Life of Pie: L.A. Celebrates Its Pizza Moment
The pizza at Mozza
On a Wednesday evening, 10 students sit along the counter at the Scuola di Pizza, the, yes, "School of Pizza" at L.A.'s premier pizza joint, Mozza. I'd like to say we're a varied lot, but that wouldn't be true -- we're uniformly white, mainly female and disproportionately blond. A few of us sip slowly on a glass of wine, perhaps uncomfortably aware that the wine is not included in the $150 fee we've paid for the privilege of watching as Mozza Scuola di Pizza and Mozza to Go executive chef Chad Colby demonstrates the art of pizza. Which is, of course, not just any pizza. It's "Nancy's pizza."
Standing in front of a wood-burning oven, under a cluster of orange enamel pots hanging from the ceiling in the Scuola's tastefully rustic kitchen, Colby explains the theory of dough elasticity, gives tips on where to get a good, cheap cutting board, and demonstrates how to fold the dough (no punching it down). Colby is good at this; he's affable and direct, and seems genuinely enthusiastic.
It isn't the enthusiasm of a salesman, though, and the class never seems like a pitch, even when it is one. After all, the materials we have before us include not only the pizza dough recipe but also fliers for upcoming special dinners and events, which Colby talks up throughout the evening.
The class begins at 6:30 p.m., so by 9 p.m. we are starving. But then the pizzas start coming out of the oven in rapid succession. Only one is made with the "home" recipe -- for the rest, Colby used the restaurant's dough, which has been allowed to proof for much longer. Slices fly at us -- Margherita, squash blossom, sausage with cream, a breakfast pizza with bacon, potatoes and an egg cooked in the middle. Very quickly, everyone is full.
Throughout the evening, through the lessons and anecdotes and banter, Mozza owner Nancy Silverton's name is evoked again and again, for emphasis, credibility and to remind us why we're here.
So: Why are we here? Why would anyone spend around $200 to sit for a night and watch some guy make pizza?
There's a theory about this: The economy sucks, the country is divided along the most preposterous lines, Europe is falling apart. Nothing is certain. Thus, we reject fine dining. We look to food to give us identity and solace, even as the first generation raised on delivery and drive-thru has the buying power. We turn to noodles and tacos and burgers. Pizza is at the exact nexus of the post-9/11 craving for comfort food, Gen X nostalgia and the artisan food-nerd revolution. We turn to pizza. And, taken to its extreme, our love of pizza can even lead us to $150 pizza classes.
In Los Angeles in 2012, pizza is everywhere. Some of the city's most important restaurants were built on pizza. In neighborhoods all over town, chefs are building and importing ovens, obsessing over flour, char and cheese. And a hungry public follows right behind, eating, debating and eating more.
It would be safe to say, though, that nationally the Era of Pizza began quite a few years ago. So why is right now L.A.'s pizza moment? Start asking that question, and the answer you'll invariably get is Nancy Silverton.
Nancy Silverton didn't set out to change the pizza culture of Los Angeles. "For a long time, I wanted to figure out the pizza of my dreams. It was like a bucket-list thing," Silverton says by phone from Umbria, where she spends a chunk of her summers. "But no, it was not a conscious decision to change anything or start a trend or anything like that."
She points out that the pizza trend started before she came on the pizza scene, albeit in other cities, other states.
Still, the fact remains: L.A.'s pizza moment started the minute Nancy Silverton opened the doors at Pizzeria Mozza, in fall 2006.
Silverton is no stranger to trendsetting, and she compares the story of Mozza's pizza to that of the bread she made famous at La Brea Bakery: "We saw the need for great bread, and we decided to do it ourselves." Silverton, along with then-husband Mark Peel, opened La Brea Bakery and the restaurant Campanile in 1989. Since then, Silverton has split with Peel, sold La Brea Bakery for many millions and subsequently lost those millions in the Bernie Madoff mess. But most people will forever credit her with bringing world-class bread to Los Angeles.
And now, Mozza. What began as Silverton's idea for a restaurant based around mozzarella has become an empire of sorts. Along with investors Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, Silverton opened a pizzeria, then the more formal Osteria Mozza next door, on the corner of Melrose and Highland avenues. Most recently, Mozza expanded to the west, taking over the space on Melrose next to Osteria for a to-go operation and the Scuola di Pizza.
