How Los Angeles Solves Its Pizza Problem
Some of the best pizza in Los Angeles can be found in an empty lot in the back of a wine bar. It’s open only once a week, for four hours (or until it runs out of dough), and it’s nestled between the Thai Town and Little Armenia neighborhoods of Hollywood, where a pizzaiolo and his home-built, wood-fired dome oven (made in a Charleston backyard, of all places) spits out upward of 70 pies over the course of the night. It’s often gorgeous: Neapolitan in technique, but with the spirit of a sturdier New York pizza (as in, the core will not dissolve into a tomatoey pool after the first slice). And yet, every week, an Armenian mother will step out from her balcony adjacent to the lot and gaze down upon the action. Every week, she offers her consult: Let me show you how to make real pizza. Thus far, it’s been an empty threat. She’s never actually come down. Perhaps intuition tells her there’s no need.
There might be better snapshots of the city, but few would more vividly capture the amorphous shape of its modern-day pizza culture. In L.A., placelessness can be a virtue.
The prevailing myth about Los Angeles pizza is that there is nothing prevalent about it. In New York, a good pizzeria can serve as a neighborhood welcome sign; in L.A., that mantle is more likely to be carried by a taco truck (or five). For decades, the city’s pizza culture was tied to the unrepentant iconoclasm of California Pizza Kitchen’s barbecue chicken pizza and Wolfgang Puck’s smoked salmon pizza at Spago. Even the city’s most iconic modern pizza, from baking master Nancy Silverton’s 12-year-old Pizzeria Mozza, was more or less a happy accident. Mozza, with an original style that took inspiration from both Naples and Rome but more from Nancy’s creative energy, blazed a trail of national respectability for L.A. pizza. In 2011, Steve Samson’s Sotto and Bez Compani’s Mother Dough (which closed in 2015) would carry the torch, serving some of the best Neapolitan-style pizzas in the city, but it would take a decade for the Silverton trail to become its own interstate highway.
Frank Pinello, the owner of Best Pizza in Williamsburg and host of Vice’s The Pizza Show, didn’t know what to expect from L.A. when he was approached to help open a New York–style pizza joint on the heavily trafficked Fairfax Avenue. “I knew the taco culture in L.A. was amazing, and I knew there was really great food from many different cultures, but I didn’t really have an optimistic idea of pizza in L.A.,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to be great, and a lot of it had to do with knowing the culture wasn’t there yet.” What would become Prime Pizza soon became a local hit, a haven for transplants looking for a slice of home.
The city has seen a pizza renaissance in the past year, with countless new pizzerias opening, but the phenomenon isn’t specific to L.A. Not long after Best Pizza was given a positive review in The New York Timesin 2011, Pinello was contacted by a Culinary Institute of America graduate hoping to open a pizzeria in Hong Kong. “I thought he was totally crazy,” Pinello said. “But then I saw that, really, every city around the world is having this same pizza boom.” Earlier this year, Pinello helped open a pizzeria in Kuwait in the span of a month.
Los Angeles may never need pizza to be a signal boost for its neighborhoods like in other cities, but as more and more transplants arrive in the city and toss their Gray Lady–tinted glasses, communities will continue to look for common denominators to build bridges across cultures and experiences. In a still-developing pizza culture like L.A., that starts from the top down. Most of the recent pizzerias in the city are offshoots from successful chefs and restaurant groups, and if there is a pizza trend that feels specific to L.A., it’s the prevalence of horizontal expansion. Heavy hitters like Silverton (Triple Beam Pizza), Samson (Superfine Pizza), and even the Sprinkles Cupcake empire (Pizzana) have all built new pizzerias in the past year.
“Pizza makes perfect sense for a lot of restaurant groups, and even first-time restaurant openers, because what you have is a product that has pretty great margins,” Pinello said. “You can make pizza for pretty cheap. That appeals to restaurant owners and operators that have operated fine-dining restaurants before. They’re thinking, ‘Wow, the margins on pizza are amazing. It’s really profitable. And since we know how to run restaurants already, why not dive into it?’”
It’s an idyllic Thursday night in the city, and I’m spending it with La Morra, an irreverent Neapolitan pizza pop-up from partners Zach Swemle and Marlee Blodgett. It’s been a whirlwind five years for the two. The couple met and promptly fell in love in New York City while working at chef Danny Bowien’s Mission Chinese Food offshoot Mission Cantina. (“If you want to talk about destiny, our first time we ever hung out after work at Mission, we talked about opening a pizzeria,” Swemle tells me.) It was after an Italian vacation—which included a frantic 48-hour tour of Naples via five straight meals of pizza —that the two decided to decamp for the wide-open spaces of Charleston in 2016 to build what would soon become their livelihood: a 2,800-pound oven on the bed of a trailer with an axle that holds a maximum of 3,000.
