One of my beach books this summer was Bill Buford’s “Heat,” part memoir, and part biography of Mario Batali, the New York chef made famous by Food Network. A girlfriend loaned it to me, along with some light chick lit, but a bright yellow cover drew this particular book to the top of the stack. I’d seen the old episodes of “Molto Mario” a few times, but knew little about the red-haired pony-tailed chef.
This isn’t going to be a story about Mario’s journey as a chef, because you should just read the book or use Google for that.
What I do want to share is that on my latest West Coast trip, I had the chance to eat at Batali’s newest restaurant venture, a partnership with baker Nancy Silverton, in Los Angeles, Calif.
A two-and-a-half hour drive up I-5 from San Diego, L.A. itself is overwhelming, meaning that Tom and I would have to pick and choose just a few things to do. Visiting the La Brea Tar Pits, a walk along Hollywood Boulevard, and a drive through Beverly Hills seemed like good starting points. But with more than 20,000 restaurants, I wondered how we’d choose, and how we’d avoid getting caught in a tourist trap, though we seemed to anyway for a quick dinner at Venice Beach.
Somewhere recently, I’d read about Pizzeria Mozza, one of three L.A. restaurants created by Batali, longtime business partner Joe Bastianich, and Silverton. I never mentioned it to Tom, but briefly wondered if we’d be anywhere in the vicinity during our day trip. Turns out we were.
Without reservations, we were able to snag two seats at the bar overlooking the wood-fired pizza oven. There, we watched four cooks turn dough into $10 to $24 pizzas. The first shaped perfectly risen balls of pizza dough by pressing in the center and creating a crust around the edge. After stretching it more, he’d toss it gently on his hands then place it on a round metal tray. The second man in the assembly line looked busiest, as he was tasked with artfully placing all the toppings on the rounds according to the tickets. If he wasn’t satisfied with where chunks of mozzarella went, he’d pick them back up and place them in what he thought was a better spot.
Toppings included paper thin cross sections of pineapple with jalapeno; clams with garlic, pecorino and parmigiano; mushrooms, taleggio and fontina; goat cheese, leeks, and bacon; fingerling potatoes, gorgonzola, radicchio and rosemary; and the simple tomato sauce with mozzarella, which we ordered. (Trying to choose a pizza that pleases both of us–no meat and not too many vegetables, particularly tomatoes–can sometimes be difficult. Best to go simple, classic.) A third cook slid the pizzas into the oven via wooden peels, moved them around to cook evenly, and placed them back on the countertop. The fourth and final cook outside the kitchen finished off the pizzas, adding last-minute toppings, garnishes and herbs, like the micro basil greens scattered on the top of ours, which added a freshness not found when cooked instead.
We agreed the pizza was wonderful, with a crust that was both chewy and crisp. Biting into the outer edge revealed huge air pockets that added to the texture. Simple toppings prevented the bottom from getting oily or soggy, complaints I’ve read about other pizza choices elsewhere.
One of the unfortunate parts of our meal was that we only tried a single appetizer. So many looked worthy of a taste, as did the salads, but for the two of us on a budget and with stomachs that could handle only so much, we settled for the fried squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta. Having always wanted to try the blossoms, I figured this was as good of a chance as any. Crisp on the outside, when filled with soft ricotta, they were what I sometimes think cheese sticks should be like. Unfortunately, one of the four pieces lacked any cheese; I also wish they’d had a little more flavor. Dining with a large group would mean you could try many, many more dishes.
Fortunately, the dessert did not disappoint. The coppetta included a poached peach, raspberry gelato, whipped cream and some type of almond clusters. We devoured it, and I never even snapped a photo.
This was the best meal of the trip, and I’m so glad that we shared the experience. (Our first Food Network-inspired meal was fish and chips in Santa Barbara last year.) Apparently, Pizzeria Mozza is a tough place to get a reservation. Another local chef happened to sit beside us at the pizza bar, and said that this pizza was one of the best he’d had–and he’d been trying for years to eat here. Monday became his lucky day.
Pizzeria Mozza was listed as one of L.A.’s 99 essential restaurants to visit in 2013 by LA Weekly, and has been written up by all sorts of other publications.
So what else did we do in L.A.? We certainly didn’t drive all that way for just lunch.
First up were the La Brea Tar Pits, what I’d recommend as a must-see for anyone who wants something different from the Hollywood sights. Naturally occurring tar pits trapped prehistoric animals and plants in the area, preserving them for thousands of years. Recent discoveries by the Page Museum have included almost a full mammoth skeleton. Now, teams are going through “cubes” of earth that were pulled up before a parking garage was constructed in their place. But they’re not just looking at the big–microfossils apparently have become important in their studies too.
Tom advises watching the tar bubbling up from the ground, and looking for other spots in the park where tar is emerging, often marked by cones. Several times, he placed a stick into the tar to see how sticky it was. Don’t get tar on your clothes though, it won’t come out!
But our first trip wouldn’t be complete without the infamous sights along the touristy Hollywood Boulevard, including photo ops at the Chinese Theater and Walk of Fame, and a drive along the winding roads of Beverly Hills. Next time, we’ll be buying a “star map” so we know who’s house we’re passing.