Photos by Anne Fishbein
Zelo may be the great, undiscovered Los Angeles pizza restaurant, an obscure storefront in a part of Arcadia that I have always thought of as Greater Monrovia, tucked into a strip of insurance brokers, mortgage-refinance companies and a combination dog wash/bakery, and on warm evenings, the funk of garlic and fennel hangs over most of the block. Zelo has a following among musicians and art-school students, and the local foodies are starting to catch on, but there is rarely much of a line even on weekend nights.
Arcadia is kind of a conservative place, but Zelo distinctly is not. There’s a wall of well-worn skateboard decks in the backroom, and the dining room is decorated with a copy of End of the Century signed by the Ramones, a Roy Finster portrait of Hank Williams, shrines to Basquiat, REM and the Z-Boys, and a display of ancient, pizza-themed album covers worthy of the Smithsonian. The music, played loud, ranges from surf tunes to vintage punk rock, Blue Oyster Cult to Built To Spill, and might as well have been plucked from the iPod of the coolest guy you know. I’ve never, as far as I know, met Mike Freeman, who does everything at Zelo but re-upholster the chairs, but I feel as if I’ve probably been running into him at SST gigs and Stan Ridgway shows since the ’80s.
There is a good salad of cold roasted beets frosted with warm walnuts and crumbles of blue cheese, an anchovy-intensive caesar, and a dish of sliced cucumbers with greens and minced onions in a tarragon-infused vinaigrette that tastes almost exactly like the salad that my mother served to company guests for 40 years. The roast chicken sings with garlic. The single dessert, a layered mousse concoction called zucotto, is an incredibly dense version of an old Florentine layer cake, intensely chocolatey, rimmed with soaked ladyfingers and frosted with whipped cream.
But it’s all about the pizza here, and Zelo’s pizza is a different sort of pie, crust enriched with a little cornmeal, packed and crimped into a high-rimmed steel deep-dish pizza pan blackened from years in the ovens, and baked to a kind of high crunchiness — just oily enough to keep it from being compared to an overdone but particularly delicious muffin top. Crispness is generally a virtue in pizza, but Zelo’s is almost beyond crisp, a crackling, luscious, tooth-shattering crispness with the staying power of a Hendrix chord. If Zelo’s crust were any crisper, you could use it to pave mountain roads, stuff it against the floorboards of Hummers as protection against Iraqi land mines, or inflate the incomes of reconstructive dentists all over the Los Angeles basin. Instead, it is just crisp enough.
Los Angeles is populated with pizzerias ringing changes on the deep-dish Chicago formula, and Zelo certainly doesn’t claim to make Chicago-style pizza, but in spirit it is probably the closest in town to the spirit of the original Pizzeria Uno formula, which is to say a deep, biscuit-inspired crust, a substantial mantle of cheese, and a profound layering of meat, crushed tomatoes and other ingredients. A Zelo pizza has the weight of something you may have hefted last week at the gym.
This rough and tasty cornmeal-crusted pizza was invented at Vicolo, Patty Unterman’s cramped quick-service pizza joint off an alley not far from the San Francisco Opera House, a restaurant that seems to squeeze in half the city before a matinee. Vicolo’s pizza is, despite its brawniness, sometimes called San Francisco–style pizza — imitated all over the Bay Area, and occasionally featured as the city’s indigenous pie in omnibus magazine features. Freeman, who cooked for eight years at Vicolo after he left art school in Atlanta, has taken the San Francisco pizza and made it his own.
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One of his pizzas bears a load of Toscano salami, blue cheese and fresh tomatoes in addition to the vast puddle of mozzarella; another, a mix of dried porcini, shiitake and plain old mushrooms tricked out with garlic and basil; a third, the delicious Greek pizza, includes roasted peppers, kalamata olives and feta. A vegetarian pizza, available in both vegan and cheese-bearing versions, is piled with baked eggplant, roasted peppers, and mushrooms. Zelo’s
is a place where a pepperoni pizza comes with fontina and fresh mushrooms. Even the plain-vanilla sausage pie, frosted with house-made sausage, is plumped out with marinated peppers, tomato chunks and sautéed onions. There is no pizza remotely like this in Los Angeles — my favorite, irregularly heaped with corn kernels, roasted torpedo onions glazed with balsamic, and snipped chives, is oddly reminiscent of a great antipasto table in Tuscany, although pizza doesn’t get much more un-Italian than this.
Zelo Gourmet Pizzeria, 328 E. Foothill Blvd., Arcadia; (626) 358-8298. Open Tues.–Sat. 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m. Pizzas, $16, feed two or three. Beer and wine. Takeout. Abundant street parking. MC, V ($10 minimum). Recommended dishes: beet salad, corn pizza, Greek pizza, zucotto.