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Pizzeria Mozza Just About as Good As You've Heard

Daniel Zemans, our man in Chicago, checks in with another piece of intel from the road, this time in Los Angeles. —The Mgmt.

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Pizzeria Mozza

641 N. Highland Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90036 (map); 312-337-6634; mozza-la.com/pizzeria
Getting There: It’s L.A.; get in a car and drive
Pizza Style: Artisinal
Oven Type: Wood
The Skinny: Rightfully recognized as one of the best pizzerias in the U.S., but the ambience and attitude could use some work
Price: All pizzas are about 10 inches and range from $10 to $22, with most around $15; most desserts are $8 or $9

The day I booked my flight to Los Angeles, I looked into making a reservation at Pizzeria Mozza. Upon discovering I could not make a reservation until exactly one month in advance of eating there, I set up my online calendar to remind me multiple times leading up to the minute the reservation line opened on February 20. While I would have been willing to wait for one of the approximately 20 seats at the bar that are first-come, first-served, I hoped to avoid that scenario.

All went according to plan and I was booked at a place Jonathan Gold says “reinvented the idea of pizza,” the Los Angeles Times says “is a master class in the art of making pizza," and Serious Eats’ own Ed Levine says may be the best pizzeria in the world.

Located in a rather nondescript neighborhood just over a mile south of the heart of Hollywood, Pizzeria Mozza is a joint venture between famed L.A. breadsmith Nancy Silverton, cofounder of La Brea Bakery and Campanile Restaurant, and New York restaurant titans Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich. The restaurant shares a building and a kitchen (but not a pizza oven) with its more upscale Italian sister, Osteria Mozza. The largest group that Pizzeria Mozza can accommodate in its dining room is seven, so I made a reservation for that number (more people=more pizzas). It turned out that one person in my group was too sick to make it so we were down one, which was fine, since the table was barely big enough for the six of us.

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Any discussion of the pizza at Mozza has to start with the crust. Nancy Silverton made her name in the food world by blowing people away with the quality of her breads. At Mozza, she has taken those years of experience and packaged them into ten-inch circles of crust that are probably the best unsweetened baked goods I have ever eaten. I don't know nearly enough about bread to speculate as to what is in the dough that makes it so good, but the L.A. Times just reported that there is a pinch of buckwheat in there, so that might be the explanation.

20090325MozzaUpskirt.jpgThe crust is crisp on the outside and has a chewy interior, has an incredible hole structure, and the very large cornicione, which takes up a disproportionate amount of the pie, is filled with crackery bubbles that add even more texture.

As good as the crust is, I thought there was too much of it. These pizzas are ten inches wide, and at least two inches—but probably closer to three inches—of the pies are unadorned with cheese or toppings. The oily bottom shown in the upskirt shot at right was not found on all of the crusts (that is a result of that particular pie being topped with a variety of meat products that added a lot of grease to that pizza).

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The bacon, salami, sausage, guanciale, tomato, and mozzarella pizza was a meat lover’s dream. Every piece of meat on this pie was high quality (though I did not actually notice any bacon). The salami and house-cured guanciale were both mouthwateringly crisp pieces of flavorful pork that added great flavor and texture to the pie. The sausage, which is made in house, was served in hunks of chewy, fennel-filled mounds. It was milder in flavor than the salami and not as fatty as the guanciale, but the proportions of the meats was such that I was able to taste and enjoy all of them.

What I could not really taste on this pie, and this was a theme of the evening, was the tomato sauce. That was unfortunate since, when I separated a bit of the well-seasoned sauce from the pie and tasted it on its own, I liked it a lot. Given the amount of toppings and their strong flavors—as well as the very sturdy crust—this pizza could have easily handled, and, I think, be improved with, more sauce.

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Because good sausage is so easy to buy from various butchers and sausage-makers, I can understand when pizzaioli choose to buy sausage from an outside vendor. So when one does take the time to make its own, I perk up a bit in anticipation. I have a love for sausage so strong that I always like to try a plain sausage pie as a way of measuring the quality of the pizzeria. The closest Mozza comes to a plain sausage pizza is its pie with sausage, panna, red onions, and scallions.

