Who doesn’t like pizza? Maybe a better question should be, “What kind of pizza do you like?” So many variations on the theme of doughy crust, tomato sauce, and cheese — from country to country, town to town, and oven to oven. When you get to the question of quality, the debates are endless and fervent.
There’s a pizza joint in the Sunset, near to a comic-book shop that’s dear to my heart. On the side of the building where the tomato pies are made in assembly-line fashion most of the day and into the night, you’ll find the name of the place, and the immortal motto: “You’ve tried the rest. Now try the best!” As it happens, I’ve never patronized the place, because I haven’t tried the rest yet. Considering the sheer number of pizzerias, pizza stands, pizza mixes, frozen pizzas, and pizza rolls out there, trying the rest would be beyond impossible. So I’m sticking with my favorites.
As noted above, everybody has a preference. My friend Leslie is a Chicago native who lives in Los Angeles, but so loves the deep-dish pizza made in her hometown that she actually has pies from Lou Malnatti’s, one of the Second City’s premier pizzerias, delivered to her on ice every so often. Leslie’s fellow deep-dish fanciers deliberately seek out Chicago-style pizza restaurants if their chosen city has them. Not me.
A PERSONAL PERSPECTIVE
I have an intimate knowledge of the East Coast thin-crust approach to pizza, as executed in the New York, New Jersey, and Philadelphia areas, since my family actually owned a Philly restaurant that specialized in those tasty pies, 12-inches and larger. Although I adored our homegrown pizza, I’ve always enjoyed the New York City version made famous at Ray’s in Manhattan. Or was that Original Ray’s or Ray-Ray’s or Raymond’s or whatever other pretenders have come down the line since the name Ray’s became associated with the best slice of pizza in New York via word-of-mouth, food reviews, newspaper columns, and so on? But I came to prefer another type of pizza made in Manhattan
Founded in 1905 and known for pizza made in coal-fired ovens, Lombardi’s in New York City’s Little Italy was purportedly the first pizzeria in the United States. And the place is still getting it done with delicious aplomb. Coal-burning ovens apparently get hotter than your regular pizza oven and those high heats bake quicker and result in crisper thin pies. Regardless of what Ray is being discussed, his slices are greasier and less savory than what Lombardi’s makes. Whereas Tommasso’s — the long-lived destination in San Francisco’s North Beach — provides near-perfect pizza in the Lombardi’s mode, only from a wood-burning stove, blowing away the serviceable thin-crust variations found in the Russian Hill area at Escape from New York pizza on Polk or Za on Hyde.
Despite the traditional nature of what Lombardi’s and Tommasso’s have been doing for many years, they seem to have been the precursors of a gourmet pizza revolution, relying on super-heated ovens and choice ingredients deployed in creative ways, and jumped on a while back by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck, who has pizza outposts in every Gelson’s L.A.-area market. There are even chains of the make-your-own/choose-your-crust-sauce-toppings variety, including 800 Degrees and Blaze Pizza with multiple locations in L.A.
Whether it’s Pizzaria Mozza on Highland at Melrose in L.A., Milo & Olive in Santa Monica, Zero Zero in SoMa, or Gioia on Polk, the gourmet offerings are generally pricey . . . and tasty. Sure, you can get a high-end Margherita with mozzarella, tomato sauce, basil, and olive oil at these places, but what’s the fun in that?
Pizzaria Mozza presents such gems as a funghi misti, Fontina, Taleggio, and thyme pizza; a Brussels sprouts, guanciale, red onion, and mozzarella combo; and a BLT pizza with bacon, guanciale, onion cream, roasted tomatoes, rucola, and aioli. How about Milo & Olive’s classics such as the four cheese and farm egg pizza with shaved garlic, Fontina cream, Taleggio, mozzarella, Parmesan, and lemony arugula; and the mixed mushroom pizza with Fontina Val d’Aosta, thyme, lemon zest, and Parmesan? Zero Zero’s roasted red pepper pesto, zucchini, Perenzana olives, basil, mozzarella, Grana Padano, roasted garlic, and house-made ricotta concoction is heavenly, as is its deceptively simple blend of Manila clams, tomato sauce, garlic, bacon, pecorino, parsley, and Calabrian chile. At Gioia’s, you could try the soppressata, house-made Sicilian sausage, pecorino, pickled jalapenos, and tomato sauce pizza; or the asparagus, spring onion, mint ricotta, arugula, and walnut pesto pie.
In a pinch (time and/or financial), I am fine with hitting one of the Village Pizzaria locations in S.F. and getting a standard New York-inspired slice or the more unconventional Two Boots Pizza in Echo Park for one of their Bayou Beasts with its spicy mélange of crawfish, Andouille sausage, and green peppers on a corn-meal crust. And I can’t tell you how honored I am when my pal Bobby (who happens to be a Tommasso’s loyalist) invites me over to his Sherman Oaks home and he fires up his own wood-burning oven to produce pizza worthy of a master with recipes gleaned from his coast-to-coast travels in search of the perfect pie. His chef d’oeuvre? It’s covered with chopped raw pistachios, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, red onion, and rosemary, and drizzled with olive oil. To call it revelatory is to diminish its savory magnificence.
Who doesn’t like pizza? Whoever those deprived people might be, I feel sorry for them.