“I love cupcakes. But I also love pizza,” says Sprinkles Cupcakes founder Candace Nelson. She and her husband, Charles, have ventured into the business of serving pizza after more than a decade focused on cupcakes. She is sitting in her new Brentwood restaurant; behind her, artist Mark Hagen is perched on the top of a tall ladder making finishing touches to a giant blue and gray tile mural that spans the length of the wall. The artist’s precise attention to detail mimics everything else in the restaurant. “Our light fixture is Italian. The leather is Italian. The color scheme, the blues are inspired by the Mediterranean, the sea off of Naples,” Nelson says as she points around the room. Everything from the enormous pizza oven they had shipped in from Italy to the tomatoes they’ve grown on Pizzana’s very own plot in San Marzano seems remarkable.
“We love comfort food, simple pleasures that are sort of fuss-free, and stepping them up a notch,” she explains. But why would a couple with 24 cupcake shops all over the country suddenly want to start from scratch?
“It’s so creative in the beginning. Ultimately, now with 24 stores, Sprinkles is much more about operations. So we were excited for a new creative challenge. We kind of couldn’t help ourselves,” she laughs.
Nelson remains executive pastry chef of Sprinkles and heads the dessert program at Pizzana, and she will not be making the pizzas. In fact, the entire idea for opening the restaurant came about after she met pizza master Daniele Uditi at a party at actor Chris O’Donnell's house.
“We connected with Daniele because we loved his pizza and he was a Sprinkles fan. So I spent most of the party by the pizza oven geeking out over the nuances of the perfect dough, the nuances of the perfect cake or cupcake. We really connected on that level. He mentioned that he had always wanted to open a pizza restaurant.”
Since then, Naples-born Uditi has spent the last few years researching pizza in Los Angeles. Though he is deeply rooted in the Neapolitan tradition, he felt it was important to understand the American palate.
“He noticed that Americans really don’t like to eat pizza with a fork and knife,” Nelson says. “They don’t want it to be soft and wet and sloppy in the middle, which is kind of the true Neapolitan style. So he’s got this amazing crust that actually holds the ingredients so you can pick up a slice. But it’s still light. It’s crisp. It’s totally Neapolitan. We’re calling it neo-Neapolitan.”
In addition to homing in on the perfect crust, Uditi traveled to San Marzano in search of the perfect tomatoes.
“I went there to find the tomato that I used to use when I was a kid, when I started to make pizza. I went to the guy and I said, 'You know what? We’re going to buy all your fields,'” Uditi says. “'You’re just going to produce tomatoes for Pizzana!' I went there two years ago when we started the project together, because you have to go one year in advance for the planting. I told the guy they can produce tomatoes just for us, so he chose a special kind of field that’s full of minerals so the tomatoes are really sweet and flavorful.”
The menu at Pizzana focuses primarily on a long list of pizzas, such as the Corbarina: cherry tomatoes, squash blossoms, burrata and gremolata.
“It’s largely pizza. … I like to have an edited menu. I like to do one thing, generally, and do it well,” Nelson explains. That said, Pizzana offers an extensive list of antipasti, salads and, unsurprisingly, a dessert menu worth saving room for.
“I was wanting to sort of exercise my restaurant pastry chef chops and come up with a menu, because I hadn’t done that for a while. So it was really fun,” she says. Her sweet creations include rhubarb cornmeal upside-down cake, salted caramel panna cotta with pretzel crunch, chocolate olive oil cake and a Neapolitan ice cream terrine made with Sprinkles ice cream. Just don't expect to eat any cupcakes. You'll have to go to Sprinkles for that.
11712 San Vicente Blvd., Brentwood; (310) 481-7108, pizzana.com.