Walk into Mozza, through any of the various doors that lead into the complex, either the one for the pizzeria, the osteria or Mozza2Go, and there will come an inevitable moment when either you or someone else gasps over the budino. It is a butterscotch pudding topped with a stratum of salted caramel, a singular cloud of whipped crème fraîche, and accompanied by both a cookie and reverence. Dahlia Narvaez, who has been Mozza's pastry chef since the restaurant opened, and who created the dessert, notes somewhat begrudgingly, "We can't take it off the menu. We can never run out of it. Dessert sales drop off if we do. It was the beginning of the end."
Actually the beginning of Mozza's signature dessert dates further back, to Narvaez's own beginnings, in Highland Park, where she grew up the oldest of three. Narvaez began cooking after she got home from school, left college when she got "tired of carrying a backpack," fudged a résumé and talked her way into a professional kitchen -- at the Conga Room -- when she was 22. One day she walked into La Brea Bakery and applied for a job behind the counter. There is a beautiful symmetry to this history, if you know that Nancy Silverton, Narvaez's mentor and boss both then at Campanile and today at Mozza, traces her own career to a space at a counter, behind the cash register at Michael's in Santa Monica.
Narvaez never got the chance. She went straight into the kitchen, where she worked under Campanile pastry chefs Kim Sklar and Kim Boyce, and then ran the pastry kitchen. When Silverton went to Jar to start her traveling Mozzarella Bar, Narvaez went with her. And thus to Mozza, which was, in a sense, engendered in those cheese-centric evenings. As was the budino, which Narvaez first made at Jar.
These days she does a lot more than make pudding, of course. A James Beard Award nominee this year for Best Pastry Chef, she creates the desserts for the Mozza empire and, along with Silverton and Mozza Executive Chef Matt Molina, just finished the new Mozza cookbook. She's working on the new Mozza in Newport Beach, and she's usually kept pretty busy spinning gelato and making cannoli, her favorite dessert. And she can probably work the counter, too, if you ask her.
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This story is from this week's People Issue. To read more, see our cover story.