Casa Bianca reopens today after its summer break.
It’s the end of Saturday night, at the end of summer, and on the end of Eagle Rock’s main Mayberry drag, two young men have a cigarette out on the curb. Across the street, the lights are still on at the upscale New American eatery that’s recently opened, where couples who have had reservations for a while let the candied bacon settle in their stomachs. Here, though, under the neon “Pizza Pie” sign outside of Casa Bianca, which has been the neighborhood’s go-to pizza place for the past 61 years, an older man walks out of the building to tell the kids smoking that break time is up.
Around dinner time, there’s almost always a wait here. People sit outside the brick building in white plastic chairs. They make small talk so the time will pass faster. After the dinner rush, Casa Bianca is still busy. It is the only place in the area where you can get a decent bite past 12. At midnight, the smell of pizza is thick, the lobby is full, and people scan the headshots on the walls as they wait for their takeout. There is merchandise available for purchase, too, including Casa Bianca’s signature T-shirt, on which a caption reads, “The country is going to pizzas.”
On this midnight, a handwritten sign is up behind the register. It informs customers that starting tomorrow, Casa Bianca will be closed for 18 days, so that its employees can go on vacation.
Casa Bianca was, at its inception in 1955, owned by Sam and Jennie Martorana, who moved to Los Angeles by way of Chicago. The Martoranas' three kids were young when they first came out here. The kids are fully adults now, and Sam and Jennie have both died, but Casa Bianca is still owned by the Martorana family and run on the elbow grease of young people. If you’re a teenager, the family might throw you your first job. You can work nights and weekends here to save up for that used car or pitch in toward that ever-growing tuition. You’ll start out making salads. Once you’ve proven yourself there, perhaps you’ll get bumped up to server. Whether you’re a bus boy, a cashier or a Martorana yourself, your summer — which has been spent saying no to parties during which you had shifts — will be capped off with a few weeks right after Labor Day when you can finally kick off your shoes.
It’s quiet in the dining room, which is only half full. The bus boys, now back from their 10, sweep the floors and put up chairs at empty tables. The waitstaff is in good spirits, as they usually seem to be here, but this is that palpable lightness that comes, really, only around quitting time. A teenager walks by with a handwritten sign stapled to her shirt that says “Congratulations Sabrina.” If Sabrina is still here, her celebration has wound down. At the booths on the room’s edge, pairs of people sip wine from curvy stout glasses or Peroni from green glass bottles and pull stretchy slices from their pie — one more slice, a few more minutes they get to evade the Sandman.
The red-checkered tablecloths here match the red-checkered curtains in the front window — short and dainty as ribbon candy. Under the glass on the tables are paper placemat maps of Italy, drafted in the color scheme of the Italian flag. There are the usual matching parm and pepper shakers, too, and stained glass chandeliers — all familiar relics that make a good Italian place comforting. Wherever you grew up, and even if you’re a first-timer here, you feel that you are home.
To my side is a small wooden placard illustrated with a wine bottle and the text “Vecchi amici e vino vecchio sono i miglior.” Under it, printed out from a label maker, is the English translation: “Old friends and old wine are best.” The walls here are full of pictures of Italy. The ones you already know. Shots you’ve seen in souvenir shops if you’ve actually been over there. Trevi Fountain. A closeup of the David’s face. Then, there is an old photo of the Eagle Rock for which this quiet pocket of Los Angeles' Eastside is named.
The Eagle Rock sits alone at the northeast corner of town. It is so-called because it cleaves at the top, into a wide set of wings. There is a short hike you can do around its base, and from here, you can see a lot of Los Angeles, clear down to the Griffith Observatory. There is a fence around this hiking area, which protects it from the outside world, including the rows of RVs, full of veterans and others in hard times or with hard-to-pin spirits. The denizens of these vehicles are often the subject of controversy in the neighborhood Facebook group. Members generally agree, though that “Casa B.’s” is the best pizza around.
Casa Bianca and this fenced-in rock are the two most untouched and essential spots in this small town where the consignment stores are exceptional and there is so much cold brew coffee and once, last year, the streets were shut down by a motorcade so that President Obama could do Marc Maron’s podcast in the comedian's garage.
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Obama himself is a former Casa Bianca regular. He is rumored to have regularly swung by for Hawaiian-style pies while briefly a student at Eagle Rock’s Occidental College.
Sam’s son, Ned Martorana, is working the counter when I go to pay. It’s cash only, because it can be. There’s an ATM if you need it. I ask him where he’s headed tomorrow.
“Tahiti!” he says, tapping his fingers giddily on the register, “Tahiti!” he says again, as he takes my check. It’s almost time. He's almost on the beach in paradise, but first the last few tables have to close out, and the last few booths have to be wiped down.
1650 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock; (323) 256-9617, casabiancapizza.com.