"It was Mario [Batali]'s idea," Silverton says. "We realized it was much too large a space to just do takeout."
So now the space hosts special events and classes. Recently, Mozza became the first restaurant in the city with permission from the health department to make salamis and cured meats on its premises, and among the slew of events held in the space is an informal salumi bar every Thursday evening. On Wednesdays, the Scuola space is used for pizza-making class.
Unlike many of the country's pizza obsessives, Silverton was not interested in trying to achieve Neapolitan pizza. Rather, she set out to learn how to make great pizza and came up with her own version entirely.
She gives credit to Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix as an inspiration, as well as pizza she ate in Rome. But she agrees that her pizza is unlike even those -- it is a "bread baker's pizza," the dough made of bread flour, yeast, water and salt, with a touch of rye flour, wheat germ and honey.
When Mozza opened, pizza purists declared that what Silverton was serving wasn't pizza at all but rather some kind of focaccia or flatbread in a pizza shape with pizza toppings. One of her pizza's defining characteristics is its stability: Each slice stays rigid rather than folding in or succumbing to its wet ingredients, the way a Neapolitan pizza does.
Silverton likes to say that Mozza's pizza is not any particular style -- it's her style. But you can already taste that influence on some of the newer pizzas in town. It wouldn't be a stretch to imagine that Mozza's pizza, a bread baker's pizza, one day could come to be known as Southern California-style pizza.
If there's one place you can see the influence of Mozza on L.A.'s pizza culture, it's at Milo & Olive, the Santa Monica bakery and pizzeria opened in December by husband-and-wife team Zoe Nathan and Josh Loeb, who also own Rustic Canyon and Huckleberry.
Despite Milo & Olive being about one-fifth the size of Pizzeria Mozza, there are obvious similarities. In both restaurants, the best seat in the house is at a counter facing the wood-burning pizza ovens. Both, too, are grounded in the idea that bread is king.
"I'm a baker first," Nathan says. "Like Nancy. She really started this all." She continues, her words tumbling out melodically -- she has a way of talking in an exuberant rush, almost speaking over herself. A lot of the work of making pizza interesting and cool, she says, was done for her by Silverton. "She started this craze. She's this cool female baker, and you know what she did? She totally PR'd pizza. She let the world know that pizza was this awesome thing, that it's kinda hard to make, that it's really interesting."
Milo & Olive wasn't supposed to be a pizzeria. In fact, it wasn't really supposed to be a restaurant at all. Nathan and Loeb were looking only for a space to move bakery production for their two other restaurants. "When we found the space, there was that area up front," Nathan says. So they opened a restaurant, its only seating two communal tables and a counter that faces the open kitchen. In the wood-fired oven, they decided to make pizza. "For us it was a natural fit," Nathan says. "I always wanted to open a pizzeria, ever since I started working with dough and bread."
For all of the "PR-ing" Nathan says she has Silverton to thank for, the most important aspect was probably that Silverton wasn't making pizza like anyone else. "She made it OK to make your own version. I cannot give her enough props," Nathan says. "I mean, people are all, like, 'How can you be making pizza and not answer the phone "Ciao Bella!"?' And there are people who are doing that. Well, not that, but trying to be really authentic. We're not trying to do that."
At Sotto, which opened in Pico-Robertson in March 2011, authenticity is the goal. Nathan characterizes Sotto thusly: "Sotto is by the books. Those guys do not fuck around."
"Those guys" are Zach Pollack and Steve Samson, Sotto's chefs and owners.
"Steve and I are kind of religiously committed, not only to Italian food but to the regional distinctions within Italian food," Pollack says. Everything, from the flour and many of the toppings to the pizza oven they cook in, has been flown over from Italy.
"There was Mozza," Pollack says, "but Mozza is serving a totally different style of pizza. We wanted to bring Neapolitan pizza to L.A."
He adds, "The restaurant already had a wood oven in it, but I was very adamant about getting rid of it and getting a Neapolitan oven. Neapolitan ovens are phenomenal, but really only for cooking pizza. They're kind of like a Ferrari in that sense."
They settled on a Stefano Ferrara oven, which meant flying in not only the oven maker but also 16,000 pounds of materials from Italy. That effort has certainly led to one of the most authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas in L.A., although it doesn't stop people from finding fault.
