Counter Intelligence: 800 Degrees in Westwood
A soda machine like a sports car. Pizzas on an assembly line. Prices like an off-campus hot spot.
Vintage pizza boxes deck the walls as customers order at 800 Degrees in Westwood, which specializes in Neapolitan pizzas. (Christina House / For the Los Angeles Times / March 23, 2012)
This machine, one of the first in the Los Angeles area, dispenses 300 different soft drinks from its maw, all variants on the basic Coca-Cola product line but with every permutation of those you could imagine. You select your beverage from a glowing touch screen; if you tap Hi-C, for example, a sub-menu with dozens of choices pops up. It is the ultimate in the high-fructose corn syrup experience.
On this afternoon, a junior-high-age boy stands in front of the machine, kneading the console with his fingertips like a ballpark organist. A previously undiscovered screen appears and then another. He has watched a YouTube video on hacking the machine, and he is determined to bend it to his will. A horrified employee comes over to investigate — a thirsty line has formed — but it is probably too late. The boy has jacked up the syrup setting. The Vanilla Coke is thick enough to stand a straw in, and the boy smirks from his table as the manager struggles to reset the machine.
800 Degrees is the newest project of Adam Fleischman, the entrepreneur who guided Umami Burger from a gastrogeek obsession into a growing national chain. Nobody could have predicted that customers would line up for the chance to eat a CVap-cooked hamburger garnished with grilled shiitake caps, roasted tomatoes, crunchy Parmesan cheese and seaweed catsup, but they do. When it comes to burgers, nothing beats the carboxylate anion of glutamic acid.
The new restaurant, crammed into a high-ceilinged remnant of what old-timers will remember as the Bratskellar, is based on an idea so simple that it is hard to believe nobody came up with it decades ago: high-quality pizza reformulated as fast-food — cheap, delicious, made with sustainably grown ingredients, infinitely customizable — and in and out of the ferociously hot wood-burning oven almost before you have gotten to the cash register.
When 800 Degrees is a staple of every food court in America and the Pininfarina Coke machines have hit all the 7-Elevens, we will have forgotten this moment of wonderment, as we have those months when the first local Starbucks outlet really did serve the best espresso in town, but we really should enjoy this in the remaining few seconds before we all become jaded. This is a place with real Neapolitan pizza for six bucks; drinkable wine; cheap and delicious burrata salads; and an outer-space soda machine. It is vegan-friendly. It is open until 2 a.m. in Westwood Village, a famously difficult dining neighborhood.
I like the purist pizza at Mother Dough better than I like the pizza here, and I consider the squash blossom pies at Pizzeria Mozza to be proof of a loving God, but 800 Degrees is remarkable. Sure, there's the frat-rock soundtrack — how many times do we really need to hear "Eye of the Tiger" in the course of an evening? — but there is really something here.
When you get to the place, you will stand in a line, usually curving down the block, that moves much faster than you think. You will need a paper menu to study. If you are not prepared to order when you reach the front of the line, you will suffer the glares of a dozen eyes, and the learning curve is steep.
Inside the front door, a glass-front counter stretches the length of the restaurant, manned by a regiment of cooks — the assembly line operates more or less on the Chipotle model. The first of them stretches and forms the dough, placing it on a floured pizza peel; the second asks whether you want your pie with tomato sauce, with fresh mozzarella, or with tomato sauce, cheese and basil: the basic margherita. The uncooked pizza follows you to the next station on the counter, where you select additional toppings, if any, at a buck apiece: oven-charred broccolini; pesto; fontina; Molinari sausage; Fra' Mani salami — a lot of things. I'm partial to crumbled Nueske's bacon, pine nuts and caramelized onions; you may prefer rock shrimp, roasted eggplant and pickled peppadew peppers. Arugula is put on the pizza after it comes out of the oven — as it should be.
If you have trouble formulating combinations, you can always get one of the specialty pies, say the Fileti with pesto, fresh mozzarella and cherry tomatoes, or the spicy Piccante with puréed Calabrian chiles and thinly sliced hot soppressata. You should probably get a side of the crusty, bready meatballs. And be warned that the truffle cheese bread is less a nibble than a gooey, full-blown calzone stuffed with cheese and truffle oil.
The pizza goes into the oven. The pizza comes out. It is relatively thin-crusted, with a vaguely raised rim and a subtle freckling of char — more chewy than crunchy, and distinctly wet in the middle, as is the case with Neapolitan-style pies, especially those made with fresh mozzarella. The more ingredients you pile on, the swampier the pie will become. The standard pizza margherita is fine.
Parking is as difficult near the restaurant as it is everywhere else in Westwood, but the pizzeria is right across the street from the Hammer Museum. Park at the museum; have a pizza; check out the Alina Szapocznikow show. A perfect Saturday afternoon.