The fennel in the sausage, the sweet strings of red onions (which compensated for the absence of sauce) and the creamy panna played off one another incredibly well for a very balanced pie.

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Despite the fact that we were all eager carnivores, we could not pass up the gorgonzola dolce, fingerling potatoes, radicchio, and rosemary pizza As much as I love gorgonzola, on its own it would be a bit strong for any pie, even one with a crust as full and flavorful as Mozza’s. The mild radicchio (toned down by the oven) and the hunks of soft white potato helped take off some of the edge of the cheese and left us with a hearty, tangy pizza.

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The next pizza I tried was one we actually did not order. I handled all of the pizza ordering and the waiter stood next to me as I held up the menu and pointed to each pizza and identified them verbally with one or two key words. I pointed at one of the pizzas and said speck. That one happened to be the only pizza on the menu that actually has a name, which I did not mention. Apparently, my pointing and identifying the first ingredient was not enough because we ended up with a pie with speck, mozzarella di bufala, olive tapenade, and oregano.

When I pointed out the error to our server, he made it clear to everyone at the table that he thought I was an idiot for not being more specific with my order and took the uneaten portion away. Fortunately for me, I got to try a piece before realizing the mistake.

The thinly sliced speck was added to the pizza just after the pie came out of the oven, so it was room temperature when served and had none of the crispness that the salami and guanciale had on the earlier pizza. That would have been fine, except the bufala and the tapenade were also added after cooking was complete. I suspect the reason for waiting to add the cheese is that there is a lot of it and bufala is so moist that, if it were put in the oven for as long as it takes the crust to cook, the pizza would turn into a soggy mess. What made no sense to me was that the cheese was still a bit cool when it was served. The cheese was outstanding, and the speck had tremendous flavor, but the disparity in temperature left me feeling that this was an outstanding piece of bread with amazing toppings—but not pizza.

The speck was not the only meat that was not put in the oven. The prosciutto di Parma, arugula, tomato, and mozzarella pizza (the first pie pictured in this review) featured thinly sliced prosciutto that was added after cooking, at which point it was topped with raw arugula. Unlike the speck and bufala pie, the uncooked toppings on this pizza worked fine. The prosciutto was lightly warmed by the hot crust and cheese, and the arugula was room temperature.

Unlike Barack Obama, I am not a big fan of arugula and I would not have chosen this pizza on my own. Fortunately for me, the outstanding prosciutto did a good job of combating the bitterness of the arugula, and the crust and fresh mozzarella that formed the base of the pie ensured that it was still very, very good. Still, on my next visit, I will skip this pizza (although I may well get a plate of prosciutto as an appetizer).

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Until I went to Mozza, I had never liked clams on pizza. I have had it at two pizzerias that I otherwise love: Piece (reviewed here for Slice) and La Madia (reviewed here for Slice), but it has just not worked for me as a topping. At Mozza, the Ipswich clam, garlic, oregano, pecorino, and Parmigiano pizza taught me that clam pizza can be outstanding.

It was different from the previous versions I’d had in a couple of ways. First, the use of fresh Ipswich clams made a big difference. Second, the pecorino and Parmigiano toned down some of the brininess of the clam. In fact, whereas in other cases clams have overwhelmed the pizzas, the clam pie at Mozza was one of the most balanced pies of the evening.

When we finished eating the previously discussed five pizzas and they cleared all of the empty plates away, I tried to get our server’s attention to find out where our correct speck pizza was. He ignored me, but another server immediately came over to ask if he could help. I explained that we had been brought the wrong pizza and we were still waiting for the replacement. He said he would check with the kitchen but never returned. A few minutes later, I was able to get our server’s attention. I said that we were still waiting for our other pizza and asked how long it would be. He responded that it would be “a long time” and that the kitchen had a lot of pizzas to cook. I said it had been a long time already and again asked how much longer it would be. He said he would go check.

