While Los Angeles has long embraced elevated dining at hole-in-the-wall restaurants, Sun Valley is hardly known as a destination-dining neighborhood, with the exception maybe of Rocio's Moles de los Dioses, which has been closed since arsonists set it on fire in August.
But Ali Haider wasn't worried about opening 786 Degrees, an all-halal Neapolitan-style pizzeria, in a restaurant dead zone. He lives nearby and already had a lucrative catering business and customer list from selling pizzas for several years at farmers markets in Sherman Oaks, West Hollywood and Northridge. (He still caters two to five weddings or corporate events per week.)
Five years ago, Haider quit his job as a spokesmodel for Lamborghini because he wanted to pursue his passion for pizza and eventually open a brick-and-mortar. So he did what any young, would-be pizzaiolo would do: He traveled to Naples to study pizza-making at Scuola Professionale di Pizzaiolo.
He further honed his craft by competing nationally and internationally on his own and as a member of the U.S. Pizza Team. Last March, Haider won several awards at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas; his Bombay Tikka Masala pizza won first place for Best West Coast Pizza, third place in the international category and highest score overall for an individual pizza.
But why would a pizzaiolo who takes great pains to achieve authenticity — he has a $28,000 custom-made wood-burning oven imported from Italy and uses ingredients such as Antimo Caputo 00 flour and fresh mozzarella di bufala — make a blasphemous fusion pizza?
First of all, because it's delicious. Secondly, Haider's parents are Indian and Iraqi. He was raised in Kuwait, where he attended an Indian international school. While attending Cerritos College, he won Mr. India-America in 2003. That led to print modeling jobs in Europe and spokesmodel jobs for various luxury brands. He speaks five languages and has traveled the world.
While Haider honors Italian traditions by making a margherita pizza to please the purist, he also draws inspiration from his heritage, his travels and the diverse city in which he lives.
He journeyed to India to get his great-grandmother's recipe for masala sauce for the award-winning pizza. Haider blends 12 spices, yogurt, tomatoes and chilies, then bakes the mixture in a clay vessel for 53 minutes in his pizza oven (yes, 53 minutes exactly). The result is a deliciously rich tikka masala sauce with an earthy mellowness from the clay vessel; it's much more sophisticated-tasting than its appearance — drizzled in zigzag fashion all over the pizza — would suggest.
Haider's El Chapo pizza (tagline: "Flavor that is hard to capture") is made with Mexican beef chorizo, grilled onions, San Marzano tomatoes and Monterey jack cheese, and finished with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkling of Himalayan pink salt. El Chapo is one of Haider's best-selling pies.
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The Istanbul — topped with doner (shawarma) kebab and other Turkish-inspired ingredients — is Haider's riff on a popular pizza found in Muslim-owned pizzerias in Western Europe. Immigrants from Turkey, Algeria, Tunisia and Lebanon tend to dominate mom-and-pop international eateries in countries like France and Germany. These restaurants often serve a combination of traditional dishes, such as couscous or doner, along with pizza.
In addition to the pizzas he currently serves, Haider says he has 56 pizzas in development at any given time. He tests each one at least a dozen times before running one as a special.
During a recent visit, he brought out an off-menu Nutella pizza he developed with his sons in mind. It might be the best Nutella dessert we've ever had at a pizzeria.
8879 Laurel Canyon Blvd, Sun Valley; (818) 939-6566; 786degrees.com