The pizza I'm about to order, Sean St. John says from behind the counter at Pizza of Venice, is "like broccoli-and-cheddar soup, but a pizza." The restaurant's co-owner has a friendly, laid-back, almost sleepy tone, telling me, "We use, like, really good cheddar from Wisconsin, and house-cured pancetta." Sure enough, when it arrives, the pizza is very much like a broccoli-and-cheddar soup, which may or may not be a good thing, depending on your stance regarding cross-dressing pizzas in full soup drag.
What is impressive either way is the crust on the thing — exceedingly thin, delicious and crispy, flecked with black char on the bottom like the coat of a Dalmatian. It's the type of pizza that collapses a bit in the center under the weight of its ingredients, but you find yourself not caring. Fold the thing in half, grab a fistful of napkins, gobble it up.
Pizza of Venice is an aspirational rather than a literal name, a statement of intent rather than location. St. John and co-owner Jamie Woolner have been friends since they were teenagers. Now both in their mid-20s, they began the business out of St. John's Venice apartment after Woolner had some success selling pizzas to a local wine bar. (At the time Woolner was working on two other restaurant ideas, one a paleo-diet concept and the other with a horse-racing theme — "It's a long story," he says.)
Eventually they decided that farmers markets might offer them some good exposure. Woolner had read a story about Altadena being a center for slow food and urban farming, so they decided to start there. They rented a space nearby and were such a hit at the market that people encouraged them to open as a full-fledged restaurant. On June 15, that's what they did, with barely any money and only a convection oven for cooking the pizzas — hardly a wood-fired oven, but hey, it works.
The name is a nod to the beginnings of the business, but it's also an intentional message about the place's vibe and the duo's hopes about where they might end up. During an early visit just after the restaurant opened, St. John spoke confidently about a time when they would "end up with a place in Venice."
Despite Altadena's status as a bastion of hippie-dom, there may be no place on Earth that channels the beachy vibe of Venice, Calif., less than the small, drab strip mall where Pizza of Venice makes its home. Yet when you walk through the door into the tiny space and hear soft reggae playing, see the colorful art decorating the walls (courtesy of St. John's uncle, Venice Beach artist William Attaway), and are greeted by one of the folks who works there, who all share an amiable, mellow vibe, you might just imagine yourself to be in some version of Venice. A 1970s version, maybe, but that makes it all the more endearing, and all the more appropriate for this particular area.
Woolner and St. John's farmers market experience has informed their brick-and-mortar enterprise, with local ingredients employed whenever possible. This purity of intent makes itself known most vigorously in the huge, beautiful Altadena salad, a generous pile of fresh lettuces topped with tomato, red onion, feta, pistachios and whatever fruit is ripe at the Altadena farmers market that week. During the summer, that might mean flame-colored slices of nectarine; more recently, two or three types of bright citrus took the starring role.
Read the pizza menu from the bottom up, and it goes from "expected" to "off-the-wall." The expected selections are things like cheese, mushrooms and meatballs; off-the-wall goes so far as trying to create a crab boil on a pizza. The middle section — "unexpected" — falls somewhere in between, and it's in this section where you'll find the pizzas that work best, that take Pizza of Venice's slightly wonky sensibility and use it to full advantage without veering into the overt stoner sensibility of soup-as-pizza.
El Diablo comes with house-made chorizo (all of the meats are prepared in-house), caramelized onions, serrano peppers and a sassy salsa verde, which brightens every mouthful. The braised lamb pizza impersonates a flat gyro with tomato sauce — it comes covered in tzatziki and a parsley-heavy concoction based on tabbouleh. The marvel here is the lamb itself: tender, musky and lush. It barely matters that the whole thing is a mash-up of ingredients and cultures — it's a highly addictive mash-up.
Sometimes those mash-ups don't fare so well, but the mishaps are easy to spot and avoid. If you're the type of person who loves a barbecue pizza, Pizza of Venice's version with juicy pulled pork might be the best version you've ever had. If you're the type who thinks barbecue and pizza is an unholy matrimony, you're not going to be brought around by anything here. The barbecue sauce is made in-house, but that doesn't stop it from being too sweet.
Occasionally (about once a month) the place serves a sashimi pizza — I never had the pleasure of trying one, and I'm not too sad about that fact.
The menu's off-the-wall section has its fair share of mishaps, but it also has pizzas smothered in Cowgirl Creamery brie, Point Reyes blue and fresh shaved Brussels sprouts. Some of these lopsided ideas actually work.
When the restaurant opened, there was a greater focus on appetizers, from sashimi plates to hummus, but most of those things have disappeared. What has remained are the wings: curry wings, BBQ wings and Korean wings, which come magnificently crisped and coated in a sweet, spicy glaze.
For dessert, you can order a plate of chocolate chip cookies baked that morning, or something more seasonal — they're serving a pumpkin pudding, which is like a firmer version of pumpkin pie filling, studded with raisins.
Despite the effort, the giddy artistry that goes into the pizzas, Pizza of Venice's finest accomplishment may be of the liquid variety. They make a daily limeade that also takes its cues from fruit available at the market; it's a splendiferous concoction, particularly when the fruit of choice is tangerine — it's like a big cup of sunshine.
It speaks to the core of what makes this place so lovable: It's like a cubbyhole of joyous and original sunshine where you'd never expect to find it.
So: What if you live in the real Venice, or anywhere, really, other than Altadena and its surrounding communities? Is Pizza of Venice worth making the trip to this odd little corner of a strip mall? It depends on what you're looking for, I suppose. There's plenty of pizza and Korean wings and chocolate chip cookies between Venice proper and Pizza of Venice that are more worthy on a purist level than the bizarre, sometimes uneven things Woolner and St. John are turning out here. But if you're looking for exuberance of spirit, and soul-stirring limeade, and an endearing list of cross-dressing pizzas, that trek to Altadena just might be a necessary pilgrimage.
PIZZA OF VENICE | Two stars | 2545 N. Fair Oaks Ave., Altadena | (626) 765-9636 | pizzaofvenice.com |Tues.-Thurs., 10:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Fri. & Sat., 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-9:30 p.m. | No alcohol served | Lot parking