sized pieces of the cooked sausage and places them sparsely over a circle of raw dough the cook next to him has already stretched out to a 10-inch round. Another cook works the wood-burning oven, stoking it with almond wood, moving the coals to the back and taking the pizzas in and out with a long-handled peel.
Executive chef Matt Molina, who worked with Silverton at Campanile, keeps a watchful eye on everything, stepping in to help when needed. Minutes later, when the edges of the dough are blistered and blackened from the heat of the oven, Silverton adds the final touch: a dusting of wild fennel pollen. The combination of flavors is sensational.
The pizzas are all so good, it's tough to pick a favorite, but if I had to choose, one would certainly be that fennel sausage pizza; another would be the egg and guanciale pie. The latter is topped with ribbons of ruby radicchio, thinly sliced guanciale (cured pig's jowl) and a little bagna cauda (the Piedmontese "warm bath" of garlic, anchovy and olive oil). Just before the pizzaiola slips the pie into the oven, he takes an egg from the wire basket and breaks it in the middle. The pizza cooks so quickly in the hot oven, the egg yolk is still molten when you bite into it, flooding the surface with gold.
It has been interesting to watch Pizzeria Mozza evolve in the three months it's been open. Mastering the wood-burning oven has been a challenge for Silverton -- I watched one night as she went over to the oven and blew into it, trying to coax the flames back after someone forgot to add more wood at the proper moment. It's been difficult, too, to achieve a consistent dough. Though it's never going to be exactly the same from day to day (it's the same with sourdough), now the variations aren't so wide. There was the night someone forgot to add salt to the dough -- and it took forever to cook.
The Margherita at first had too much tomato and not enough cheese. Some of the pizzas were almost too minimalist. But Silverton is a worker, putting in 12 hours and more a day for months, and a perfectionist about every detail, and in an amazingly short time, she's gotten all the way there.
If pizzas are center stage at Mozza, the rest of the menu, printed on one page with the wine list on the back, offers some other delicious items. Silverton regularly shuffles through the dozens of antipasti, in a short, revolving list of those she developed over her stint as guest antipasti chef on Tuesday nights at La Terza.
The choices might include fried squash blossoms with a sumptuous ricotta filling or shell beans with tomato and a breadcrumb topping, finished in the wood-burning oven. I love the caponata of velvety soft purple-black eggplant, skin and all, with sweet-sour onions and toasted pine nuts served in an antipasti cup. On my last visit, there was a new dish of yellow wax beans finished in a bright emerald salsa verde and a small bowl of intensely flavored whole marinated peppers in brilliant scarlet and gold.
Tables are closely packed at Mozza, and it's not unusual for tables next to each other to start up a conversation, usually with someone asking advice on what to order -- you'll have to lean very close, though, because this is one of the noisiest restaurants around.
But when you've waited weeks for one of the 60 seats (only the seats at the two counters are unreserved), naturally, everybody wants to make sure they don't miss the best dishes, like the classic bruschetta of finely chopped chicken livers with lots of capers and parsley, embellished with a little crisped guanciale. The bruschetta of white beans alla Toscana is a killer, too. The cannellini beans are cooked the way they should be, soft and yielding instead of al dente, splashed with a great Tuscan olive oil from the wine producer Capezzana in Carmignano outside Florence.
Move over, the Ivy, and give way to "Nancy's" chopped salad, a tall pile of chickpeas, shredded iceberg lettuce, pear-shaped cherry tomatoes, aged provolone cheese, ribbons of finocchio salami and radicchio in a bright oregano vinegary dressing. It's an updated, pristine version of salads you used to find in New York's Little Italy, but this time made with top-notch ingredients.
Silverton's tricolore salad is a lovely mix of feathery frisee, sharp peppery arugula and red endive in an assertive, wildly delicious, anchovy dressing. Occasionally somebody sprinkles too much Parmesan over the top, but that's minor.