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Pizzeria Mozza: Trust the hype

Posted in Destinations, pizza, Restaurants, Reviews with tags , , , , on May 4, 2008 by Susannah

Pizzeria Mozza has held my attention since its opening in November 2006, for several reasons. It’s the first West Coast venture from celebrity chef Mario Batali and his longtime business partner Joe Bastianich. It’s also the result of an unusual collaboration between Batali and Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery. And on top of it all, the pizzeria emerged virtually unscathed by national reviews.

I don’t make it down to Southern California often, so as soon as the slightest possibility arose that I might be in the vicinity, I called to book a reservation. After a series of prompts and several minutes of waiting patiently, I spoke with a hostess who was able to offer me a Saturday dinner reservation a few weeks in advance at the only available time slot of of 10:45. I took it.

Mozza sits on the edge of Hollywood, near a gas station and not much else. I can’t quite say I was expecting to see a packed house as we arrived late at eleven, but this was certainly the case. After being seated promptly at a center table, we studied the paper place settings with global pizza trivia as we munched on complimentary breadsticks and weighed our vast menu choices. (Who knew that mutton and paneer was a popular pizza topping in South Asia?)

Bruschette: pane bianco with olio nuovo

We opted to begin with the pane bianco bruschette (oven-roasted bread topped with olive oil) served alongside a Caprese salad. I’m not sure why the single slice of bread needed to cost $3, but the salad completely made up for it. While a traditional Caprese is made with fresh plum tomatoes, Mozza managed to take it to another level by using vine-ripened cherry tomatoes and slightly roasting them. The result: A sweeter, richer depth of flavor that married perfectly with the mildness of the mozzarella.

Mozza caprese

The squash blossoms, a popular dish in Mediterranean kitchens, arrived stuffed with ricotta and mozzarella cheese, then breaded and fried. The portion was somewhat undersized, but the crispiness of the squash blossoms, combined with the airy ricotta filling, was outstanding. The antipasti offerings were solid, and I would certainly go back to try more of them — the salt cod bruschette, cauliflower gratinate, arrancine and bone marrow al forno are all on my list.

Margherita with mozzarella, tomato and basil

In comparing pies, I’ve learned (from discussions on this blog) that one must compare a pizza to another pie of the same genre in order to be fair. Since Mozza essentially prepares a Neapolitan-style pizza, it was crucial to try the standard: the margherita pizza, made with crushed San Marzano tomatoes, sliced fresh mozzarella, basil and extra virgin olive oil, and baked in a wood-fired oven. Mozza’s Margherita was satisfying: the tomatoes were tart yet sweet, and the overall flavors well-balanced. The pizza had perfectly browned (but never burned) peaks, valleys and canyons surrounding vibrantly-colored toppings. The unbelievably thin crust was a feat in itself, and the dough crackled in a crispness that succumbed to just the slightest amount to pressure, even in the center of the pie. My only complaint was that it had less ingredients and more crust than I expected. To quote Frank Bruni: “The crusts of a few of the pies had rims so monstrously broad they muscled the toppings out of the picture.”

Pizza alla benno, with speck prosciutto, pineapple, jalapeno, mozzarella and tomato

Pizza alla benno: speck, pineapple, jalapeño, mozzarella and tomato

With a few exceptions, like the margherita, many of the restaurant’s offerings were a new take on traditional pizza combinations. The pizza alla benno was a Hawaiian-style pizza with speck prosciutto instead of ham. The pizza had a bit of a kick with the addition of jalapeño, which was a great substitute for the standard crushed red pepper — I would have liked even more of it. Overall, it was a nice take on the Hawaiian, but could have used a bit less pineapple as it was a tad too sweet.

Fennel sausage, panna and spring onion pizza

The best pizza of the night was the fennel sausage pizza. Arnold of Inuyaki called it a must-try, and it truly is: The sausage, which is made in-house, possessed a sweet-spicy anise flavor had me yearning for more.

Caramel copetta with Spanish peanuts

Just when we thought we were completely satiated, we were handed the dessert menu. Everything sounded so delicious that we proceeded to eat what could be considered another meal’s worth of desserts. Our waitress said she concurred so much with our dessert selection that she wished she could pull up a chair and enjoy it with us.

The first dessert I tried was a glorified sundae, with caramel gelato atop a caramel wafer, drizzled with caramel and marshmallow sauces, and sprinkled with salted Spanish peanuts (skin still on). The dish provided a stark contrast between the savory and the sweet. I loved the crispy, chewy wafer combined with the melting gelato as well. My only complaint was that the peanuts were a bit overpowering in the dish and should have been chopped into smaller pieces — because they were still whole, I felt a bit like I was snacking on gorp.

Butterscotch budino with fennel cookies

Our server sang the praises of the butterscotch budino as the restaurant’s can’t-miss dessert. She was spot-on: The pudding was an Italian rendition of dulce de leche, topped with thin layer of caramel, a dollop of cream and a pinch of sea salt, and fennel cookies on the side. The accompanying fennel cookies didn’t add anything to the dish and seemed to distract from the pudding, which was light, smooth as butter, and indulgent in a way that was not overpowering.

Banana gelato pie, with chopped nuts and bittersweet chocolate sauce

While I was prepared to find an assortment of gelati and a budino on the dessert menu, I wasn’t expecting to see a bombe. The banana gelato pie was a refreshing detour from the typical Italian dessert menu (please, no more panna cottas!) and possessed the authentic banana flavor that is both mild and strong at the same time.

