Who didn't grow up wolfing down pizza slathered in tomato sauce and gooey cheese? And yet the dominant pizza aesthetic in L.A. seems to get reinvented from time to time just like everything else in this constantly changing city. In 1982, Wolfgang Puck changed the game when he installed a wood-burning oven in the little pizza and pasta place he opened called Spago.
In the south of France where he trained, such ovens were an everyday thing, and even he didn't think his "gourmet" pizza would turn out to be such a huge deal. But for legions of Angelenos who'd grown up on Shakey's and Pizza Hut, that humble pie, in this case, made with real mozzarella instead of the commercial grated stuff, garnished with Michelin star-worthy ingredients and cooked in a real wood-burning oven, was a born-again moment. Who knew you could enjoy pizza in an authentically glamorous setting -- with a view of Sunset Strip, and serious wines and stars galore?
Fast forward 25 or so years, and that kind of gourmet pizza has become a cliché, with a California Pizza Kitchen in every airport. Even at Spago (now in Beverly Hills), it's relegated to lunch only. And yet what did Nancy Silverton dream of opening after she left Campanile? A pizzeria.
And Pizzeria Mozza, the place she opened in 2006 in partnership with New York's Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich -- one of the most anticipated restaurants in the last few years -- has started another pizza revolution.
Last week I went back to Spago to see how that original gourmet pizza held up after all those years. Just fine, actually. The smoked salmon pizza (a.k.a. the Jewish pizza) was and still is a brilliant idea, like eating Nova on a thin, crisp bialy. Except instead of gummy cream cheese, it's spread with a lovely, loose dill crème fraîche -- and the satiny salmon is house-smoked. The pizza of the season, though, is spring vegetables with ochre chanterelles, asparagus, sweet cipollini onions and roasted baby artichokes. A velvety, lightly smoked bufala scamorza cheese ties it all together.
Riffs on the genre
At Pizzeria Mozza the crust is billowy and yeasty, darkened with a pinch of buckwheat flour and the ministrations of the roaring pizza oven. The pizzas aren't "authentic" to either the Italian or New York traditions, though Silverton has had plenty of experience with the real thing. These are her riffs on the genre, heady, freewheeling pizzas based on a killer dough, a finely tuned knowledge of the wood-burning oven and sheer invention. They're pretty much all terrific. Never over-embellished, just flat out delicious, whether it's her pie topped with radicchio, escarole, guanciale and a molten-centered fried egg or one with graceful tomato sauce, burrata and squash blossoms. Though I have to say, I've yet to try pizza allo Benno, which features speck (smoked, raw-cured ham) with fresh pineapple, mozzarella and jalapeño and was dreamed up by her son Ben.
At lunch, the most Italian pizzas in town issue from the oven at Angelini Osteria. Last week I had a flawless pizza, or rather two -- a thin, crisp crust blistered from the oven and topped with mushrooms and slices of rosy prosciutto. Sometimes he'll do a wonderful burrata pizza as a special with fresh cherry tomatoes and that creamy fresh cheese, it's as good as it gets. And since Angelini is a full-service trattoria, you can also get bowls of pasta e fagioli, his irresistible penne all' Amatriciana made with house-cured guanciale and for dessert, an affogato (vanilla ice cream drowned in a cup of espresso).
Though they're only a small part of the menu, the pizzas at Gjelina in Venice keep getting better. Six months in, chef-owner Travis Lett has his pizza mojo down. His pies have a graceful aesthetic, beautiful to look at, even better to eat, and farmers market all the way. Like the seductive vegetable dishes here from the wood-burning oven, the eight pizzas on offer shift with the seasons. A pie blanketed in Fontina cheese and bitter greens accented with bacon lardons or one that melds Taleggio cheese with dusky wild mushrooms and pea shoots may give way to a pizza topped with sweet porky guanciale, crushed olives and bufala mozzarella. The crust is very thin, very crisp. Pizza is such a popular item, though, you may have to wait for yours: The oven is only big enough to cook four pies at a time.
