To truly understand DeSano, the new Neapolitan pizza place in East Hollywood, you must first understand a different pizza restaurant in a different city. To truly understand DeSano, you must first understand Antico.
Antico opened on a side street of a residential neighborhood in Atlanta in 2009. Run by a somewhat mysterious guy named Giovanni Di Palma, who showed up out of the blue from New Jersey, Antico was initially not much more than a warehouse space with some very impressive wood-burning pizza ovens in the back. There was one communal table. Then word got out about what was coming out of those pizza ovens, and that one table became about 10 tables too few.
Because those pizzas — my God, those pizzas: Chewy, slightly stretchy, speckled with black char, hefty in all the right ways, sloppy in all the right ways, Antico's pizza won a rabidly devoted following almost overnight.
Di Palma cut no corners. Everything was shipped in from Italy, including the flour for the dough, the San Marzano D.O.P. tomatoes, mozzarella di Bufala, even the kerchief-wearing pizzaiolos manning the ovens. Early on, when I asked the (gorgeous, Italian) woman at the counter for tap water, she replied, "You can buy Pellegrino but no tap water. The tap water isn't Italian. At Antico, only the air is American."
Eventually, of course, they had to start giving out tap water, but you were expected to procure it yourself. Eventually the one table became ludicrously insufficient, so they crammed in a bunch of long, stainless steel kitchen prep tables. Eventually it became obvious that people would like wine with their pizza, so Di Palma left bottles of red open on the tables. Stacked cans of tomatoes served as décor, and blaring opera as the soundtrack.
Much of Antico's charm came from just how thrown together it was. But even more than the charm, the pizza seduced everyone. Including me.
So it was an extremely odd experience to walk into DeSano, which opened in East Hollywood in mid-February, with my husband. The menu, hanging above the counter, looked eerily familiar.
When we walked back into the dining room, it became full-on Twilight Zone. The line of wood-burning ovens. The blaring opera. The stacks of tomato cans. The long tables. I pulled out one of the to-go pizza boxes stacked against a wall. Aside from the name, the circular logo was identical to the one in Atlanta. "It's Antico!!" we both cried.
Because, seriously, there is not a whole hell of a lot I crave from my years in Atlanta that I can't get in Los Angeles — and what there is can easily be made up for by the avalanche of food available here that doesn't exist there. But Antico's gigiotto calzone, this incredible folded-over pizza stuffed with ricotta, spicy sausage, mozzarella and bitingly bitter broccoli rabe, is something I have never stopped craving.
The idea of having access to that calzone — named and described exactly on the DeSano menu! — seemed like better luck than I could possibly hope for.
It was, in fact, too good to be true.
As I learned that night and also thanks to further research, DeSano and Anitco share many things, including a concept and (purportedly) recipes, but DeSano is not Antico, other than in the way the Eiffel Tower in Vegas is the one in Paris. Impressive, yes. The genuine article? Not quite.
DeSano was brought to L.A. by Scott DeSano, who started in Nashville in 2012. East Hollywood is his third location. A former stock trader for Fidelity Investments, DeSano bought the intellectual property rights from Di Palma, and the concept and menu do intend to replicate the Atlanta restaurant.
But aside from providing the source material and holding a royalty stake in the DeSano company, Di Palma isn't involved. Which explains why the space feels like a slightly sanitized version of the raucously beautiful chaos that is Antico. The food follows suit.
Take the calzone. It's smaller and puffier than Antico's version, with less tang and pull to the dough. But man, that filling: the smoosh of the ricotta, the bitter edge of the broccoli rabe, the sausage that's both sweet and spicy. The calzone comes with a fantastic tomato sauce for dipping or slathering, and despite not being an exact copy of the calzone I regularly crave, it was nonetheless incredibly satisfying.
The pizzas, though, are far thinner than Antico's, and the toppings less generous. In fact, there are many, many differences between the two. DeSano claims the pizza dough recipe has not been modified, but the texture and taste are so different, I can't believe that's true.
This isn't to say that DeSano's pizzas don't hold their own allure. The Diavola, with spicy salami, pepperoni and (about three) Calabrian peppers, actually relieved a different itch for me: the lifelong craving any ex–New Yorker has for a New York street slice. Same thin crust, same foldability, same orange oil slick on top.
But these are not pizzas that travel well, and much of the magic of the pies is lost between first and second slice, even when sitting in the restaurant. Given the cold-from-the-fridge-at-2 a.m. test, the result is much like cardboard.
That first slice, though, is pretty damn tasty. It's not like the best pizza in Italy (or Atlanta). It's more like the quick-and-dirty pizza you might get on the street in Italy — which is still pretty great by L.A. standards.
And DeSano has brought in some serious pizza knowledge in the form of Massimiliano Di Lascio, a pizzaiolo from Salerno who has been throwing pies all over the world for more than 25 years. However, in light of the fact that the recipes are someone else's, it is unclear how much influence he's had.
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So what if you'd never eaten at Antico? DeSano probably would seem bursting with charm. There's no liquor license yet, and no self-serve wine on the tables, but there's plenty that delights.
To sit in the large back room at long wooden tables and have your pizza served on sheet pans, to get mounds of fresh garlic and chili flake from the serve-yourself condiment station, to procure your own tap water from a drinking fountain at the back of the room, should all feel like a blast. Grab two scoops of the very good gelato on the way out (made by Alessandro Fontana) or, even better, a fat, filled-to-order cannoli that's one of the best in town.
To me, DeSano has an air about it of a too-clean forgery, particularly when the thing it aims to copy is so bursting with originality and passion. When it comes down to it, though, I barely care. If it means we can get even a shadowy replica of Antico's giggioto calzone, that's better than good enough.
DESANO PIZZA BAKERY | Two stars | 4959 Santa Monica Blvd., E. Hlywd. | (323) 913-7000 | desanopizza.it | Daily, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. | Pizzas, $12-$22 | No alcohol | Lot parking