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Pasquale Makes Dough

June 20, 1991|LAURIE OCHOA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's pizza time at Da' Pasquale--6 o'clock on a cold summer evening. Pasquale Morra is dressed in the uniform of a restaurant owner--dark, pleated pants; muted-print shirt and vest; elegant slip-ons. But his actions are those of a pizza chef: He's making dough.

He scoops flour from a plastic bin and tosses it in the stainless-steel bowl of the kitchen's industrial-sized Hobart mixer. Next, he breaks off a few chunks from a block of yeast and tosses them in with the flour. He splashes olive oil into the mix directly from the can.

"I don't measure anything," Morra says as he pours out a handful of salt and adds it to the bowl. "Everything is by feel--it's by experience."

He drags a 50-pound bag of flour to the mixer and heaves in the contents. Then he turns on the machine and stands over the bowl, pressing the dough down when it climbs too high on the hook. Very quickly it becomes a single damp mass that gyrates to and fro with the slow, insistent rhythm of a belly dancer.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday June 27, 1991 Home Edition Food Part H Page 49 Column 3 Food Desk 1 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Looking for a Good Pizza--Many readers called in asking for the address of pizza chef Pasquale Morra's restaurant, Da' Pasquale. It's at 9749 Little Santa Monica Blvd., Beverly Hills, (213) 859-3884.

He slaps the dough, still in the mixer. "This is my baby," he says. Pizza dough has made Morra's reputation in the United States. Even now, eight years after arriving in the United States from his home in Naples, Morra--who owns Da' Pasquale and set his parents up in Osteria Nonni in Glendale (with restaurant designer Michele Saee's parents)--still rolls up his sleeves to make pizza.

"When I first got a job in Newport Beach," Morra says, "the chef tried to steal my recipe. I knew that if I taught him to make pizza, he would fire me. So my pizza was like security for me."

Morra quit before the chef could fire him.

He went from Orange County to Melrose Avenue, to a then-brand-new restaurant called Angeli. It was 1984, a time when most Los Angeles Italian restaurants still served spaghetti and meatballs. And the pizzas, made mostly with medium crusts, were piled with sausage and pepperoni.

Morra's pizzas, thin-crusted, light on the toppings, were different. Like the California pizzas that came of age at about the same time, the new, simpler pies charmed L.A. eaters. They were lighter--thin, like New York-style pizza, but somehow more Italian .

"Pizza is something born in Naples," Morra says matter-of-factly. "It's basil, Parmesan cheese, tomato sauce and a little bit of mozzarella cheese with olive oil. And thin crust--that's traditional.

"So many people," he continues, "they put on so much tomato sauce, so much cheese--especially mozzarella, which is so hard here. After a few minutes it becomes like plastic, all in one piece. And so many ingredients--it doesn't make sense. When I eat pizza, I want to eat the crust--that, for me, is pizza."

What isn't pizza to Morra, is California pizza.

"I believe one of the best pizza chefs in California-style food is Ed La Dou. He was pizza chef at Spago; then he went to work with California Pizza Kitchen; then he opened Caioti. And what he makes, Ed La Dou, 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.

"I went to the Pizza Show in Las Vegas, and people were making pizza, but with cream cheese and fresh fruit on top, pineapple and strawberry. It was dessert . I said, 'Well, you want to call this pizza, fine. But for me, it's a cake , a fresh fruit cake. It's not pizza.' "

It's not just California pizza that sets Morra off. Ask him about a lot of the chain pizzas and his face screws and twists in disgust. "Ugh," he says of one brand. "Blah," he says of another.

"I don't know how these big franchises stay in business," he exclaims. "You eat my pizza and you can sleep like a baby, ahhh . You don't need any Alka Seltzer."

Morra is so proud and so protective of his pizza, he's shared the recipe with only a few people. His brothers--Bruno, who ran Osteria Nonni when it first opened and now is a partner at Da' Pasquale and Tonino, a co-owner in Santa Monica's Il Forno and La Vecchia Cucina--know the recipe. Morra has shown a few others what he does, but no one outside the family, he says, not even the cooks he worked with at Angeli, have the recipe down pat.

"People think pizza is easy to learn, but it's not," Morra insists. "You only learn with experience. It took me one long year just to learn how to make dough."

Morra, who went to work in a pizzeria at age 18, learned his craft with a pizza master as stingy with his recipe as the 36-year-old restaurateur has become.

"I learned how to stretch and toss the dough, and I learned how to cook it, but I was missing the most important thing: how to make it." The pizza master, 65 years old, at first refused to teach him. Three times a day, Don Salvatore would go off by himself and make the dough. "He thought I would open a place down the street and become his competition," Morra says.

"My father went to talk to him, my mother went to talk to him. I told him I was going to the United States, far away from downtown Naples, but he didn't believe me."

Finally, a year before Morra's scheduled departure for the United States, Don Salvatore agreed to take Morra on.

"Every day, I was with him as he made the dough, watching. He showed me everything, even how to check where the wind's coming from."

Morra takes the dough he's been working on, now out of the mixer and on a counter, and works it with his hands a bit.

"There," he says, softly petting the white mass, "smooth like a beautiful belly. Sometimes I feel like Michelangelo."

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