Trembling like a teenager in anticipation of his first kiss, I got in my car and headed in an easterly direction on the Santa Monica Freeway. Unlike a teenager, however, I was anticipating that Bollini's Pizzeria, out in Monterey Park of all places, would satisfy my now desperate craving for great pizza.
Up till now, every pizzeria that has been touted as awesome here in California has left me seriously disappointed. Nevertheless, the hype about Bollini's fired my hopes. Signor Christiano Bollini, born and bred in Monterey Park, a predominantly Chinese suburb of Los Angeles, had trained in Naples, where he discovered the art of pizza. He also uses a wood-burning oven to generate the proper heat level, 800 degrees Fahrenheit, more or less, necessary to char the crust in less than 3 minutes. And even though he does not follow the orthodox rules of pizza-making as codified by the Verace Pizza Napoletana association, his method and ingredients had created quite a buzz in Southern California's pizza scene.
My friend and I arrived just after opening, and, for a brief while, we were the only patrons. The small restaurant has room for only a narrow line of tables down one side, with the oven and cooking area clearly in view across a narrow aisle. We sat down right across from the burning wood logs, though Bollini warned us that we might want to sit farther in back because it gets hot near the oven. I had no intention of abandoning this table with its perfect view of the oven and Bollini's assistant pie man, Jesse, as he worked his magic. I wanted to see all the pizza action from a ringside seat. Bring on the heat!
As we perused the menu, finally settling on the research standard half-Margherita half-sausage, I had to admit that the heat was becoming inexorably oppressive. One might imagine Dante's circles of Hell. Nevertheless, we gave no serious thought to moving. It is precisely in such trying circumstances that professionals have to look deep within and make the necessary physical sacrifice to fully appreciate the pizza experience. So I merely reached for a pile of napkins and began wiping the sweat off my face.
In the meantime, I asked Bollini about the ingredients that go into creating his pies. Happily, unlike some pizzaioli, he did not hesitate to reveal his "secrets." Bollini uses the commercial Grande brand mozzarella, "00" flour, and, for the sauce, which he makes every other day, he uses California plum tomatoes and some herbs and spices.
Returning to the table, I stopped to watch Jesse flatten the dough to about the thickness of a credit card (as stipulated by the VPN). He then carefully spread the sauce in a circular motion, applied the cheese, and then slid the divine disc into the flaming oven. Watching the process was worth every drop of sweat. The moment of truth would arrive shortly.
The first pie's arrival ignited my long-dormant pizza sensors like a double jolt of espresso. The irregularly shaped spheroid glistened like a Jackson Pollack–esque hallucination of swimming colors. Basil greens, tomato reds, mozzarella golds mingled with drops of sparkling, extra-virgin olive oil. These swirling hues and the intoxicating aroma seemed to carry me away on a celestial, epicurean expedition rarely experienced west of the Hudson River.
As the irresistible spicy meat beckoned, I bit into my first sausage slice with the zeal of a vampire seizing the throat of his first victim of the night. The chunks of grainy, juicy fennel sausage and its herbal scent warmly greeted my palate. The mozz and the slightly sweet and spicy sauce blended seamlessly with the meat. A nicely charred crust provided the foundation for these toppings. For my taste, I must confess that the crust was a bit too thin. Clearly, Bollini models his crust on the traditional Neapolitan style with its credit card thickness. Aside from this mild personal caveat, this pie proved worthy of the local, blog hype. My friend and I nodded approvingly at each other, surprised and eminently satisfied.
The second pie, half-white, half-Margherita, unfortunately, raised some fundamental objections. First, as can be seen in the photograph (above), the thick carpet of basil completely obscured the cheeses. Frankly, the pizza could have been more appropriately labeled a half green pie. To be fair, I have seen other Neapolitan-style pizzas load on their toppings in this manner. Even the now-legendary Chris Bianco sometimes seems a bit heavy handed with his delicious toppings. Ultimately, this may be more of an aesthetic judgment rather than a criticism of the quality. Personally, I prefer the classical approach of the ancient Greeks, who valued balance, restraint, and proportionality rather than the excesses of the subsequent Hellenistic era.
The more troubling element of the second pie was the crust. Unlike the first pie's crust, this one instantly transfixed a stunned frown on my once-happy countenance. I had previously read one unhappy blogger complain that his pie's crust had tasted like cardboard.
"How could this be?" I wondered. A Naples-trained chef, a wood-burning oven, and an artisan's obvious love of pizza seemed to render such a pizza atrocity impossible. And yet, the pie's crust did unequivocably taste like a thin pile of papers. In spite of this jarring blow to my pizza sensibility, I ate two more slices to confirm my judgment. Alas, there was no mistake. Dry and pasty did accurately describe the second crust. No complaints about the ricotta, mozz, and fresh basil, but the dough foundation did not offer the crisp and chewy texture expected of top-quality pizza.
This unexpected and depressing turn of events certainly sapped the joy from the earlier festive mood and left a bad taste in my mouth.
Despite the shocking failure of the second pie, Bollini's earns 4 out of 5 stars. My generous and forgiving nature cannot help but give Signor Bollini and Jesse an opportunity to redeem themselves. After all, the service was friendly and efficient, the prices quite reasonable, and the first pie impressed itself positively on my culinary memory.
As General Douglas MacArthur once promised the people of the Philippines, "I shall return"—to Bollini's.