Soon thereafter, the manager came over and asked if everything was OK, and I explained the situation along with our waiter’s time estimate. She said that because they were so busy and the oven was so full, pizzas can take 30 to 40 minutes to cook. I did not mention that I found that there is absolutely no way that was a true statement, but I did say that we had already been waiting for half an hour for this pizza. She said she would go see if there was already one in the oven that she could direct our way. About ten minutes later we got our final pizza.

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I was pleased to discover that the Pizza alla Benno was worth the wait. The pizza, which comes with speck, pineapple, jalapeños, mozzarella, and tomato sauce, was rapidly devoured by some very full diners. Again, the very flavorful speck was not cooked, but the hot pizza ensured that it was at least a bit warmer than room temperature. The crust and mozzarella were flawless, the thinly sliced pineapple and jalapeño played well together, and there was, fortunately, no evidence of foul play on the part of our still-annoyed server. This pie, unquestionably the best Hawaiian pizza on the planet, was the perfect end to a night of outstanding dining. Or so I thought.

20090325MozzaButterscotch.jpgGiven that everyone at the table had agreed that we were all past full, I assumed there would be no dessert. But then one person decided she wanted to look at the dessert menu, which led to all of us looking at the dessert menu which, in turn, led to us ordering four desserts.

I did hesitate before adding my choice to the dessert order, but given that Silverton is one of many victims of Bernie Madoff, I felt it was my civic duty to order too much food. Well, I ordered out of the kindness of my heart and because, in addition to being a master of breads, Silverton knows a lot more than a thing or two about desserts (she was once the head pastry chef at Spago and has published multiple dessert cookbooks) and the dessert menu was singing my name.

Up first was the butterscotch budino with caramel and sea salt (pictured above), which is Mozza’s best-known dessert. I am not a huge butterscotch fan, but I cannot imagine anyone not loving this dish.

Rich and creamy do not begin to describe the succulent pudding. Alone, it would have been incredible. But when Mozza added a thin layer of soft caramel and a touch of sea-salt, it became exceptional. The good news is that if you want to make this dessert at home, the New York Times published the recipe, and a Chowhounder has published some modifications. The L.A. Times also has the recipe with very minor differences. The bad news is that if you make it yourself, you realize how much fat is in it.

As good as the budino was, there was a second dessert that I thought was even better: Meyer lemon gelato pie with candied lemon zest and Champagne vinegar sauce. Forget the candied lemon zest, which was good, and forget the sauce, which I did not notice. This is a generous block of exquisite not-too-sweet lemon gelato topped with whipped cream and sitting on a graham cracker crust. The gelato was unquestionably the star of this dessert, and a bowl of it alone would have been spectacular. But add a buttery crust that would have stood well as a dessert on its own and some whipped cream that serves to lighten up the dish a bit and I was left with the best dessert I have had in a long time.

Up next was the espresso granita with espresso gelato. The granita did not go over very well with the table, but the gelato itself was outstanding, and the honeycomb dipped in dark chocolate that accompanied it was even better.

The final dessert was the Key lime cheesecake with lime caramel. The creamy sweet, tart cheesecake was perfect in texture and flavor, but I did not love it. In its defense, I'm sure that I would have devoured it if not for the fact that at the time the cheesecake was sitting in front of me, I was more focused on when the person next to me was going to take a break from the gelato pie so that I could steal it back.

I knew after my first couple of bites of my first pizza of the evening that Pizzeria Mozza was among the top pizzerias I have been to. While it is not my favorite, it is definitely worthy of most of the praise it has gotten. The only significant drawback of the night (other than a bitter server and less than truthful manager) was the ambiance of the place. Take this as the rantings of a prematurely old man if you like, but the noise inside Mozza is loud that it was hard to talk to people on the opposite side of the table. And given the volume and the fact that it is a pizzeria, the overly dimmed lights confused me as to what kind of mood they were going for. But any complaints I have about the ambiance and service pale in comparison to the quality of the food. I cannot imagine going to Los Angeles and not returning to Mozza; I’ll just avoid weekend nights.

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