Review

On an Echo Park corner, Jonathan Gold finds the neighborhood pizzeria reinvented

In one form or another, Pizza Buona has been holding down the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado Street since the early 1960s, a holdover from when the neighborhood still had a substantial Italian presence. There used to be a deli next door where you could buy provolone or pick up sandwiches to bring to a Dodgers game. If you walked through the intersection late at night, your nose tracked your progress through the garlicky aroma from the pizzeria, washes of grilled meat from the old carwash taqueria, and the smell of simmering green chiles from the original Burrito King.

Now the corner is occupied by Cosa Buona, a new restaurant from Zach Pollack, whom you may know from his excellent Alimento up in Silver Lake or his years at Pizzeria Ortica and Sotto. Cosa Buona is the kind of place the anti-gentrification guys like to gripe about — natural wine, fritto misto, and farmers market broccolini; a place where the couple ahead of you in line probably booked their spot on OpenTable; a dining room with low lights and high-backed booths that look as if they’ve been fitted into the tight space by the people who design furniture for yachts.

But Pollack isn’t re-creating obscure dishes from Caserta; he’s perfecting the mozzarella stick, which he makes with smoked cheese, a shaggy, ultracrisp breading and a little pot of marinara sauce. (You have never had mozzarella sticks this crunchy or this good.) There are credible Buffalo wings with Gorgonzola dressing and lashings of hot sauce, and I look forward to the inevitable listicles comparing them to the famous ones at the nearby Ye Rustic Inn.

The chopped salad is exactly like the one at the pizzeria near your house except incomparably better, made with high-grade salami, soppressata, provolone and such, shreds of impeccably fresh bitter lettuces and the good kind of olives, the ones you drive out to Mario’s or Bay Cities for. The Caesar salad is strongly flavored with anchovies. The chicken parm, if you lean that way, is beautifully fried, layered with melted mozzarella cheese and a slice of the La Quercia Tamworth-breed prosciutto that is sometimes called America’s greatest ham, and dosed with more of that dense, caramelized marinara sauce that Pollack finds a way to put on everything.

There are some questions about Cosa Buona that may never quite be answered. Did Pollack intentionally open his restaurant on the same day that his former partner at Sotto, Steve Samson, opened Rossoblu downtown? Is his soft, leopard-spotted pizza crust meant as a nod to the spotted crust at Sotto or a thumbed nose at its density? Are the direct honesty of Cosa Buona’s toppings — pepperoni, sausage and greens, even pineapple and Canadian bacon — meant as a reproach to Sotto’s delicious toppings of pig cheek with fennel pollen or salame with buckwheat honey, or is Pollack just asserting his restaurant’s identity as a neighborhood pizzeria; a place where there is no shame in ordering a “meatlover’s” pie, or sliding into a seat at the counter and making dinner out of a glass of Pinot Grigio and a plate of spicy meatballs?

Sotto used to have a calzone on its menu called “homage to Caiazzo,” a riff on the ethereal calzone stuffed with escarole and cheese that has for decades been a specialty of the Pepe family osteria in the small Campania village. At Cosa Buona, Pollack’s version, “homage to Franco,” is as thin-crusted as a huge oven-charred soup dumpling wrapped around a liquidy mass of cheese and greens — it quickly deconstructs itself into a kind of warm salad with the crust functioning almost as a massive, flexible crouton.

With influence reaching into Pizzeria Mozza, Pizzana, Sotto and Cosa Buona among other places, Franco Pepe, of Caiazzo’s Pepe in Grani, has become almost the patron saint of highbrow pizza in Los Angeles.

Unlike, say, Sotto or Pizzana, Cosa Buona seems to have its roots in Italian American pie, with the crisp softness, globs of cheese and foldability that the style implies. It even smells like good Italian American pizza, with high notes of dried oregano, slightly scorched garlic, and a slight sugary sweetness that might be more at home in New Jersey than they would be in Pozzuoli. At a Neapolitan specialist in Los Angeles, a purist would insist on the traditional Margherita pizza with tomato, mozzarella and basil. Here, she may actually be better off with the Hawaiiana, where the thinly sliced pineapple, Canadian bacon and hot chiles combine for an almost subtle effect that may remind you of the Yucatán.

In the end, Cosa Buona is not just a chefly take on the idea of a neighborhood pizzeria, it is a neighborhood pizzeria — one with a handmade Neapolitan wood oven and magnums of biodynamic Macabeo, but a corner joint just the same. If you still have room after an order or two of the cannoli, you may want to try the cookie semifreddo. It will not surprise you to learn that it tastes a little like Girl Scout thin mints.

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Cosa Buona

Pizza — and mozzarella sticks — from the guy who brought us Alimento

LOCATION

2100 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles, (213) 908-5211, cosabuona.com.

PRICES

Snacks $4-$8; salads $9-$15; antipasti $9-$16; pizza $13-$20.

DETAILS

Lunch, Mon. and Wed.-Fri., 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; dinner Mon., Wed., Thurs. and Sun. 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. Credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Valet and street parking. Takeout.

RECOMMENDED DISHES

Smokey mozzarella sticks; chicken parm sandwich; chopped salad; sausage pizza with mustard greens; semifreddo.

jonathan.gold@latimes.com

@thejgold

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