Sometimes the greatest meals are had in the most unexpected places, and one of those places is Northeast L.A.’s Highland Park Bowl. The recently opened bowling alley has received a great deal of coverage for its gorgeous restoration of the bowling and live music bar first established in 1927. While patrons and the press ooh and ahh over the refurbished lanes and original pin-setters repurposed as chandeliers, top-shelf Southern Italian pizza is being crafted in the kitchen by Italian-born master pizzaiolo, Marco Aromatario.
Two years ago, Aromatario owned a pizzeria in the medieval city of Bergamo, Italy, about 35 miles northeast of Milan. Today he makes his Neapolitan-style pizzas at an American sporting house in one of Los Angeles’ rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods. How does one get from there to here?
While on vacation in Los Angeles, Aromatario met the love of his life; he quickly sold his pizzeria and moved to California. Fast-forward to present day: That love is now his wife, and they’ve made a home in South L.A.’s port city of San Pedro. Every day, Aromatario commutes the concrete highways to Highland Park to make the pizza he’s been mastering nearly his entire life, standing at the very edge of the shrinking pizza quality gap between Naples and Los Angeles.
“It feels strange, this city is so big, but pizza makes me feel at home,” Aromatario says. “I spend a lot of time in my kitchen when I’m making pizza, foccacia — I feel like I’m in Italy at that moment.”
Aromatario has a heavy Italian accent, which he apologizes for immediately. He has a short ponytail and tattoos, and can talk for an hour about how the yeast percentage in a batch of foccacia dough can make all the difference. We chat over pizzas, panuozzos and Nutella pancakes with coffee butter on the new brunch menu, and hit a few pins while we’re at it. It’s 10 a.m. and with every passing moment I’m convinced that brunch and bowling should be a thing. Especially with breakfast pizza. Maybe only with breakfast pizza.
I’m generously presented with the most breakfast-y sounding pizzas on the menu: Pizza n’ Lox, a pie topped with smoked salmon, crème fraiche, arugula, red onion and capers, and the Uovo, with poached eggs, bacon and mozzarella. Both are hearty and morning-appropriate, especially the Uovo, with the eggs in the middle ripe for the old crack-and-spread. The crusts of these pies are crisp on the outside, light and airy on the inside. The burn freckles are in all the right places, rife with brick oven flavor. This isn’t your average bowling alley pizza; those are often frozen, thrown in a commercial oven (as in ... microwave oven) and warmed beneath heat lamps. Aromatario’s Neapolitan-style pizzas are prepared with utmost precision, a value ingrained in him since his career began at 13 years old, at a bakery in his hometown of Bari in Southern Italy's Puglia region.
Food-making runs in Aromatario’s blood, with his mother a baker and his father a cheese maker. After paying his dues slicing loaves and stretching dough at the bakery, Aromatario’s pizza-making career began during his high school years, when his interest in the Neapolitan technique started to take shape.
What constitutes a Neapolitan pizza? In its simplest form, fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and, perhaps the most important detail, precisely proofed dough. Creating authentic Neapolitan dough requires a 15- to 24-hour rising process at 71.6 degrees F. According to Aromatario, this temperature is meant to mimic the climate of caves in the Naples region.
“I try to imitate the caves in Napoli in the proofer at Highland Park Bowl. The humidity and temperatures inside the caves are perfect for the dough," he explains.
“We use a mother yeast here that I’ve carried with me for years. With Napoli pizza, the flour and proofing process is very important to make sure the pizza is done right. We picked a very specific type of flour to emulate the texture of dough in Napoli. Then we proof it precisely to fit in the specific standards of Napoletana-style pizza.”
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We all know the difference between a Domino's pizza crust and a crust at a good Italian bistro. Highland Park Bowl’s pizza rivals the pies at rightfully glorified sit-downs like Sotto and Gjelina. Like many modern kitchens, a great deal of attention is paid to the staples. Aromatario imports his olive oil, dried oregano and cured meats from Puglia. The fresh produce is sourced locally, including the cheese from an Italian-owned company in Pomona. But the glaring difference between the traditional sit-downs and Highland Park Bowl is, the pizza is eaten among friends sporting bowling shoes.
“The casualness of the way we eat pizza in Italy is how I see people eating here at Highland Park Bowl,” Aromatario says. “Pizza is a sharing and very social situation, so it makes sense to me that people are eating pizza and bowling at the same time.”
Between L.A.’s influx of Southern Italian bistros and the gradual extinction of old-school American-Italian red-sauce joints, “going out for Italian” is taking on a whole new meaning. Especially in this case, where a pizza Napoletana is best enjoyed between strikes.
5621 N. Figueroa St., Highland Park; (323) 257-2695, highlandparkbowl.com.