It resembles an igloo on wheels, the product of an intensive, four-day process of applying 1-inch white porcelain tiles to the entire body of the oven. “I lost, like, four tiles when we drove across the country,” Swemle says. “I’m missing one tile on the backside right now, but I feel like I got insanely lucky with how well this has held up. I was just saying to Marlee yesterday, ‘You realize we built this two years ago, we drive it all around the streets of L.A., and nothing’s happened to it?’”
I first heard about La Morra last year in researching a story about the evolution of barbecue in Charleston. John Lewis, founder of Lewis Barbecue and one of the most accomplished pitmasters in the world, wrote a piece for Tasting Table about the people across the country paving the way for the future of barbecue. Curiously, it was Swemle, a pizzamaker, who was mentioned first. Lewis had found kinship in Swemle’s obsession with building the oven of his dreams; the pitmaster’s origin story had a similar beginning. At first glance, the similarities between the two culinary disciplines can be difficult to parse: Lewis’s offset smokers, made from repurposed 1,000-gallon propane tanks, aim to create perfect circulation of a low and steady heat to produce tender meats after hours upon hours of cooking; Swemle’s concrete Neapolitan oven is meant to retain absurd levels of heat that extend past 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit to turn dough into a Neapolitan pizza in under three minutes. But mastery of each process requires the kind of haptic memory that comes only with repetition and an almost emotional understanding that forms between a human and the machine they’ve built. For both cooks, doneness can’t be determined with a magic number.
“I think that a lot of people do make rules about pizza, about how this thing has to be this temperature. I think some people do play by those rules,” Swemle says. “I mean, I’m just trying to cook pizza and make it good. And that’s just something that over time I’ve learned from feel. It’s all by feel for me. At this point, I’m the only one that’s worked the oven, so I know exactly what I’m looking for. I know when the oven’s hot enough. I’ve never put a thermometer in there.”
Everything seems to fall in place at La Morra. Swemle had never worked a wood-fired oven before he built the one he’s used for the past two years; he’d never worked with sourdough before he and Blodgett agreed sourdough was the way to go for their pizza; the first dough recipe they’d ever tested would become the recipe they use to this day; and the two tested their product for only a few days before jumping right into catering events in Charleston. But working with something that lives and breathes like pizza dough—especially as a mobile operation working largely outside—means being acutely aware of external influences like humidity. On their first night of service, the heat index in Charleston climbed above 100 degrees, which forced Swemle to refrigerate the dough as long as possible before using it.
On that Thursday night in L.A., however, the environment was ideal. Temperature was brought down by a light summer breeze; humidity was low relative to where it had been the week before. “The dough is perfect,” both Swemle and his assistant Drew Platt remarked throughout the night, impressed by how their sourdough babies had acclimated to the weather. The result? An unexpected taste of L.A., and the conditions that make the city so alluring.
The story of L.A.’s pizza renaissance may be headlined by the restaurant scene’s most notable figures, but, true to the legacy of CPK and Wolfgang Puck, there is no one-size-fits-all narrative to pizzamaking or the city’s collective impulse to further its pizza culture. It isn’t always about empire-building. Sometimes it’s about holding on to what you have and saying a Hail Mary. Last summer, chef David Wilcox opened Journeymen, a restaurant in Atwater Village that opted for an ambitious profit-sharing business model and a deconstruction of the classic restaurant kitchen hierarchy. All employees had the same starting base pay and flowed from the open kitchen to the front of house seamlessly; stationed roles became fluid. Dishes were ordered in the manner of a dim sum restaurant, checking them off on a menu slip and handing it to the server. Service charges were baked into the prices of the dishes themselves, which meant no tipping or accounting for tax. The goal was to create as fair and equal a wage distribution as possible. “We run an open-book system, so they see how we distribute the allocated payroll revenue. We’re not hiding any numbers,” Wilcox told Food & Wine last year. “We’re sharing with everyone how it works, and saying, ‘Hey, if the restaurant does well, you’re going to do better.’”
Journeymen was a perfect neighborhood restaurant, with a Basque-inflected menu and some of the best duck preparations in the city. But, as is often the case with new L.A. restaurants, momentum stalled after it was spit out of the local food media’s hype machine. Their pricing method wasn’t sticking; by the time the restaurant switched to the more traditional tipping system, it was too late. The writing was more or less on the wall. They could drown in the sinking ship or pivot. The night before Journeymen closed, Wilcox sat with his best friend and reflected. He asked himself, aloud: “Do I want to do this anymore? The food’s great and fun and interesting, but obviously it’s not working. Journeymen was all about kind of experimenting with a lot of ideas. But if I’m going to make food, what do I want to eat right now?”
