Reasonable minds in Los Angeles may differ on matters concerning child rearing, the Lakers and the precise theological leanings of the One True God. Zionists hang out with Palestinians, Republicans yearn after libertine lefties, and Thai menus are often translated into idiomatic Spanish. We tend to be pretty tolerant around here.
But if you want to start a real fight at an L.A. party, all you have to do is posit an opinion on what a decent pizza should look like. Arguments will be made for the burnt-crusted marvels at Casa Bianca or the cornmeal-enriched pies at Zelo, the salmon-topped pizzas that Spago serves at lunch or the dozens of pies that hew to a mythical New York City aesthetic that is rarely followed in that city itself. (To my mind, the best New York pizza is served at Frank Pepe’s in New Haven.) In Italy, outside of certain precincts of Naples, the locals tend to be pretty easygoing about pizza, although they probably wouldn’t admit it to the hulking Roma fan in front of them in the line at the Testaccio favorite Pizza Re. Even some of the most rigorous temples of the art allow the occasional Sicilian variation or tourist-friendly topping of wurstel.
But at Pizzeria Mozza, Nancy Silverton has people arguing over the entire paradigm of what a pizza might be. Her pizza is airy and burnt and risen around the rim, thin and crisp in the center, neither bready in the traditional Neapolitan manner nor wispy the way you find pizza in the best places in Tuscany. The crust is sweet and bitter, salty and chewy, circled by crunchy charred bubbles that may or may not be snipped off by Silverton as she inspects the pizzas at the pass. What it reminds me of most is not pizza at all, but the flatbreads that emerge from the wood-burning ovens of Rome’s Antico Forno on the Campo dei Fiori, olive-oil-brushed masterpieces of crust that require nothing more than a few grains of coarse salt to shine. Every pizza at Mozza is a unique marriage of flour, salt and hot-burning almond wood, stretched into irregular discs, as individually lovable as children.
Mozza is that rarest of phenomena, a destination pizza parlor, less a place that you stop by for a pizza before a movie than a restaurant so heavily booked that the reservationist grinds her teeth every time she picks up the phone. Open Table is useless, and even investors and members of Silverton’s family usually have to weigh the merits of an 8:30 pizza four weeks from next Tuesday or a 3:30 pizza at the counter today. Occasionally, the room is booked solid even at 4 p.m. — not even Spago can do that.
The form and the typography of the menus at Mozza may remind some of the menus at Otto, Mario Batali’s pizza parlor in Greenwich Village: Mozza is, in fact, a joint project between Silverton and Batali. Chef de cuisine Matt Molina, a Campanile veteran, even did a stint at Batali’s underappreciated Del Posto in Manhattan. But save for the occasional visit, you won’t find Batali in the kitchen at Mozza — the food is Silverton’s and Molina’s. And, I have to say, Mozza’s pizza is better than Otto’s.
As with a lot of pizzerie in Italy, Mozza’s menu lists selections of cured meats, of salads, and of bruschette, slices of grilled bread topped with things like stewed beans, salt cod beaten with potatoes or an incredible, ultrasalty paste of chicken livers, capers and the cured pig cheeks called guanciale. The antipasti, which are mostly vegetables, include crackling, deep-fried squash blossoms stuffed with oozing ricotta cheese, a seething crock of olives roasted in the pizza oven, and shell beans baked to a buttery softness under a layer of oiled bread crumbs. There is a roster of daily specials, the only traditional main courses served in the pizzeria, and Saturday’s long-cooked lamb shoulder, Wednesday’s roasted fish and Tuesday’s dish of crisped roast duck legs with tiny Umbrian lentils already have their devotees. David Rosoff’s all-Italian wine list is short and obscure but loaded with delicious things to drink, and nothing is over $50. (I can’t stay away from the fizzy Lambrusco, but then again, I’m a peasant.)
