Life of Pie: L.A. Celebrates Its Pizza Moment

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Wed, Aug 1, 2012 at 3:38 PM
click to enlarge The pizza at Mozza - ANNE FISHBEIN
  • Anne Fishbein
  • The pizza at Mozza

From our 2012 Restaurant Issue, celebrating everything pizza in L.A.

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."

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