Photo by Anne FishbeinWHEN THE SECRET HISTORY OF CALIFORNIA PIZZA IS finally written, a greasy volume inscribed in arugula, white truffle oil and ripe goat cheese, the name popping up at every inconvenient moment, like a hard-boiled egg inadvertently stirred into a tomato sauce, will probably be that of Ed LaDou, Hollywood's oddball genius of dough.
When LaDou auditioned for Wolfgang Puck 18 years ago, he prepared a paté-and-mustard pizza so awful that the chef almost threw him out of his restaurant, but co-proprietor Barbara Lazaroff reportedly realized that LaDou knew how to throw a pie, and he was hired as the first pizza chef at Spago, where his woodfire-cooked concoctions of goat cheese, duck sausage, broccoli and Louisiana shrimp radically revitalized the form. After two years, LaDou left to consult for the company that became California Pizza Kitchen, where his inventions -- barbecue chicken pizza, BLT pizza, Peking duck pizza -- reworked the elite Spago style to popular taste and spread it throughout the world. If a pizza in Dayton, Ohio, has smoked Gouda and pine nuts on it, if goat cheese pizza with sun-dried tomatoes has spread to Singapore and Guam, it is in no small part due to LaDou's influence.
The baroque LaDou style probably reached its greatest heights at his very own Caioti Cafe, a dark, hippie-ish restaurant hidden below a grocery in the heart of Laurel Canyon, where Dylan or Cat Stevens was always on the tape deck, the salads were often composed from young weeds picked from the local hillsides, and the rantings of the canyon's homeless were often a part of the evening's entertainment. Mexican cactus pizza was born at Caioti, and smoked rabbit pizza, and foie gras calzone.
The Weekly named Caioti top pizza in the 1987 Best of L.A. issue and winner of a New Wave Pizza tasting the year before that; and Bon Appetit chose it as one of the best pizzerias in the United States. The restaurant made national news when one of its salads gained a reputation for inducing labor in extremely pregnant women.
Caioti always had problems fitting into a neighborhood that preferred pepperoni to andouille, and parking spaces near the restaurant became as scarce as anchovies on an 8-year-old's pie. The bring-your-own-wine policy, while charming in its first years, resulted a little too often in last-minute liquor-store cabernet. There was that Cat Stevens thing. And the last time I drove up Laurel Canyon, I was disappointed, though not surprised, to see that Caioti had gone.
But LaDou is back again, at Studio City's Caioti Pizza Cafe, a small, crowded pizzeria tucked into a charming street of coffeehouses and storefront theater companies, walls decorated with menus from long-defunct Los Angeles restaurants, the CD player still stocked with Dylan. Meals here still start with little knots of baked pizza dough slicked with oil and handfuls of garlic; the labor-inducing salad, with walnuts, Gorgonzola and balsamic vinaigrette, is still on the menu (though I prefer the creamy cole slaw garnished with hot links and fried parsnips). The barbecue chicken pizza, with slivered red onion, smoked Gouda and barbecue sauce instead of tomato, is definitive. It's almost an exercise in nostalgia, a dinner at Caioti, a taste of multiculti post-Olympics
Los Angeles . . . with a hunk of Sweet Baby Jane's gooey chocolate raspberry cake for dessert.
LaDou was always a little too ambitious with his pasta dishes: Broken lasagna, sauced with what tastes like the entire contents of an enchilada dinner, and fettuccine, laden with vegetables, cheese and tooth-shattering strands of deep-fried fettuccine, are overcomplex and breathtakingly heavy, though the spinach ravioli stuffed with ground pheasant aren't bad. The thick, crunchy crust of his "Alabama" fried chicken conceals unpleasant pockets of uncooked flour.
The California pizza, though, is first-rate: slightly sweet, gently risen, a chewy, unobtrusive platform for some of the most exotic ingredients in the world. Here is a wonderful version of Spago's Jewish pizza, an ultrathin, cracker-crisp crust thickly laden with crème fraîche, smoked salmon and peppery nasturtium blossoms, and a more substantial Cajun pizza topped with sliced andouille sausage, okra and a weirdly tart sprinkling of file powder. (Pizza Rockefeller, with oysters, anise-flavored spinach and toasted bread crumbs, is just weird.) The smoked-chicken pizza is exactly the sort of thing that has made California Pizza Kitchen so popular, a sharply flavored arrangement lightened with goat cheese and peppers, and the spare, intense pizza with grilled eggplant and crumbles of lamb sausage may be the best of all.
Still, my favorite LaDou invention was probably his prosciutto-and-melon pizza with Gorgonzola and pine nuts, a bizarre yet refreshing creation that I once craved so badly that I continued to bring my own ripe cantaloupes into the restaurant years after he took it off the menu, guessing that he might be persuaded to make it one more time. I must have been the only guy who ever ordered the stuff: Prosciutto-and-melon pizza is no more.
4346 Tujunga Ave., Studio City, (818) 761-3588. Open for lunch Mon.Sat., dinner nightly. AE, MC, V. No alcohol. Street parking. Takeout and delivery. Dinner for two, food only, $12$25. Recommended dishes: cole slaw with smoked sausage; pheasant ravioli; lamb sausage pizza.
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