846 La Cienaga Blvd. West Hollywood, CA 90069 (map); 310-652-6859; vitopizza.com
Pizza Style: New York
Pizza Oven: Gas
The Skinny: Real deal East coast pizzeria on the West coast.
Price: 18-inch cheese pie, $16.50; single toppings, $2.50 and up
It never ceases to amaze me that in a city of millions, there are probably only two great New York style slices in Los Angeles. I'll let everyone debate number two, but I'm pulling rank and putting Vito's Pizza in West Hollywood into the first slot.
Vito's hides out in a nondescript strip mall on an odd area of La Cienaga where antique shops rub elbows with sceney clubs. Owner Vito Di Donato doesn't trumpet "New York" like seemingly every slice joint in every town, but that's probably because he's from Jersey, as is much of the staff (if they aren't former marines, who Vito likes because they listen well). Because of that, Vito's has East Coast attitude to burn without falling into "Noo Yawk" theatrics. The folks serving pies have been around forever, regulars get called by their first names...it's all that one can hope for out of a neighborhood joint without any of the artifice usually on display in L.A.
Vito, himself, takes the pizza auteur theory (which states the best pies are made by just one person) and spins it on its head. He only cooks pies four nights a week, but he makes every single ounce of dough and sauce all by himself in the middle of the night, seven days a week. He says he does it alone partly to protect his family recipes (as well as what he says is a 500-year-old starter, passed generation to generation, that he supplements the yeast with), but partly because he wants his pizza to taste a certain way, and he doesn't believe anyone else could make the necessary adjustments based on the weather or the rotating tomato stock.
It all pays off. The crust is thin (sometimes paper-thin), foldable, and flavorful while maintaining the mandatory crisp and chew on the ends. It has a bit more of a bread-y taste than you'd expect from a thin crust pie, but (and this is a good thing) it sometimes gets lost below all the flavor above it. The other departure from the New York norm is the tangy homestyle, uncooked tomato sauce that's noticeably free from sweeteners. It's much more robust than you'd expect, but it blends well with mozzarella and the mix of cheeses Vito won't spill. And most importantly, it has the right cheese-to-sauce ratio, which for some reason is particularly hard for pizzerias outside NYC to get right.
In the world of slice joints, you obviously aren't going to find Mozza-level toppings but everything here seems like a cut above the norm. Veggies are fresh and crisp—if you're into that sort of thing. All the meats provide the requisite amount of salt and spice you're craving, and it seems as if consideration was given to how the flavors are interacting with the base. There's a level of alchemy in the kitchen you aren't going to find at most of his competitors.
My favorite vegetarian, Kelly Bone, recently gave the white pizza with pesto slice a good write-up, but she didn't think it would "convert" anybody to white slices. I'm quite sure this makes me look insane, but if I were leading a pizza crusade against sauce, the pesto slice would be my white knight. It has mounds of sweet ricotta (sweeter than I've ever found on a pie) riding on a light oil slick of fresh pesto that's resting on a thick sheet of cheeses...and it's spectacular. I get very self-conscious about comparing LA pizza to the amazing pizza I've had in other cities, but I believe this one can stand with the best white slices in the country. And I'm not the only one.
Vito will tell you himself, his pizza is always good...but some days it's amazing. Because of that, it might be a good idea to check the slice case and see what looks good instead of going with a programmed choice and ordering the usual. What you see here is usually what you get. With that said, the dreaded pie-or-slice dilemma is always in full force. Slices are always crisp and usually get an added dose of color and char thanks to the double-cook, but the freshness of a pie can't be discounted, especially on the rare occasion you end up with a stale slice. It's a tough choice, but life is about trade-offs, and in this case you at least end up with pizza either way.
The big complaint I hear about Vito's is price point. Two-fifty for a slice of cheese. Three bucks for pepperoni, four for something exotic like my mistress, the white pesto. If you'd like to take umbrage with those prices or a $28.50 pizza (the Terra Firma) you can do so in the comments. I choose to hand over my money and say, "thank you very much." I could tell you it's because I can taste the price difference in the quality in the ingredients, but the real reason is that I've had just about every pizza in Los Angeles and I know I can't find a better slice within driving distance.
A couple years ago, I overheard a customer telling Vito how good his pizza was. It's a familiar scene there, but that time Vito surprised me by going all Han Solo with his response. "I know," he said. Then, as he started the next pie, he muttered to himself, "I just keep getting better and better." It wasn't a boast though. There was surprise in his voice, like he almost couldn't believe it himself. Maybe Vito does need a little of that faux New York cockiness, because to me there's no doubt. I've been eating his pizza since the day he opened and it really does get better and better.