Pizza wars, once confined to New York, now rage in Los Angeles. New York's dough-slinging gladiators, DeMarco, Grimaldi, and Mangieri, have their counterparts here in Joe and Vito, of their own respective eponymous pizzerias.
L.A. food bloggers, like their New York brethren, get rather emotional over pizza, which strikes me as odd since I've yet to taste pizza in L.A. (except for Mozza) worth getting especially excited about. Nevertheless, on the web locally, and on Slice, pizza freaks have slammed Joe's for uncharred crust, insipid sauce, and unhelpful and discourteous service. One gourmand opined that Vito's "is genius ... everything Joe's is not ... the best in L.A. (tied with Mozza)."
The claim that Vito's is tied with Mozza as the best pizza in Los Angeles, of course, is insanity. And I will admit that, though my first few pies at Joe's, made by Joe Vitale himself, brought joy and contentment to my gastrointestinal system, the quality definitely must now be considered, at best, inconsistent. So, given some of the raves about Vito's, an investigation was in order.
I drove down to West Hollywood one sunny afternoon with a friend, found a metered parking space on the same block (no small feat), and entered the "snug" pizzeria, only to be confronted by a ginourmous photograph of a pizzaiolo (later confirmed as Vito), staring down at me. While Vito himself was absent, his gregarious and charming cousin, Antonio, generously shared quite a bit of information about the pizzeria he helps run.
Unfortunately, no information was forthcoming regarding the ingredients that go into the pizza. In fact, when I asked Antonio for some info on the cheese and sauce, he smiled and said, "If I tell ya, I'll have to kill ya." Ha, ha. Funny, but not helpful.
He did inform me, though, that Vito's aunt in New Jersey made the yeast herself from an old recipe and that it was driven out to Los Angeles as a good luck present for her nephew and his pizzeria. Cousin Antonio also volunteered that Vito's uncle Chiriago cut the stones for the oven in Italy himself. Quite the family affair.
The first pie we ordered, half Margherita, half sausage, although somewhat disturbing, pleasantly surprised me. As the photograph above reveals, the crust had very nice hole structure, was reasonably crisp and chewy (it could be folded without cracking), but lacked sufficient charring. Nevertheless, for L.A., the crust exceeded my expectations. Fresh mozzarella was not an option, but for standard cheese, and for L.A., the mozz was more than acceptable. The same held true for the sauce. No San Marzanos but still tangy. Not too sweet, not too spicy.
However, the inclusion of fresh, chopped tomato on the pie offended both my eyes and taste buds. It was removed easily enough, but it undoubtedly earned a demerit in my book. On the other hand, the sausage outclassed the meat that graces Joe's sausage pies, although neither equaled the homemade quality adorning true, blue-ribbon pizza like those created by Chris Bianco, Anthony Mangieri, and Nancy Silverton.
The second pie, half meatball and jalapeño, half white with pesto, also elicited ambivalent feelings. The meatballs and jalapeños had completely soaked through the crust, leaving half the pie soggy and limp as an old celery stalk. Except for picking a few pieces of meat off the top, it was inedible. In contrast, the white pie was good. The pesto tasted fresh, herbal, and garlicky, yet not overwhelming, and the cheese, with light dollops of ricotta topping the mozz, was supported by a nicely crisp and chewy crust.
On the basis of this visit, and for L.A. (there goes that qualifier again), Vito's rates near the top. While the pizza is on the pricey side ($28.50 for the pesto pie), it and the Margherita, sans fresh tomato, deserve a return visit. On the other hand, Joe's recent and unfortunate slide into inconsistency must be disheartening to all those who hoped that excellent pizza had finally come to L.A.
The bottom line: Vito's, despite its shortcomings, makes some of the best pizza in L.A.