Still, Mozza is a simple pizzeria — Osteria Mozza, the more serious half of the operation, won’t open until spring. Pizzeria Mozza, like La Brea Bakery, which Silverton started a few months before Campanile opened its doors in 1989, is a statement of intent. If you don’t mind sitting at the counter, it is worth dropping in just for a midafternoon pizza, which runs from $10 to $17, and a glass of wine, followed by the molecularly dense butterscotch pudding, dusted with sea salt and served with herbed pine-nut cookies (which will be lifted off the menu for an all-gelato dessert selection once the osteria opens).
Which pizza should you order? The corona of squash blossoms on the pizza with burrata and tomatoes is as golden as something out of a Botticelli painting when it goes into the ovens, and by the time the pizza gets to the table, the blossoms are crackly-edged and greenish. The lushness of the creamy cheese and the sharp nuttiness of the blossoms make it one of the best pizzas in the house. The pizza with cured pig’s cheek, puréed anchovies and a runny fried egg is what all the cool kids will be eating instead of pepperoni next year. Of course, the pizzas with clams and pecorino, with mushrooms and Taleggio, with Gorgonzola and potatoes or with smoky Iowa speck and arugula are all delicious.
And then there is the lardo pizza. Lardo di Colonnata is a traditional meat from the snow-white quarries of Carrara, chunks of back fat cut from the local pigs and cured for months in special basins hewn from marble. When it is ready, you slice the lardo thin and melt it into grilled bread. When lardo is available — the house-cured stuff supposedly won’t come online until next fall, and the only decent American stuff is hard to procure — the lardo is draped over smoking-hot pizza crusts instead of hot bread: gently oily, scented with fresh rosemary, tasting totally, powerfully of pig.
You can ignore my blissed-out ravings — my wife co-wrote a baking book with Silverton, and Nancy has been a close family friend for many years — but you would be missing out on the best pizza ever to be baked in Los Angeles. And I’m not raving about every single item. The arancine, fried pingpong balls of rice with gooey molten-cheese centers, may be more refined at Angeli Caffe down the street. Tart, cured white anchovies are better in salad, I think, than they are on a pizza, where the smack of vinegar is a little obtrusive. And I have tasted the pizza that inspired Silverton’s with fennel sausage and cream, from Pellicano, an amiable dive near Castiglione del Lago in western Umbria. In Mozza’s version, bombed with industrial quantities of wild-fennel pollen, the cream tends to disappear into the crust rather than setting into a kind of custard, and the nuggets of sausage, while superb on their own, tend to roll off the pizza like marbles. Silverton’s boyfriend, Michael, gets around the fennel onslaught and rollover effect by ordering the sturdier pizza bianca with sausage — a fine call.
What comes across most at Mozza is how obsessed Silverton and Molina are with the details. The dish listed on the menu as Nancy’s chopped salad, which is basically your neighborhood pizzeria’s antipasto — garbage salad, it’s sometimes called — has been reinterpreted by a chef with access to the world’s best ingredients: slivered organic lettuce with shreds of artisanal salami and buttery aged provolone, garnished with beautiful poached chickpeas instead of the sour canned garbanzo beans, tossed with a tart vinaigrette flavored with flecks of pungent Greek oregano crumbled to order from a dried sheaf of the stuff. It is a garbage salad, most profoundly and in every particular, but raised to a new level. I can’t wait for the osteria. If Molina and Silverton can do this much for garbage salad, what will they do with pigeon, truffles and spaghetti carbonara?
Pizzeria Mozza, 641 N. Highland Ave., L.A., (323) 297-0101. Open noon–mid. daily. Full bar ($20 corkage). Valet parking. AE, MC, V. Dinner for two, food only, $26–$70. Recommended dishes: chicken-liver crostini; fried squash blossoms with ricotta; duck leg with lentils (Tuesdays only); pizza with burrata, squash blossoms and tomato; lardo pizza; pizza bianca with sausage; butterscotch budino.