The Newport Beach restaurant is brighter and a bit less romantic, but the… (Glenn Koenig, Los Angeles…)
Five years after Pizzeria Mozza opened on Highland Avenue and Melrose Boulevard, it's still one of the toughest reservations in town. And while the pace of new pizzeria openings, inspired by Mozza's success, has picked up, no other pizzeria so far has put it all together in such an alluring package.
Mozza has it all: terrific antipasti and salads, Nancy Silverton's idiosyncratic pizzas, captivating desserts — and an all-Italian wine list of more than 50 selections. The ambience is pretty great too, buzzing at all hours, the dining room filled with a hungry urban bohemian crowd.
Silverton helped run Campanile for years without a spinoff other than La Brea Bakery. But once she hooked up with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, who together own easily more than a dozen restaurants, a second Pizzeria Mozza had to be in the cards. It opened last year, not in Studio City or Santa Monica or Santa Barbara, but 8,782 miles away, in Singapore.
Now Mozza and company have spun out a third restaurant, this one on a lonely stretch of West Coast Highway in Newport Beach. It's been a while since a successful L.A. restaurateur has crossed the Orange County line. But here it is, the familiar Mozza sign looming just after Rusty Pelican, Joe's Crab Shack and Garlic Jo's.
Not just the logo, everything else looks familiar too. The Roman red walls. The milky glass light fixtures. The bare wood tables. The pounding rock music track. And the brown paper place mats printed with Italian cartoons or diagrams of office products in Italian. The menu itself is virtually identical to that of the original locale, which is what we all were hoping, isn't it?
Everything on the menu is uncannily similar in taste. Close your eyes and you'd be hard-pressed to identify a dish as coming from this locale as opposed to Los Angeles. That's due to Silverton's fanatical attention to detail. But you can't bottle an ambience or feeling, and that's where the new restaurant differs from the first one.
Tricolore salad: check. Radicchio, endive and greens are tossed in a punchy anchovy dressing (think Caesar with more oomph) with a dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and piled high on the plate. Ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms are cloaked in a shatteringly crisp batter, so each bite is crunchy, soft and milky rich at the same time. Marinated scarlet roasted peppers come with a dab of tinned tuna on top, a classic Piedmontese antipasto that I've always loved.
If I could have just one of the dozen antipasti on offer, it might be the mussels al forno (from the wood-burning oven) in a fiery salsa Calabrese with a pile of thick grilled toast to soak up the sauce. That almond wood-burning oven turns out fluffy meatballs or roasted bone marrow too, both worth ordering. Chef de cuisine Emily Corliss has gotten down these and every other dish on the menu. All of the antipasti are priced at $12, which makes for easy accounting, but some seem overpriced, others underpriced. I guess it averages out, but it's difficult to tough out that price for a mere bowl of olives (from the wood-burning oven, of course).
Take a bite of the Napoletana pizza, topped sparingly with dark olives, good-quality anchovies, hot pepper and fried capers. It seems impossible. How do they do it? The crust tastes exactly — and I do mean exactly — like the one at the original, blistered and puffed at the edges with a shiny chestnut gloss to it. This is the only pizza I know where you actually want to eat every bit of the crust.
Mozza's most popular pizza, the one topped with big chunks of house-made fennel sausage, fennel, red onions and scallions with a smear of cream, is here. More compelling, though, the pie topped with thin slices of finocchiona salame, wild spinach and pugnacious cacio di Roma cheese. Another with sliced Yukon gold potato, bacon, sweet Bermuda onions and a fried egg in the middle (break the yolk and spread it around before eating) is eccentric, but awfully good.
My all-time favorite, though, is the burricotta pizza with buttery soft mozzarella from Puglia, peperonata, taggiasche olives from Liguria and a sprinkling of Sicilian dried oregano.
Of course, there are piatti del giorno (plates of the day), but whenever I go, they never sound as enticing as a pizza, though I would like to try the ribs al forno with apple cider vinegar, fennel and honey one Thursday.