Pizza purists may be interested in Chow’s latest video feature on Anthony Mangieri of Una Pizza Napoletana, which serves Manhattan’s most revered Naples-style pizzas. Click here for his two cents on everything from what makes a good pizza to the virtues of buffalo mozzarella.
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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.
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: 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
“The best pizza in the Bay Area,” San Francisco Chronicle‘s Michael Bauer proclaimed.
Mario Batali declared owner Bruce Hill’s cuisine “the best in the country…the margherita pizza is so good, it’s enough to make you cry.”
I had heard so much about the pizza at Pizzeria Picco that I had to go check it out for myself. My friend Jen and I settled into a table at the outdoor deck on a chilly but sunny Saturday afternoon for lunch. I ordered a plate of the house-made charcuterie selection, which included spongy, nutty mortadella, sweet soppressata and smoky, spicy salumi dusted with fennel pollen. The plate was accompanied by apricot chutney and pickled sweet peppers.
Charcuterie Plate. L-R: Lardo, Salumi, Soppresata, Coppa, Mortadella
We ordered margherita pizza topped with salt cod and arugula — the pizza of the day. It was a “wet” style pizza, with a sufficient amount of tomato sauce but not too much cheese topping. This was the lightest pizza I’d ever had — the crust wasn’t dense and chewy. Rather, it was soft, with an oh-so-slightly crispiness on the outside. The salt cod was used sparingly (a good thing) and the rocket added a slight bitterness. The tomato sauce was divine — the perfect amount and slightly sweet yet tangy. My only regret was that the pizza got cold too quickly sitting outside, and when it was cold it lost its luster very quickly, turning more chewy than crispy and soggy toward the middle.
Pizza of the day: Margherita with Salt Cod, Arugula.
The meal wasn’t complete until we sampled the famous olive oil ice cream: organic Straus Dairy vanilla soft-serve ice cream, with DaVero extra virgin olive oil and sea salt sprinkled on top. “Go ahead…you can do this,” the menu urged. After hearing so many raves, I didn’t need any urging. It was the most unexpectedly delicious thing I’ve ever tasted: sweet, yet not cloying; slightly salty; and the fruity, herbaceous flavor of olive oil.
Straus Dairy Soft-Serve with Olive Oil, Sea Salt
So was this the best pizza the Bay Area had to offer? I have to say that I think it was, with crust so light it was ethereal. It isn’t as good in my mind as Grimaldi’s in Brooklyn, but they are in two totally different pizza categories: Picco’s is light, wet and subtly flavored; Grimaldi’s is smoky, chewy and loaded with toppings. Next time, I’ll be trying the margherita pizza (no toppings for distraction), making sure it stays warm, and savoring at least one of the olive oil ice cream desserts…
Pizzeria Picco, 320 Magnolia Ave., Larkspur, Calif. 415.945.8900
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.
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
So it turns out that San Francisco does offer well-executed Italian food.
Until now, I’d been convinced otherwise. Italian food seldom tastes terrible, but I find it even more rare that it tastes exquisite. (In my experience, this is the one element that Italian food shares with Chinese cuisine.) A16, despite being nearly four years old, continues to be the kind of establishment that receives the level of patronage a highly-anticipated restaurant hopes to garner in its opening month. I’d never had the patience to nail down a reservation but was ecstatic when a friend booked a late Friday night spot for the two of us.
As a passerby, the space appears smaller than it truly is. The restaurant goes much farther back than I had been able to see from the exterior. Our hostess led us to the back, revealing not only a pool table but a bar, a wood-burning oven, an open dining area and a covered back patio. We were seated at a prominent table next to the open oven at what we now realize is the Bay Bridge of A16 tables: constantly surrounded by traffic. The bar, with a front-row view of the pizza-firing and prosciutto-slicing action in the kitchen, would have been a far better seating option, as would the back patio tables, which were suitable for more intimate conversation.
We began with light, spicy olive oil and rustic country bread. Just as drops of oil began collecting on our butcher paper-covered table, our server brought us a prosciutto sampler. I could have spent hours deliberating which of the three prosciuttos was superior. Was it the American prosciutto, which was sliced so thin it melted in my mouth? Was it the Berkshire prosciutto, with its rich taste and drier texture? Or was it the heftier, saltier, slow-smoked speck prosciutto?
A16 takes its name from Autostrada 16, the main road that winds through Italy’s Campagnia region. My knowledgeable server, J.R., suggested a glass of aglianico, a varietal prevalent in the region. One sip of this complex, earthy, smoky wine and I was instantly transported to Campagnia, sipping the wine that the aglianico had yielded from the ashy volcanic soil. I have long questioned the link between a wine’s origins and its taste, but for the first time in my life I can say with confidence that the terroir was unmistakable. The aglianico was an excellent pairing for the rustic, fire-roasted salsiccia pizza, which arrived covered with rapini, fennel sausage, red onions, mozzarella, grana padano, garlic and chiles.
The true standout dish was the maccaronara: fat, freshly-made spaghetti in a tomato ragu, topped with just the right amount of house-made ricotta salata. I was quite astounded that a dish so simple could be made so perfectly: Slightly sweet yet tart, the ragu had well-balanced flavor; the maccaronara possessed the perfect amount of bounciness with each bite. It was flawless simplicity at its best. In my mind, I moved the Globe‘s spaghetti over to spot number two as A16 victoriously slid into number one.
Dessert was my friend’s pick, a honey panna cotta accompanied by pears and a cornflour cake. The cake didn’t do much to enhance the dessert, but I was enraptured by the taste of honey captured in the form of a silken panna cotta.
I decided there was indeed some very good Italian to be had in San Francisco. As we emerged from A16 at the wee hour of one o’clock, I was a skeptic no more.
A16, 2355 Chestnut Street, San Francisco, Calif. 415.771.2216