Midway through a recent dinner at L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Hollywood, the server swings by to check in and chat a little.
"So how did you hear about the restaurant?" he asks.
I mumble a polite answer and then flip his inquiry around: "What do people usually say when you ask that question?"
"Oh, most customers have heard about us because of 'Eat Pray Love,'" he says. "The other day I waited on a family who came all the way from San Francisco just to try the pizza since it's so famous."
His response did not surprise me. In her 2006 mega-bestselling memoir, Elizabeth Gilbert recounts traveling to Naples; urged by a Neapolitan friend, she visits the original Da Michele and orders a margherita with double mozzarella. Her verdict: "I am having a relationship with this pizza." Julia Roberts repeated the sentiment when she played Gilbert in the 2010 movie adaptation.
Tinseltown catapulted Da Michele to worldwide celebrity; perhaps it was inevitable that a spinoff would one day appear in Hollywood proper. Regrettably, this new outpost, opened in May, strays far in spirit from the parent operation. It exists to capitalize on its name recognition but fails to deliver the rapturous moments that gave the faraway, romanticized original its fame.
The roots of Da Michele reach back to 1870, when Salvatore Condurro began selling a deep-fried variation of pizza as street food in Naples. A quarter-century later his son, Michele Condurro, moved the business indoors and started baking the pies. His descendants, who still run the company, launched a global effort to franchise the Da Michele brand earlier this decade. Namesakes have popped up in Rome, Tokyo, Barcelona and London. Francesco Zimone, a native of Naples whose background includes film financing and property restoration in Los Angeles, secured the rights to Da Michele's first U.S. franchise location.
Slip into this highbrow California fantasy pizzeria through its discreet street entrance, on a side street near Highland Avenue and Sunset Boulevard, into a room with overstuffed, milk-chocolate-colored leather couches. Walk past the shiny bar space into the dappled courtyard, surrounded by brick and accented with Mediterranean-blue tiles. Through the glassed-in kitchen, you can glimpse pizzaiolo Michele Rubini and his team stretch dough, smear tomato sauce, scatter cheese and shovel pizzas in and out of the oven.
At the original, scrunched, bare-bones Da Michele — where I scarfed down a couple of characteristically soupy pies with knife and fork years ago — the menu lists two items: a marinara and a margherita, available in different sizes. In Hollywood the pizza choices triple, including a bianco with optional arugula and prosciutto and also a luxe number showered in black truffles. The pizzas, available in one size, are uncommonly large for the Neapolitan style; they could feed two and maybe three people. The crusts come out nicely soft and freckled with char, though they have less salt and less tang than I prefer. Blobs of melted cheese on a margherita collide like floating islands. Its center seizes enough that slices can be eaten by hand.
Pizzas hit their mark passably, but there's little else to recommend among the restaurant's overreaching menu of appetizers, salads and pastas overseen by chef Antonio Giordano. It clangs through Italian and Italian-American clichés short on technique and pleasure.
Polpette were artless spheres of cooked ground beef without enough salt or spice to give them life. A friend squeezed wedge after wedge of lemon over pale, dull fried calamari in a futile effort to awaken some flavor. An arrangement of little gem lettuces and avocado hunks dressed with an anchovy vinaigrette and breadcrumbs was labeled a Caesar salad; it was neither an inspired interpretation nor a particularly balanced creation.
Along the same weird, disjointed lines, insalata di pollo al limone turned out to be a pile of chicken, chopped into squares and sauteed, alongside a tuft of arugula tossed with more avocado. Pastas offered little of their usual solace. The carbonara at brunch needed more cheese to boost the salt. Spaghetti alla Nerano, named for a fishing village down the coast from Naples, tasted sweet and oily and oddly fishy and altogether off-putting. In some of these dishes I see a misguided attempt at marrying California and Italian sensibilities, but this city has evolved way past these kinds of botched expressions.
The best thing to eat at Da Michele is the montanara, a pizza that is flash-fried and then crowned with cheese, tomato and basil before a quick trip through the oven. It puffs and crisps and the toppings seep and swoop through doughy canyons. Big-name Neapolitan pizzaiolos like Antonio Starita have recently popularized the montanara in Italy and in America, though the genealogy of the montanara certainly recalls Da Michele's street-food origins. L.A. hasn't seen much of this variation; Rubini delivers it with skill.
Otherwise, it's best to stick to the most basic pies. Like Gilbert, I too have encountered pizzas over the years with which I have formed deep and profound connections. These don't make it past a one-night stand.
L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele
Don't buy into the "Eat Pray Love" hype of this Hollywood knockoff of the famous Naples pizzeria.
Location: 1534 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles, (323) 366-2408, damicheleusa.com
Prices: Most pizzas $18-$22; appetizers $16-$24; entrees $19-$26; brunch items $13-$25.
Details: Credit cards accepted. Wine and beer. Valet and street parking. Wheelchair-accessible.