"Pools of white mozzarella swam in a sea of ruby sauce on one side, while chunks of sweet, fennel sausage seemed to dance on the other half."
Grimaldi's Coal Brick Oven Pizza
Editor's note: Today we've got a dispatch from "L.A. Pizza Maven," our man in the City of Angels. LAPM filed this quite some time ago, and my lazy ass has sat on it—hence the references to the Big Dance of last month. Take it away, LAPM! —The Mgmt.
March Madness has new meaning for me ever since the son of one of one of my oldest friends became a major league baseball player. No longer do these two words conjure up visions of young men in shorts and sneakers battling it out for the NCAA basketball championship, no crazed fans wearing wild boar or cheese wheel hats.
For the last several years, this seasonal lunacy takes place on bright, emerald baseball diamonds strategically built in the midst of the Arizona desert, where a few old friends and I gather for the perennial spring training ritual.
Heightening the insanity has been the relatively recent transformation of the Southwest into a pizza mecca, where I can continue my pursuit of the perfect pie. On this trip, I decided to indulge my sauce, dough, and cheese obsession in the entertainment capital of the world—Las Vegas.
Normally, I avoid Sin City like the plague. I'm not a compulsive gambler, nor do I have any interest in being surrounded by the polyester crowd and their squawking babies. Sadly, any Rat Pack romance died along with the old hotels that have been demolished and replaced by the corporate version of faux New York, Paris, and ancient Egypt.
As I drove along Interstate 10, my anticipation reached a fever pitch. All manner of temptations threatened to deter me from my culinary paradise, Grimaldi's. Yes, the legendary Brooklyn pizza purveyor, which, in addition to several locations in Texas and Arizona, had recently opened an outpost in Vegas. Signs to the left and right advertised sex and gambling establishments that catered to the baser pleasures. The Adult Mega Outlet, open 24/7, was just two miles ahead. I could play $3 black jack all day, everyday, at Jerry's Nugget Casino. Two enormous wet, red hot lips enticed me to Drai's After Hours club.
But I had other cravings. After exiting the 10 and turning on to the 215, I finally saw the sign for Eastern Avenue, and my mouth began watering. Could I soon be devouring what has been, for me, the holy grail of flat, spicy roundness?
As I drove slowly down Eastern Avenue past several mini malls, the numbers on the stores crept slowly toward my date with destiny. Then, there it was. In the midst of a rather new mall, the magical words Grimaldi's Coal Brick Oven Pizza beckoned.
I entered nervously, not sure if this would be the real thing or just another mirage in the desert oasis.
Inside were about 20 tables covered in red-and-white checkered cloth. There was also a modern and handsome bar along one wall and numerous photographs and subway-station signs meant to create a New York vibe. That was all well and good, but the pizza would have to speak for itself. It was just past 11:30 a.m., and I was the only customer.
As I sat down, I could clearly see the hot coals burning in the brick oven. The pies come in three sizes: personal (12-inch), small (16-inch), and large (18-inch). Without thinking, I ordered a small, half-sausage, half-Margherita with fresh mozzarella made from free-range cows.( I did notice a container of Polly-O cheese where the pizzaiolo was working). Then I relaxed and took in a joyous sight—a pizzaiolo carefully spreading the dough to a perfect thinness that Lindsay Lohan could only dream of, applying the toppings to what I coveted most in the world, the royal round of dough. (The pizzaiolo did toss the dough a couple of times, something that most of the top pie-makers eschew, but I was not worried.)
Now, the moment was at hand. This pie's arrival merited a flourish of trumpets, but I settled for the sound of Sinatra crooning over the sound system. As the waitress set the pie down, I began to hyperventilate. The pie looked exactly like the last pie I had in Brooklyn some four years earlier. The crust, no more than a few tenths of an inch in thickness, was surrounded by a slightly irregularly shaped, perfectly raised cornicione that was blistered and blackened to coal-baked perfection.
Pools of white mozzarella swam in a sea of ruby sauce on one side, while chunks of sweet, fennel sausage seemed to dance on the other half. The crust has an incredible smoky flavor that only a coal burning oven can produce. The aroma wafting up to my nostrils was indescribably intoxicating.
The first bite lifted me to a state of pure bliss. Sausage, mozzarella, and sauce mingled exquisitely on a crisp yet chewy crust. The crust's perfect hole structure then revealed itself to me. Slice after airy delectable slice passed my lips. I tried to chew each bite as long as possible in order to maximize my gustatory pleasure but to no avail. I really couldn't control myself. I must have looked like a ravenous beast to the waitress, who seemed to sense that I should be left alone.
The Grimaldi's Family Tree
The dining experience did not last long. Like many a Mike Tyson fight, it ended in less than 30 minutes. I tried to recover my composure in order to question the staff for details. At first, my queries were met with a somewhat unexpected anxiety from the manager. He would have to check with corporate headquarters before divulging any information about the ingredients. The public relations person would call back soon. Unfortunately, the PR person didn't call by the time I finished my pie, but I was given a name and a number to call for further info.
After getting back to Los Angeles, I did connect with Amanda Law, who graciously answered all of my questions.
Joseph Ciolli has been the president and CEO of this corporate Grimaldi's for six years. He grew up in New York and, for a time, ran the original Grimaldi's in Brooklyn. The first branch opened in Scottsdale, Arizona's Old Town in 2003. Ciolli is related to the Grimaldi family, but they are not directly involved in this expansion.
Presently, there are 10 locations in the West, in Arizona, Texas, and one in Nevada, as well as four back east in New York, Long Island, and New Jersey.
As for the pizza, no detail was ignored in producing an authentic pizza experience. A chemist took water samples from the Brooklyn Grimaldi's and developed a water purification system that includes a reverse osmosis tank at every one of their locations—in order to faithfully replicate the Brooklyn flavors. The mozzarella is hand-made, low-moisture and shipped in from back East. The sausage, a sweet fennel variety made by Fontanini Meats of Chicago, comes in bulk and is then hand-pinched by the pizzaioli. The sauce is the secret Grimaldi's recipe passed down by the family for decades.
Finally, the fuel for the fire is anthracite coal, which comes in by train from Pennsylvania. This coal burns cleaner than gas or wood and generates heat in the oven that reaches an astonishing 1,200 degrees. All these carefully attended details produce what I can unequivocally describe as being the equal of the best pizza I have ever eaten. All that is left is to travel to all the other locations in order to determine the level of consistency among the chain.
All I can say is that the four-hour drive from L.A. to Vegas is guaranteed to become a regular part of my life from now on.