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L.A. area's new pizza revolution

It started with Spago and has mushroomed into a full-on battle of the best toppings and crust. We look at Pizzeria Mozza, Angelini Osteria, Gjelina, Pizzeria Ortica, Riva and Huckleberry.

March 25, 2009|S. IRENE VIRBILA | RESTAURANT CRITIC

Who didn't grow up wolfing down pizza slathered in tomato sauce and gooey cheese? And yet the dominant pizza aesthetic in L.A. seems to get reinvented from time to time just like everything else in this constantly changing city. In 1982, Wolfgang Puck changed the game when he installed a wood-burning oven in the little pizza and pasta place he opened called Spago.

In the south of France where he trained, such ovens were an everyday thing, and even he didn't think his "gourmet" pizza would turn out to be such a huge deal. But for legions of Angelenos who'd grown up on Shakey's and Pizza Hut, that humble pie, in this case, made with real mozzarella instead of the commercial grated stuff, garnished with Michelin star-worthy ingredients and cooked in a real wood-burning oven, was a born-again moment. Who knew you could enjoy pizza in an authentically glamorous setting -- with a view of Sunset Strip, and serious wines and stars galore?

Fast forward 25 or so years, and that kind of gourmet pizza has become a cliche, with a California Pizza Kitchen in every airport. Even at Spago (now in Beverly Hills), it's relegated to lunch only. And yet what did Nancy Silverton dream of opening after she left Campanile? A pizzeria.

And Pizzeria Mozza, the place she opened in 2006 in partnership with New York's Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich -- one of the most anticipated restaurants in the last few years -- has started another pizza revolution.

Restaurants are adding pizza to their menus so fast it's hard to keep up -- Reservoir, Salute Wine Bar and Boho, to name a few. It's a veritable pizza war out there. Here's a report from the field:

Last week I went back to Spago to see how that original gourmet pizza held up after all those years. Just fine, actually. The smoked salmon pizza (a.k.a. the Jewish pizza) was and still is a brilliant idea, like eating Nova on a thin, crisp bialy. Except instead of gummy cream cheese, it's spread with a lovely, loose dill creme fraiche -- and the satiny salmon is house-smoked. The pizza of the season, though, is spring vegetables with ochre chanterelles, asparagus, sweet cipollini onions and roasted baby artichokes. A velvety, lightly smoked bufala scamorza cheese ties it all together.

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Riffs on the genre

At Pizzeria Mozza the crust is billowy and yeasty, darkened with a pinch of buckwheat flour and the ministrations of the roaring pizza oven. The pizzas aren't "authentic" to either the Italian or New York traditions, though Silverton has had plenty of experience with the real thing. These are her riffs on the genre, heady, freewheeling pizzas based on a killer dough, a finely tuned knowledge of the wood-burning oven and sheer invention. They're pretty much all terrific. Never over-embellished, just flat out delicious, whether it's her pie topped with radicchio, escarole, guanciale and a molten-centered fried egg or one with graceful tomato sauce, burrata and squash blossoms. Though I have to say, I've yet to try pizza allo Benno, which features speck (smoked, raw-cured ham) with fresh pineapple, mozzarella and jalapeno and was dreamed up by her son Ben.

At lunch, the most Italian pizzas in town issue from the oven at Angelini Osteria. Last week I had a flawless pizza, or rather two -- a thin, crisp crust blistered from the oven and topped with mushrooms and slices of rosy prosciutto. Sometimes he'll do a wonderful burrata pizza as a special with fresh cherry tomatoes and that creamy fresh cheese, it's as good as it gets. And since Angelini is a full-service trattoria, you can also get bowls of pasta e fagioli, his irresistible penne all' Amatriciana made with house-cured guanciale and for dessert, an affogato (vanilla ice cream drowned in a cup of espresso).

Though they're only a small part of the menu, the pizzas at Gjelina in Venice keep getting better. Six months in, chef-owner Travis Lett has his pizza mojo down. His pies have a graceful aesthetic, beautiful to look at, even better to eat, and farmers market all the way. Like the seductive vegetable dishes here from the wood-burning oven, the eight pizzas on offer shift with the seasons. A pie blanketed in Fontina cheese and bitter greens accented with bacon lardons or one that melds Taleggio cheese with dusky wild mushrooms and pea shoots may give way to a pizza topped with sweet porky guanciale, crushed olives and bufala mozzarella. The crust is very thin, very crisp. Pizza is such a popular item, though, you may have to wait for yours: The oven is only big enough to cook four pies at a time.

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Dough's just right

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