"We get some people who might think the charred crust is burned, or the soft crust is soggy, but it's all subjective," Pollack says. "We get many more people who love it."
With this, he touches on one of the most interesting things about pizza, which is that it can be a highly controversial food. "Pizza is something that people have a lot of opinions about. People know it really well," he explains.
There's something humorous about pizza, of all things, inspiring such emotion.
"You know what's the funniest part about it? When you talk about phenomenal pizza," Pollack says. "I mean, you can make phenomenal pasta in your house. You can make phenomenal meat dishes, you can make phenomenal fish dishes. You can't really make phenomenal pizza in your house.
"Even in Italy, the best pizza is always going to be at a pizzeria. Humble Neapolitan grandmothers aren't making pizzas in their homes. It's almost ironic that this product you can't make at home does inspire such passion. It's an interesting question."
"Pizza is one of these things that connects people," says Ed Levine. The New York-based writer founded the food website Serious Eats, wrote a book about pizza (Pizza: A Slice of Heaven: The Ultimate Pizza Guide and Companion) and is probably the country's foremost pizza thinker and eater. "It connects people who are torn asunder in every other part of our lives."
There are many reasons why. He says, "Pizza is in many ways a perfect food. Even expensive pizza isn't that expensive. Chefs who may have trouble raising the money to open a traditional restaurant have a better chance of being able to do pizza. The food cost is better. Pizza is great to share. And people have really strong opinions about it."
But, he concurs, L.A. is late to the game.
"There's something in the introduction of my book, where I talk about pizza and where it was at that time, in 2005," Levine says. "I compare it to beer, and the comparison is that when the book was published, pizza was where beer was 20 years ago. But even so, L.A. was late."
Lest you think Levine has a terrible case of New York superiority, you should know he grew up eating at Shakey's Pizza right here in Los Angeles. He also believes the best pizza in the world is served by Chris Bianco at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix (a viewpoint shared by many pizza aficionados).
"When I was working on the book, I came to L.A. I went around to all the best pizzerias at the time. And there was just nothing that was really any good." He pauses, and then says the thing everyone says: "But then Mozza transformed everything."
There's one person who never mentions Mozza or Silverton when asked why L.A. is having its pizza moment, and that's Adam Fleischman. Fleischman is having his very own pizza moment, as well as continuing to live out his burger moment, thanks to the ever-growing success of Umami Burger. His pizza venture, 800 Degrees in Westwood, has managed to tap into our lust for upscale versions of our favorite childhood junk-food obsessions -- at a great price.
To hear some people tell it, 800 Degrees has the potential to change the way America eats pizza.
"I think people are getting over their fear of carbs," Fleischman says. "That, and there's chefs applying real technique and artisanal ingredients to pizza. There was an opportunity here because L.A. had no good pizza."
It was that void Fleischman says he was trying to fill when he came up with the idea for 800 Degrees. "L.A. is changing. Our Thai and Mexican and Japanese food has always been great. But the pizza was never very good. And even recently, no one here was doing Neapolitan-style pizza. I love Neapolitan pizza, but for me, it was definitely the business opportunity as well."
Fleischman hired chef Anthony Carron, formerly corporate executive chef for Michael Mina's restaurant group. What they set out to do was deliver high-quality Neapolitan pizza but also "incorporate elements of the line." So rather than one or two pizzaioli throwing dough, adding toppings and cooking your pie, 800 Degrees is an assembly line: One person takes your order, two people add your toppings, someone else cooks your pie, and the dude at the end cuts it hurriedly as he shouts out your number for pickup.
No matter how you feel about the finished product (and, like most pizza, 800 Degrees' pie is the subject of intense debate), the experience of dining there is pretty remarkable. If you don't have to wait on a line that stretches down the block -- as it does during most lunch and dinner rushes -- you can be in the door, choose your toppings, pay and have your pizza (its dough made with San Felice 00 flour and mixed in a special mixer from Italy) in four or five minutes. At $6 to $9 a pop and an astonishing 1,200 pizzas served daily, there really is no other pizza operation in the country aiming so high in terms of quality in such a fast-casual atmosphere -- and for so little money.