These days, like most of us, Wilcox just wants to eat pizza. And he does, splicing and mutating dough recipes he’d honed as the sous chef at Travis Lett’s iconic Gjelina out in Venice to create a unique style of pie. Unlike Swemle, who had no baking aspirations outside of learning how to make sourdough, Wilcox is an accomplished baker whose sensibilities hew closer to Silverton’s bread-forward style of pizzamaking. Wilcox has developed a dough recipe incorporating stone-ground native California wheat; it develops characteristics of a French baguette or boule after baking. The best example of Wilcox’s methodology can be seen in the simplest pizza on the menu, the marinara. It’s got three ingredients on top: tomato, garlic, oregano. But that’s where Wilcox demonstrates his sleight of hand. The tomato, sourced from a farmer friend in Paso Robles, is slowly cooked in olive oil and its own juices for five hours at 200 degrees, allowing the flavors to concentrate without losing any brightness; the garlic is from a farm 10 miles from the tomato source. Everything is as local and seasonal as possible, as one would expect from a boutique restaurant in 2018. The marinara’s simplicity highlights the fact that the crust not only stands up to the toppings, it’s the centerpiece.
“One of the things that really bums me out is when [a pizza is] sitting there and, yeah, I’ll get that first slice and it’s great, but then by the time I get to the second or third, it’s watery,” Wilcox said. “That’s the thing. If you’re going to honor that crust that you took the time to make, you have to think about what’s going on it. The sauce we make and everything, it’s all about maintaining the integrity of the crust.”
Inside the restaurant is an old and rusting deck oven that had been a part of the restaurant for decades—long before either Journeymen or its predecessor, Canele, existed. It was exactly the kind of oven he’d handled at his first job in a pizza joint—at Andrea’s in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a family restaurant owned by a couple named Mario and Rose. Mario, Wilcox recalls, was a stout and hairy Italian man who was fiercely protective of his handmade sausage recipe. Wilcox pays tribute to his former bosses with a sausage pizza on his menu called Mario & Rose(mary). It’s been their best seller. “When I [was at Andrea’s], they’d been working there for over 30 years,” Wilcox said. “They did so well with that pizza place—they only had one—that they bought a million-dollar house, straight cash. From a pizza restaurant. They did just fine. That place would rock, maybe like 250 to 300 [pizzas] a night out of a couple of these [old ovens], just like this.”
That’s when it clicked. Journeymen would become Hail Mary Pizza. “It’s funny,” Wilcox admits. “I keep thinking, ‘I should have just done this in the beginning.’”
I caught La Morra on a good night, which is something they joke about repeatedly over my three hours standing next to the oven. There is a certain freedom in operating as a pop-up, but it comes with a great deal of uncertainty. La Morra is often beholden to the whims of the bar patrons at Tabula Rasa, and to the hype surrounding the pizzeria at any given moment, whether it comes from an outside outlet or what they drum up themselves via Instagram. The couple have plans to open a storefront somewhere on the Eastside. Should things go well, Swemle hopes to run a side business building pizza ovens.
For Hail Mary, finding a brick-and-mortar isn’t the issue; it’s keeping the one they’ve got. The restaurant is technically open from Wednesday through Sunday, but just this week, Wilcox was persuaded by a dear friend to open Monday, too. She will handle the register, a cook will be on hand to help Wilcox with the line, and a dishwasher, whom Wilcox was forced to lay off at the end of Journeymen’s run, agreed to come in and help out. Anything to make sure the business lives to see another day.
The old rusted oven at Hail Mary Pizza runs inconsistently—Wilcox likes his pies baking at somewhere between 575 and 600 degrees, which the oven usually obliges—and it was once the domain of the Morra family (no relation to La Morra). The Atwater Village nook that Hail Mary occupies was built in the 1930s, and for two decades, from 1987 to the mid-aughts, it was the home of Osteria Nonni, an Italian restaurant run by Pasquale Morra, a Southern California restaurateur and native of Naples. Odds are the old purist wouldn’t condone what Swemle and Blodgett and Wilcox have accomplished with their respective pizzas. A 1991 Los Angeles Times interview with Morra puts into perspective the strange cultural shifts that were happening with L.A. pizza and the conflicting sense of wonder and revulsion:
”I believe one of the best pizza chefs in California-style food is Ed LaDou,” Morra told the Times. “He was pizza chef at Spago; then he went to work with California Pizza Kitchen; then he opened Caioti. And what he makes, Ed LaDou, is something good, beautiful. But for me, pizza with smoked duck and barbecued chicken, all these things, it’s not pizza. You can call it a tart or an open-faced sandwich, whatever you want.”
And yet perhaps Swemle’s devil-may-care attitude toward the regimented nature of pizza might have endeared him to Morra. “I don’t measure anything,” Morra said in 1991. “Everything is by feel—it’s by experience.”
And the way that Wilcox has reoriented his entire view of pizzamaking to fit around optimizing the crust of his dreams falls in line with Morra’s fundamental understanding of what pizza is: a minimalist work. “When I eat pizza, I want to eat the crust. That, for me, is pizza.”
Old reputations die hard. Maybe Los Angeles will never be known as a great pizza city, and for the most part, it’s probably fine with that; it will always be a taco town. But the through lines are there, connecting L.A.’s past, present, and future pizzamakers. There is a history, and a richer culture than one would expect. But like most good things here, it’s partly hidden, embedded in the ventricles of the city. It just takes a little digging.
By Danny Chau, www.theringer.com -August 28th, 2018