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Remembering Casa Bianca’s Sam Martorana

The first time I stepped into Casa Bianca, I knew it was the pizza parlor I had always hoped to find in California, perfumed with a whomp of garlic, alive with the roar of customers who had been clustering around the checkered tablecloths for decades, lubricated with Bud, Moretti and cheap red wine. Waitresses wore tight T-shirts that I suspected had been designed for the Bicentennial — “The Country Is Going to Pizzas,” read the flower child–inspired font — and they seemed to know the names of not just the regulars but their children and grandchildren. The pizzas were burnt, bubbling majestic things, crunchy and thin, dusted with gritty cornmeal on the bottom and sliced in a way that defied standard geometry. I got mine with homemade sausage and strips of fried eggplant. In the 20 years since then, I have seen little need to change my order. Casa Bianca serves the best neighborhood-pizzeria pizza in L.A.

Even if you’ve never been to Casa Bianca, you’ve seen the place, a pizzeria located on a lonely stretch of Colorado Boulevard whose neon sign glows “Pizza Pie” in nursery pink and blue.

Casa Bianca was the fiefdom of Sam Martorana and his wife, Jennie. They opened the restaurant early in the Eisenhower administration, and the two haunted the corners of the place, dressing salads, opening secret back dining rooms when the rush grew intense, tending to the massive deck ovens that churned out the pies. By the time I discovered the place, pizza had become a fairly standardized thing in Los Angeles, tending to hew either to undistinguished mass-market product or to the creative paradigm that Wolfgang Puck pioneered at Spago. But Martorana always made pies in his own idiosyncratic manner — less bready than the other Italian-American pizzaiolos in town, a bit stingier with the cheese, but with a masculine, garlicky presence that was evident from the first mouthful of crust. The son of butchers, Martorana made his own sausage. He used only canned mushrooms — fresh mushrooms, he always claimed, were too watery for pizza. He kept Hawaiian pizza in a place of pride on the menu despite the ribbing he must have taken from hundreds of regulars, and former Oxy student Barack Obama went on record earlier this year confessing that it was his favorite — possibly the most controversial stand Obama has taken yet.

Martorana’s wedge-of-iceberg-lettuce salad, encrusted with chopped olives, peppers and tomatoes, is a salad whose DNA has been borrowed by every steak house in town.

Until his death last week at the age of 83, Martorana was the guiding force behind what had become possibly the most popular pizzeria in town, and maybe the only pizzeria in town that never delivered or accepted credit cards, never opened for lunch, on Sundays or Mondays, or in August. He didn’t have to. Customers drove from all over Southern California to eat his pies.

Going to Casa Bianca almost once a week for years, my children grew up in the restaurant, graduating from the buttered pasta shells Martorana dished out free to tiny children to the shells with marinara sauce, from teething on the cottony, sesame-seeded bread to attacking the pizza itself, glorious pizza, with cannoli for dessert. (I have sometimes been accused of being a Casa Bianca partisan, and it is true — at one point, a wall in the vestibule was decorated with paeans I had written for the L.A. Times, the Weekly and Los Angeles Magazine, right below the cartoon map of Eagle Rock.) Several years after I started going to Casa Bianca, Martorana finally figured out that I was the guy who had written all the reviews, and he would sometimes drift over to my table for a chat or to flirt with my baby girl, but the pizza never changed a whit.

Martorana hadn’t been well in the last several years, and sightings of his brilliant white hair peeking out of the kitchen became less and less frequent. The business exploded — regulars had been accustomed to queuing for a table on Saturdays, but the wait grew to an hour or more even during the week, and it sometimes took 45 minutes even to pick up a pie to go. Jennie Martorana mostly stayed out of the restaurant too — her kids were firmly in control. But Sam’s presence was felt in every pie, every speck of sausage, every plate of overcooked pasta, every glass of beer, and I kind of believe it will be for at least another generation. Some men build monuments of marble, others of bronze. Sam Martorana’s monument is sculpted from ?dough.

Casa Bianca PIzza Pie, 1650 Colorado Blvd., Eagle Rock, (323) 256-9617. Tues.–Thurs. 4 p.m.–mid., Fri.–Sat. 4 p.m.–1 a.m. Beer and wine. Takeout. Street parking. Cash only.

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Casa Bianca Pizza Pie
miles

1650 Colorado Blvd.
Eagle Rock, CA 90041

323-256-9617

www.casabiancapizza.com