Nestled into the back corner of a dusty old strip mall in Altadena sits Pizza of Venice, the most DIY restaurant to crop up in a city and era of DIY restaurants. There is no indication from the exterior that this is anything but a slightly shady pizza joint, and really nothing inside, either. There's counter seating and another counter that faces the window, a couple of metal fish on the wall as decoration, and a cooler full of soda. The entire dining room is probably no more than 400 square feet.
No, not until you look up at the chalkboard menu will you realize that something very different is happening here than might take place in most strip malls in America. Farmers market salad. Korean Buffalo wings. Piquillo pesto pizza. Hummus. And a sashimi special.
Pizza of Venice is the labor of love from Jamie Woolner and Sean St. John. The two started out selling pizzas to coffee shops and the like. Woolner has worked as a private chef and restaurant cook around town and St. John is still finishing up culinary school. A few months back, they began serving pizzas at the Altadena farmers market under the name Pizza of Venice and the catchphrase "Pizza with a point of view" (POV, get it?), cooking pizzas on a black barrel smoker filled with mesquite. They're now also at the Sunset Strip and Mar Vista markets. On June 15, they opened the store.
Only St. John is working on the day we're there; tall, laid-back and blasting reggae, he tells us, "Everything here is handmade. The only thing we don't make is the cheese." So that includes the chorizo for chorizo pizza, as well as meatballs, pancetta and braised lamb. The lamb goes on a pizza that's as much gyro in spirit as it is pizza, with tzatziki, finely diced cucumber and roasted garlic. The lamb is tender and pleasantly musky, and the misshapen pizza (a trademark, of sorts: "Every pizza is like a snowflake," St. John says) has a crisp bottom and bubbly crust, with enough pull to give it serious credibility. Not bad for pizza cooked in a convection oven.
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The pancetta pizza is sweetened with caramelized onions and fennel, and is downright delicious. We order an Altadena salad, so-called because the dressing is made from plums grown in Altadena and ultra-local produce. The greens taste fresh-picked, the nectarines juicy. Slivers of crisp mozzarella play a crunchy waltz with candied almonds. This is not a sketchy pizza joint salad.
St. John talks ambitiously about opening for breakfast eventually. "I used to work in a retirement home," he says. "I'd get up at 5 a.m. and just make omelets all day. So I know how to do that." He also says he'd like to build his own pizza oven, but he's afraid the city regulations won't allow it.
Lest you think the name refers to the city in Italy, think again: This is California cooking, straight up, and the Venice they're channeling is the one 30 miles away, not the one 6,000 miles away. Where else but in California would you find a tiny pizza joint serving sashimi? Where else would a bare-bones restaurant in a third-rate strip mall be so obsessed with the quality of their produce that they're making their pizza sauce from local organic tomatoes? Where else would you find two dudes staying up all night to get the braised lamb perfectly tender, so that they can can serve it on their odd misshapen pizzas in the corner of some random dusty parking lot?
Maybe only here.