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Now That's A N.y. Pizza!

March 08, 1987|PHILIP TRACY

Giovanni's Pizza, 810 N. Vermont Ave., Los Angeles, (213) 660-6545. Open Mon . -Sat . , 10 a.m. - 10 p.m. Cash only.

Take it from me, pizza is a very contentious food. Chicagoans describe New York pizza as having the consistency of soggy peanut brittle. New Yorkers believe Chicago pizza was invented by mobsters too lazy to spread the dough to a proper thinness. Both groups recoil with horror at the Southern California style that garnishes it with bell peppers and onions. All three schools trace their version's genesis directly back to Italy and sometimes the Pope, insisting no self-respecting Italian would be caught dead eating any other.

Like turkey stuffing, the kind of pizza tasted in youth is always held closest to the heart. People invariably approach pizza with an absolutist's eye. There is no middle ground.

I am no different. Having been reared on the island of Manhattan, I am utterly dedicated to the New York style that nourished me through adolescence. And like any ex-New Yorker, I assumed coming here meant kissing decent pizza goodby.

Not true. In the 10 years since moving here, I have watched dozens of "New York"-style pizza joints open and flourish, serving remarkably tolerable versions of the food I love best. But then one day, quite by accident, I stopped at a small place called Giovanni's New York Pizza. Behold! A living reincarnation of every struggling, small-time neighborhood pizza parlor I'd ever stuck my foot inside, serving pizza by the slice. Even the sourest New York City cab driver would have to sing its praises.

For the uninstructed, a "proper" pizza's crust should have the thickness of two pieces of shirt-backing cardboard, no more. When the triangular slice is folded in half lengthwise, the crust is nonetheless solid enough so the pointed tip doesn't dip toward the floor and dribble the topping down the front of your garments. (For New Yorkers, eating pizza with a knife and fork is like eating an omelet with your fingers.) The tomato-and-cheese topping must have an almost magical quality: moist enough to dampen the crust, thereby maintaining its doughy texture on the top, yet solid enough so the topping doesn't separate from the crust and congeal in the center of a folded slice.

Precisely how this is achieved remains a mystery to me. Giovanni isn't giving away any trade secrets. After four years of patronizing his establishment and many hours spent talking pizza with the man, the most I could wheedle out of him was an admission that knowing how to make your own dough and spreading it by hand (as opposed to using a machine) was important. Choosing an "excellent" sauce from among the 200 or so available commercially here in California makes all the difference and combining it in the "right" proportions with a "good" cheese also helps. Giovanni talks pizza the same way a politician will discuss his campaign finances: very guardedly.

Giovanni is merely running true to form. For behind every great pizza is a loner, working long hours for very little money, dishing out his fantastic creation to a public that merely accepts it as their due. These are the true ingredients of a New York style pizza and frustration is its vital condiment.

"Just my luck!" said Giovanni a couple of days ago. "I finally get an article in the paper and my daughter decides to get married." (Giovanni will be closed from March 9 to the 21 for the happy event.) "Why does this happen to me?"

Born in Marsala, Sicily, and transported to Brooklyn at the age of 19, Giovanni Bica has been making pizza for 27 years. Starting as a dishwasher, then learning to spread the dough--twirling it in the air not only provides a show for the customers but, more importantly, saves your back and takes about a third of the time it takes to spread it flat on the counter--Giovanni learned the ins and outs of the business, then set up the first of several pizza parlors in the outlying boroughs of New York. He did well, at least by pizza business standards, but he kept looking for the ideal spot.

Then one day in the fall of 1975, a friend suggested he come out to California. "I turned around and looked and thought I was back in Europe. The mountains nearby, the weather, the different people . . . I loved it," he says. He brought his family out for Christmas and the kids loved it. "No snow," he says succinctly. He found his Vermont Avenue location and by April of 1976 Giovanni was back in business.

Now from Giovanni's point of view, the location was ideal. Vermont is a heavy traffic street and Los Angeles City College across the way meant a constant supply of hungry students. The nearest competing pizza parlor was miles away and, while the neighborhood was Mexican, New York's Puerto Rican population eats pizza all the time. How was he to know Latinos are not so eclectic?

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