The sign in Café Glacé's all-glass storefront says "Persian pizza." Now, if you were a canny Los Angeles food explorer, you'd probably suspect that this was an awkward translation of some traditional Persian dish. Maybe, you'd think, you will discover some exciting-flavored flatbread or a topped pita — some ancient Persian treasure hiding behind the Western name.
But you'd be wrong, because this is an honest-to-God, full-blooded, American-style pizza, with bell peppers and melted cheese and everything. But this is also pizza freed of any obligations of authenticity. It's not authentically New York, nor authentically Neapolitan, nor is it trying to be. It's made by Iranians for Iranians, guided by a distinctive, charmingly un-Italian aesthetic.
The crust is half-crisp, half-soft, a thickish, sort of spongy affair. Somebody searching for a more flash description might call it "focaccia-like," but let's be honest: If it's like anything, it's like a supermarket frozen pizza — a Celeste, maybe. But it's also fantastic: fresh, abundant, texturally complicated, made lovingly and painstakingly. It feels like some brilliant Persian cook had a frozen supermarket pizza and liked the basic idea but was inspired to make it better, to remake it and remake it again, until it became this: a tiny, pita-sized, spongy-crusted, adorable jot of a pizza, piled high with carefully cubed toppings and soft melted cheese.
This is pizza like you'd find all over the streets of Tehran, explains owner Sam Alishahi. There's no tomato sauce, just the slightest touch of ketchup — it's the Persian style, says Alishahi. The cheese is fresh and white and just on the cusp between juicy and oily. The top is intensely brown with a baked cheese crust; little, intense streaks of oregano peer out from beneath the brown cheese-crackle.
Alishahi's father, Eddie Alishahi, advances toward you with two cafeteria squeeze bottles, which turn out to contain ketchup and ranch dressing. Ranch? Yup, ranch. He seems to think that a squirt of each will vastly improve the pizza, and you know what? He's right.
Café Glacé, explains Sam Alishahi, is a casual place, a real sandwich shop. Witness chips o panir: Lay's potato chips topped with toasty melted mozzarella, a snack food popular in Tehran. "You could call it Persian nachos," says Alishahi. "It's a late-night snack food; college students come and eat it all night long," an indication of Café Glacé's proximity to the UCLA campus.
Then there are the sandwiches. It's not some dashed-together affair but a carefully thought out sandwich, an orchestrated sandwich. They're designed by Parvin Peykani — Alishahi's mother-in-law and the mistress of the kitchen. "In Tehran, she was a homemaker," says Alishahi. "She cooked food every day, and everybody would come over and eat it. She's a feeder. She loves to feed the whole family; she loves taking care of people."
The kotlet sandwich is centered on a few flattened patties of potatoes and ground beef. It's starchy and herbaceous and soft, and the sandwich is carefully arranged around it. First comes the bread, toasted and crisp on the outside, soft on the inside. Then the lettuce — absolutely crisp. Then the tomatoes and kotlet — soft and soft. Then the Persian pickles — crisp again and zippy. Then the bread again, soft-crisp. It's alternating layers of crisp-soft, crisp-soft, very consciously created.
If you get really lucky, Peykani will take a shine to you and steer you toward the olvieh sandwich. Olvieh is Persian potato salad, with a gently amped-up warmth and savor from shredded chicken breast. It's an amazing sandwich — full of very fresh ingredients, cooked to preserve their distinctive textures, combined into a heart-warming gestalt. Peykani is obviously proud of her olvieh; she occasionally does a little dance of excitement when she brings you an olvieh sandwich.
There's so much more. There's the Iranian hot dog sandwiches, made with "real German hot dogs," brags Peykani. There's excellent fresh fruit juices and majoon, a shake made with bananas, dates, milk, ice cream and pistachios that satisfies and sticks to your ribs.
And now we have Persian pizza with ranch dressing and ketchup. Eat it up already.