Dough's just right
Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa puts more emphasis on the pizzas, though the menu also offers the gamut of antipasti, salads, pastas and main courses. This is Sona and Comme Ça owner David Myers' first foray into Italian, with Steve Samson, whom you might remember as chef at Valentino a few years back, as chef de cuisine. Samson has made it his business to get the dough right, using a 300-year-old biga or sourdough starter from outside Naples, Italy (wonder how he got that baby through customs?). The thin crust has wonderful flavor and picks up some smokiness from the oven. Consider the Calabrese with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella, rapini, hot little Calabrese peppers and shaved bottarga (dried pressed roe). The Margherita is classic, and you can add prosciutto and wild arugula to it, or salami and mushrooms. But the most unusual is the pie topped with fresh ricotta, guanciale, scallions and a dusting of fennel pollen. The place also has some terrific antipasti, such as house-cured yellowfin tuna with borlotti beans, charred octopus with potatoes and celery or carciofi (artichokes) alla Romana. Note: On the first and third Saturday of every month, Samson will be teaching a pizza class at the restaurant.
At Riva in Santa Monica, Fraiche's Jason Travi is zeroing in on the pizza front, too, taking his inspiration from the Italian Riviera. The crust has had some glitches, mostly in consistency, but he's been working on it. You can see the wood-burning oven just inside the open kitchen -- not a beauty, but functional. He's got a winner with his Molto Maiale pizza, which is very much in the Molto Mario (Batali) style: More has got to be better. This one is topped with meatballs, sausage, pancetta and bacon. There's a simple potato, Fontina and sea salt pie and a Margherita made with bufala mozzarella. Mushroom, though, seems more like duxelles spread thinly over the crust: not a success. He may be trying too hard to be original.
If you go by the most basic definition of pizza -- bread with a garnish -- the flatbread that Zoe Nathan turns out at Huckleberry, her month-old Santa Monica bakery, definitely qualifies. OK, she doesn't have a wood-burning oven, which makes it even more remarkable what she does with a regular deck oven. I suspect her secret is to lavish the dough with olive oil, which crisps and caramelizes the edges beautifully. She features a different flatbread every day: I loved one topped with kale, onions and raisins. Another day, it might be potato and onion, or zucchini blossoms, or even sprouting broccoli. You basically get a 6-inch-by-6-inch slab of heaven. To go or eat in.
Back to traditional
If, on the other hand, you're looking for something more traditional, there are two places in Southern California that turn out strictly Neapolitan pizzas:
Peppe Miele, chef/owner of Antica Pizzeria in Marina del Rey, is a member of the Verace Pizza Napoletana Assn. You know he's serious when you walk in the door of this cozy upstairs pizzeria and find big bags of tipo 00 (a soft wheat flour from Italy) stacked near the wood-burning pizza oven. Miele is a classicist at heart and doesn't get too crazy with toppings. He does a beautiful Margherita (simply tomato, mozzarella and basil). But I'm also partial to his pizza del Cafone topped with smoked mozzarella, crumbled Italian sausage and rapini. I wouldn't put Antica's pizzas head-to-head with the best of what Naples has to offer, but they're very good. And they come out of the oven in a flash.
Over in Monterey Park, Bollini's Pizzeria Napolitana waves the pizza flag with honor. A graduate of Le Cordon Bleu who has worked around L.A. at some top restaurants, Chris Bollini had the idea to open his own pizzeria in Monterey Park where he grew up. To do that, he went straight to Italy to apprentice in the art of la pizza. The wood-burning pizza oven is fired up at noon ready to bake any of a long list of Neapolitan-style pies. He doesn't subscribe to the dinner plate-size pizza but makes them in two sizes -- large and larger. You can buy them by the slice, too. He's got the classics and some wilder ones, like the Papo (olive pesto, shrimp, clams, tomatoes, hot peppers) or the Steak Special (marinated steak, horseradish sauce, arugula). Though his crust hits the mark, upgrading the quality of the topping ingredients would raise these pizzas to another level.