Casa Bianca Pizza Pie
1650 Colorado Boulevard Los Angeles, CA 90041 (map); 323-256-9617; casabiancapizza.com
Pizza Style: Chicago thin crust
Pizza Oven: Gas
The Skinny: Great toppings on a so-so pie in a nostalgic setting.
Price: 14-inch cheese pie, $12.55; single toppings, $1.95
When it comes to food, Los Angeles loves its institutions. Some, like Langer's, are revered not only for their years of service, but for their life-changing pastrami. Others like Pink's Hot Dogs have no redeeming social value other than the fact that they've been open for 73 years. Nonetheless, both are immensely popular. When it comes to pizza, Eagle Rock's Casa Bianca, open since 1955, is as close as it gets to an institution in L.A. But is having the most seniority good enough in a post-Mozza landscape?
Casa Bianca certainly has the right kind of origin story for an institution. Sam Martorana and his wife Jennie moved from Chicago to Eagle Rock in the 50's, opened a restaurant, slung pizza for fifty years, then handed off the peel off to their kids before Sam's unfortunate passing in 2007. That's pretty much all we could want out of a family restaurant, right? I wasn't around for the grand opening, but I would be stunned (to the point where I would begin to question reality itself) if anything, from the red sauce to the classic Italian decor, has changed in the intervening years, and that's probably one of the biggest draws. Nostalgia aside, until the meeting of great Mozza pizza minds Nancy and Mario, the same ol' same ol' at Casa Bianca was good enough for the unofficial "best pie in the city" title.
Before we get to the nitty gritty, allow me to correct what I believe to be a fallacy. I don't think Casa Bianca qualifies as thin crust Chicago-style, as is specified by the restaurant and seemingly every other person in the world. Sure, that microscopic ring of char around the rim is cracker thin (as well as buttery and delicious), but the vast majority of the crust is lumbering and doughy, not tender or flaky, and the pizza gets surprisingly thick as you move towards the middle. And just because a slice is firm enough to hold up a quarter pound of cheese and toppings doesn't mean there's any crunch to it. My diagnosis? Straight up pizza parlor pizza. Other amateur pizzaologists are invited to give their own diagnoses in the comments.
Now here's the part where I feel like I'm engaging in a little elder abuse. The base pie at Casa Bianca is not great. At all. In fact, it's an unbalanced mess. The sauce is reduced and yet there's a surprising lack of sweetness (though it just could be undercut by the heavy dusting of oregano post-cook), and though there's plenty of mozzarella to go around, when paired with the tomato it all turns into a soupy, watery, mono-dimensional mess. That isn't to say there isn't flavor in the pizza, because there's actually a ton. It just comes exclusively from the toppings.
L.A. Times food critic Jonathan Gold, the original Casa Bianca evangelist, forbids you from ordering anything but fried eggplant and sausage on your pie. Separately, those two toppings are fantastic, especially the housemade (before it was cool) sausage. It's sweet, glossy, and full of fennel, making you crave every nugget. The eggplant is no slouch either. Kelly Bone already mentioned it's the best she's ever had on pizza. Together, though, I didn't get the harmony I was expecting. The sheer volume of eggplant overwhelmed the smaller dollops of sausage, leaving only the occasional shard of sweetness to cut through. I much prefer the regular sausage pie, but even that one doesn't come together completely and you end up in that old game of eating massive slabs of bread and cheese when all you really want is that tasty, tasty pork.
There are other options though. The less heralded pepperoni has some nice bite, and there's enough grease leaking off the thin, smoky cuts to colonize the rest of the bland base like a flavor-replicating virus. No matter where the actual pepperoni was, every bite I had ended up with some much-needed spice. Sure, it's a bit more obvious than the sausage/eggplant combo, but there's at least some balance to be had.
While I'm definitely more critical than most, the fact remains that there's a line at Casa Bianca every single night of the week, so they must be doing something right. When I spoke to Sam Martorana's son, Ned, about the legacy of the restaurant, he mentioned that he and his sister were focused on "maintaining" what his parents had built, nothing more. In a city that's always looking for the hot new thing, I can definitely appreciate that. However, before you get spend an hour in line on a Satruday, you should probably ask yourself two questions. How much do you value nostalgia? And do you really want a pizza that hasn't changed since 1955? Based on your answers, your mileage at Casa Bianca will vary.