Pavich Pizza

Angelo Vukelja holds an A Quattro Gusti pizza topped with mushrooms, artichokes, ham and cheese at Pavich's Brick Oven Pizzeria in San Pedro. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

It takes a determined climb to get all the way up to Pavich's Brick Oven Pizzeria, a tiny restaurant parked at the peak of a steep San Pedro hill. It's a haul, but the pizzeria is a beacon of local flavor, a neighborhood spot surrounded by a tract of hilltop homes. And for owner Zdenko Pavic, that's the perfect place to serve his mammoth pizzas and Croatian classics that capture the harbor town's immigrant history.

Pavic himself arrived in San Pedro by way of war, leaving Croatia in 1995 as conflicts continued to tear apart the former Yugoslavian state. After first settling in Dallas, he moved to San Pedro in 1999. Now, with his wife, Mirela, and their two children, Pavic is turning his nearly 1-year-old pizzeria into a crucial piece of San Pedro's Croatian community.

Squeezed in next to a liquor store and a laundromat, the restaurant is a long, narrow space completely consumed by its kitchen. Pavich's is so small that there isn't even room for a flattop grill -- that has to be stationed outside for open-air cooking. Likewise, the restaurant's only table is forced out front, where diners can chat with Pavic as he grills meats in between prepping pizzas.

That mixed menu may not seem like a natural fit, but Pavic explains otherwise. "In Europe, everyone near the Mediterranean knows how to make pizza," he says. "It's just like how in California, everyone knows how to make burritos." Still, knowledge doesn't always mean know-how. But Pavich's Pizzeria ably displays know-how with each of its excellent pies.

The pizzas here are massive, offered only in a one-size-fills-all 18 inches. After they're pulled from the restaurant's hulking brick oven, where the crust cooks with a brisk, blackening intensity, they're cut into huge slices that take two hands to hold.

Pizza selections

The most popular pizza is the Croatian. It has a whole pantry's worth of toppings: bell peppers, mushrooms, red onions, olives, tomatoes, mozzarella, a sprinkling of feta and slices of smoked beef, which Pavic says better handles the heat than its pork counterpart. What's remarkable about the Croatian pizza is its balance, as it captures equally the sweet streaks of the peppers and tomatoes, the tart tang of the feta and the smoky notes of the mushrooms and beef.

Simpler pizzas, like Italian sausage and classic Margherita, are also available among the nearly dozen options. But for diversity, try combining two different pies. Pavic will smartly suggest what he calls the San Pedro pizza, which marries half of the Italian-influenced quattro gusti (ham, mushrooms, artichokes and mozzarella) with half of the Croatian for a pairing that's practically a cross-section of the port town itself.

Pavich's also employs its brick oven for hefty calzones. Unlike the overly doughy renditions found elsewhere, these calzones are crisp, thin-skinned pockets. They're packed with any pizza ingredients you like, meaning you can construct a Croatian calzone with smoked beef and bell peppers just as easily as one loaded with roasted pork and pineapple.

Croatian dishes

The rest of the menu trends toward Croatian specialties. Cevapcici, garlicky beef links that look like breakfast sausages, are served simply with somun, a spongy flatbread baked in the brick oven, and diced raw onion.

Pljeskavica is a more complete meal. The superb 7-inch sandwich is a sort-of Croatian burger that repurposes the cevapcici (pounded flat into a patty) and somun (used here as a bun). It's completed with lettuce, roasted peppers and garlic sauce.

Pavich's also offers lighter plates like sarma, cabbage leaves stuffed with ground beef and rice, and a salad somewhat curiously called pasta fagioli, made with pasta, white beans, carrots, green beans, peas, corn and more of that smoked beef (what Pavic calls "beef prosciutto").

Because Pavich's Pizzeria is so embedded in its neighborhood, most customers can retreat to their dining rooms to partition their pies. But if all you have is a driver's seat, pick up your order, grab a couple of Mama Ocllo's buttery alfajores (Peruvian shortbread cookies) from the nearby Baltic Bakery and wind your way down Gaffey Street instead.

At its end is Angels Gate Park, where you can approximate your own Mediterranean experience -- the ocean lapping against the cliffs below, the craggy silhouette of Catalina in the distance and a perfect slice of pizza in your hands.

Pavich's Brick Oven Pizzeria

LOCATION

2311 S. Alma St., San Pedro, (310) 519-1200, pavichs.

PRICE

Sandwiches, $6.40 to $7.40; pizzas, $13 to $18; Croatian specialties, $5 to $10.

BEST DISHES

Croatian and quattro gusti pizzas, pljeskavica, vegetable calzone, cevapcici.

DETAILS

Open 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. No alcohol. Credit cards accepted. Street parking.

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