Gelati sampler with vanilla olive oil gelato, hazelnut gelato and blood orange sorbet

Since I was so in love with the olive oil dessert at Pizzeria Picco, I leaped at the chance to try the assortment of frozen offerings. We opted for a blood orange sorbet, which was tart and slightly cloying; a hazelnut gelato, which was not too sweet and reminiscent of roasted nuts; and the olive oil, which tasted more like vanilla with olive oil mixed into it. The olive oil gelato paled in comparison to Pizzeria Picco’s Da Vero-drizzled soft-serve.

Eating at Pizzeria Mozza, I couldn’t help but wonder how much Batali and Silverton were influenced by Bruce Hill, the chef and owner of Pizzeria Picco, whose pizza Batali swore was “so good, it’s enough to make you cry.” While Hill is certainly ahead with his olive oil soft-serve, Pizzeria Mozza might just take the pie…pun intended.

Pizzeria Mozza, 641 N. Highland Ave., Los Angeles, Calif. 323.297.0101

Clinton St. Baking — the brunch to top them all

Posted in Destinations, Restaurants, Reviews with tags , , on March 21, 2008 by Susannah

Brunch is my favorite meal–I’m constantly trying new places. Over the years, I’ve managed to find places that satisfy specific brunch cravings (pancakes, eggs benedict, French toast, etc.), but have never found a spot that can successfully execute all brunch dishes.

That all changed when I set foot in the Clinton St. Baking Co. I was in Manhattan for the weekend and meeting up with my friend Kara, who immediately recommended this place, citing its amazing brunch. I was thrilled (as I always want to sample everyone’s favorite spots), but after a wait of at least one hour I was beginning to question whether the wait would be worth the while. Even Kara, who loved the place but had been waiting at least two hours, was starting to lose patience.

We were soon reminded of why she’d brought me here, notwithstanding the insane wait. The menu was filled with unusual yet comforting brunch dishes, including pulled pork with grits and a buttermilk biscuit sandwich made with homemade tomato jam.

The warm brioche french toast was crisp on the outside, melt-in-your-mouth soft on the inside, and topped with caramelized bananas, toasted pecans and maple butter. It was like a cross between banana nut bread, with all the nutty flavor of the pecans, and bananas foster, with a glaze reminiscent of burnt caramel.

Brioche French Toast

Brioche French Toast (image: nycfoodguy.com)

The Southern Breakfast included eggs, which we ordered scrambled. They were as light and as fluffy as eggs come. The biscuit was even more delicious. It wasn’t overly buttery or crumbly, just rich and soft.

Southern Breakfast

Southern Breakfast (Image: Wonjae Y., Yelp)

Sugar-Cured Bacon

Sugar-Cured Bacon (Image: Princess M., Yelp)

Without a doubt, the highlight of the meal was the bacon. I ordered it alongside some cheesy grits, which were also fantastically cheesy, soft and creamy. I am no stranger to bacon, cooking and dining with it frequently. But never have I ever had a bacon experience like the one I had. The bacon, which was not yet cold, was chewy in places, crispy along the edges, with just the right ratio of meat to fat melting in my mouth. What truly made the bacon the pièce de resistance, however, was the fact that it was sugar-cured. The sweet smokiness really put the whole meal over the top.

It was well after 3 pm when we left the restaurant, but I left full and very, very happy. I don’t say this, ever: It was well worth the two-hour wait.

Clinton St. Baking Company & Restaurant, 4 Clinton St., New York, New York 646.602-6263

A16, Part Deux

Posted in pizza, Recipes, Restaurants with tags , , on January 24, 2008 by Susannah

Gnocchi

When I visited A16 for the first time a few months back, I left the restaurant walking on air. Well, I went back for a second time recently, and I’m pleased to say that I’ve yet to be disappointed.

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Grimaldi’s — Or, how I missed my flight

Posted in Destinations, Restaurants, Reviews with tags , , on December 1, 2007 by Susannah

At Grimaldi’s, I noticed a poster facing me. “I’ll make you a pizza you can’t refuse,” it read, alongside an Italian man and a pizza. And this pizzeria wasn’t kidding.

Because of it, I missed my flight home to San Francisco.

But how could one say no to a Grimaldi’s pizza with extra mozzarella, extra basil and pepperoni? The tomato sauce had the sweetness from long-stewed tomatoes, the earthy flavors of oregano and rosemary. The true mozzarella slices (none of the shredded, part-skim mozzarella used by most pizza chains) were partially browned from roasting in the oven, and rendered the occasional air pocket. The basil was spicy, sweet, clovelike. And the crust — ohhh, that crust — was thin, but not to a crisp. It made a crackle upon my bite, but in its aftermath it simply gave way to a soft, smoky-flavored chewiness.

Grimaldi’s Pizza with Pepperoni, Mozzarella & Basil

I asked our waiter why he thought Grimaldi’s (in my opinion, the best pizza, world over) had such amazing pizza.

“We use the coal-burning brick oven, which keeps the temperature higher than a wood-fire oven,” he said. Apparently, it’s a subtle art, and Grimaldi’s pies even vary depending on who is making the pizza that day. “If the pizza’s too close to the flames, the dough gets mushy,” he explained. “If it’s farther away, the crust gets crispy on the outside and perfectly blackened on the bottom.”

Was it worth missing my check-in time at the airport, only to wait 3 1/2 hours to barely make it standby on the next flight? Stressful as it was, yes. It was worth every bite.

Grimaldi’s, 19 Old Fulton St., Brooklyn, New York. 718.858.4300