"In some ways, 800 Degrees is one of the most interesting things happening with pizza in the country," Levine says. "I mean, here is a guy trying to do for Neapolitan pizza what Steve Ells did for burritos at Chipotle." That is, speed up and proliferate a high-quality version of a mass-appeal product. "And you kind of want to hate it. But you know, it's pretty good."
It's hard not to come across the Chipotle comparison when reading or talking about 800 Degrees. Was it a conscious decision to emulate that model? "It was definitely in our minds," Fleischman says. "But we wanted it to be less corporate and feel more cozy."
I ask him if he's hoping for world pizza domination, and he says no. He's definitely planning to expand, but he says, "We're looking for the right fit in terms of other locations, and we're not looking to start a franchise."
Fleischman explains: "We flew to Seattle to look at a chain that was doing something similar, pizza to order, and they were basically putting sauce on tortillas and sending them out. We're concerned with quality. We genuinely want to make one of the best pizzas out there."
I tell him that the rumor around town is that 800 Degrees is losing money because there's no way it can deliver such a quality product -- the sauce is made with San Marzano tomatoes, the mozzarella is made by the same cheesemaker Mozza uses for its pizza -- at such a low cost. Without a pause, he says, "We're making a lot of money."
On the other end of the spectrum from 800 Degrees is the DIY, obsessively perfectionist pizza at places such as Mother Dough in Los Feliz. Mother Dough is, in some ways, the perfect expression of the cultural intersection that has led to the Era of Pizza: Gen X money, hipster aesthetic, food-nerd sensibilities.
Mother Dough owner Bez Compani had an oven built by Stefano Ferrara, just like Sotto (albeit a much smaller oven). Compani is hands-on responsible for not only every pizza, from dough through stretching and cooking, but also the handmade tables in the restaurant and the vintage-industrial design of the place. Mother Dough is restaurant as temple, with the oven at the back as altar and pizza as deity.
This trend worries Levine as much as it excites him. "On the one hand, now practically every city in America has a proper oven and someone trying to make great pizza. On the other hand, as it explodes, my worry is that anybody thinks that if they build a wood-burning oven, use San Marzano tomatoes and use fresh mozzarella, then that makes them a great pizzaiolo. And it doesn't. You really have to learn from someone."
That's not to say pizza must be mozzarella and tomatoes and a wood-burning oven. In New York, they might be rigorous about what counts as an authentic slice. But in L.A., innovation has been everything.
Indeed, even though edible pizza barely existed in L.A. before Mozza opened (to hear most food aficionados tell it), it's worth remembering that when Wolfgang Puck opened Spago 30 years ago, he did it to serve pizza.
In fact, Levine says, "Before Nancy set out to make really good pizza, the only real pizza culture in L.A. was Wolfgang Puck."
The Austrian-born Puck traces his interest in pizza to a time when he was living in southern France and a friend of his worked in a pizzeria. "At that time, all we could afford was pizza," he says. A lifelong taste for pizza was born.
Years later, when he was looking to open Spago, Puck realized that no one in L.A. was making pizza. "So I decided to do pizza. Everyone thought I was crazy," Puck says. "I tried to explain to them, I'm not going to serve traditional pizza, I'm going to serve smoked salmon pizza, or duck sausage pizza."
It may seem like a played-out idea now, but at the time, the idea of "Jewish pizza," topped with smoked salmon and crème fraîche, was revolutionary -- especially in a town that had only seen pizza through the lens of chains and cheap takeout.
So how did Puck learn how to make pizza? "I don't know, I just learned," he says. "I opened a Chinese restaurant, and I've never been to China. So."
What's interesting about this isn't really how or why Wolfgang Puck made pizza, but that despite everyone declaring that L.A. "isn't a pizza town," two of the most important restaurants in the city's history were built on the stuff. And if things go the way Fleischman's fans are certain they will, the city's next great restaurant empire will be built, in part, on pizza.
Back at pizza school, I ask a couple of my fellow students why they're here. To my surprise, no one says, "Because I want to learn to make pizza at home." In fact, everyone I ask reports that they are unlikely to try the complex recipe, even after it was demonstrated in great detail in front of them.
Some echo the reasoning of Nancy Michalski, the CEO of a medical law firm, who was at the class with an important client. It's Michalski's second time at the school, and she says, "I love cooking, and Mozza is just such a great restaurant."
But most say they are here because they love pizza. Simple as that.
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