On a burner built into the long, polished cooking counter that takes up about a third of the room at Mozza's Scuola di Pizza, Chad Colby is cooking a tiny T-bone chop. His whole demeanor is one of quiet focus — he speaks softly to another cook as he plates and slices the steak. Over his right shoulder you can see the fruits of his labor, hanging in a glassed-in room: salamis, prosciutto, capicola.
It's Thursday night, the night each week when the space is transformed into an intimate restaurant, with tables set up in front of that counter and the kitchen it fronts. With its wood-burning oven, hanging orange pots and wall of ovens and racks, the kitchen is basically decor porn for enthusiastic cooks.
These weekly "salumi bar" nights are one of the Scuola's great strengths — such a success that, beginning in January, they'll be held four nights a week, Monday through Thursday. The other great strength is Colby himself, a young chef who is coming into his own.
The number of ways Mozza aspires to feed us now is slightly staggering. Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali's empire, housed compactly on the corner of Melrose and Highland, now includes the original Pizzeria, the more upscale Osteria, and takeout and specialty items at Mozza2Go. They'll even deliver to your house if you're lucky enough to live in the right part of town.
But by far my favorite dining experiences at Mozza have been at the Scuola di Pizza. The space, sandwiched between the Osteria and Mozza2Go, acts as a cooking school, private-event space and host to a series of weekly pop-up dinners.
The salumi night, held most Thursdays, is the event at the Scuola that most closely resembles a traditional restaurant, but it's more convivial and relaxed than its brethren. No reservations are accepted, yet unlike the Pizzeria (with its mayhem) or the Osteria (with its boisterous formality), it's possible to walk into the salumi bar and sit right down.
The room has a warm glow and a relaxed vibe: shelved walls lined with wine; candlelit, cozy tables. There's the option of a communal table and a small, well-curated selection of wine. Servers and staff have the warm professionalism that is Mozza's hallmark, but here there are the time and space for it to really shine.
The Scuola di Pizza began as a creative answer to the question of what to do with the extra storefront tucked between Mozza's other operations. Silverton credits Batali with the idea of putting a school in the space, and they cleverly tapped Colby, who'd been with Silverton for years beginning at Campanile, to head up the Scuola both as chef for events and as instructor at pizza- and pasta-making classes.
Here's the thing about Colby and what he's doing at the Scuola that's so cool: Amidst the big, important, celebrity chef–driven machine that is Mozza is a young chef, a Willy Wonka of meats, who doggedly pursued a passion project that wasn't even possible in Los Angeles before he made it so. After years of trial and error, both in the process of learning and the literal rewriting of health department codes, Mozza is the first and only restaurant in Los Angeles County licensed to produce and serve cured meats on its premises.
Not only that, but the huge selection of cured meats and terrines stands head and shoulders above anything else in this town on that now-ubiquitous "charcuterie" section of the menu.
At the salumi bar, the "salumeria" portion of the menu — split among "whole muscles," "salami" and "pâté and terrine" — is its smoky, salty focal point. The salamis are dense but also melting, imbued with ingredients like intensely aromatic fennel pollen, or the bright, biting, almost fruity Tellicherry pepper, which comes from India. Pancetta comes wrapped around breadsticks, looking like meaty, twirly candy — it's an attractive presentation, but the pancetta is best enjoyed without the distracting crunch of the breadsticks. Peel it off and enjoy it solo to get the full effect of the soft, slippery fat.
If there's a must-try among the pâtés and terrines, it's the bacon tenderloin pâté, a pâté that conveys all the intensity of crisply cooked bacon but turns it meatier, softer and more herbaceous all at once.
There are also antipasti, with dishes like superfresh squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta al forno, or a ridiculously indulgent crostone with black dates and melting La Tur cheese.
Colby does a small, juicy pork burger with a sweet, spicy pickled chile on top that should be on the radar of every burger obsessive in town. He also showcases special butcher cuts each week, featuring some incredibly cool cuts of meat you're unlikely to come across elsewhere. A tomahawk pork chop recently looked like something a caveman would eat on his birthday — it was about 3 feet long with the bone, cost $48 and required 45 minutes to prepare. We went instead for a grilled baby goat T-bone, an adorable tiny T-bone cooked medium rare that tasted like the best beef T-bone steak with just the slightest edge of funk.
Apart from that tomahawk chop, prices at the salumi bar are fairly low, and it's easy for a few people to fill up on salami and antipasti for around $100. In fact, the most expensive experience you can have at the Scuola di Pizza was also the least enjoyable: the $150 pizza-making class on Wednesday nights. You get the feeling that the cost has more to do with making the evening work financially for Mozza than with what the class is actually worth: A number of my classmates expressed disappointment that there was no hands-on aspect. I'd only recommend the class to Mozza or pizza fanatics.
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On the other hand, the communal dinners are delightful, and a relative bargain at $75 per person. The whole-hog dinner in particular has gained a following, and for good reason. One animal provides the protein for all five courses, apart from the cured meats, which come from a previous dinner's hog. Terrines and cured meats are followed by four more courses — on the night I went, they included a rich, almost creamy cheese soufflé served with pork ragu made from the leg meat; a platter of shoulder meat full of crispy crunchy bits and served with a vinegary frisee-and-chicory salad; and milk-roasted loin so tender and sweet it barely needed its accompaniment of caramelized ricotta and sage. For dessert, glorious, giant bowls of gelato hit the table, comical in their towering glory. Pig-shaped cookies, made in part with lard from the pig, added to the childish glee of the final course. One dinner guest, a bespectacled man in a Hawaiian shirt, joyously converted two pig cookies and a generous scoop of pistachio gelato into a piggy ice cream sandwich.
Barring private events, the whole-hog dinners are an every-Saturday occurrence. During October, Friday nights are dedicated to beef dinners. But it's the Thursday night salumi bar I'll be back for again and again. It's the cheapest, most relaxed, most enjoyable way to eat at any of Mozza's operations, and thanks to Colby's dogged pursuit of knowledge, flavor and licensing, it's also some of the most delicious food that Mozza, and Los Angeles, has to offer.
MOZZA'S SCUOLA DI PIZZA | 6610 Melrose Ave. | (323) 297-1133 | mozza2go.com | Thursday salumi bar: 6-10 p.m.; Friday beef dinners in October: 7 p.m.; Saturday hog dinners: 7 p.m. All events contingent on private-event schedule; check website for details. All dinners except salumi night require reservation with credit card number | Wine served | $10 valet parking on Highland Avenue