13455 Maxella Avenue, Marina del Rey CA 90292 (2nd floor of Marina Marketplace; map); 310-577-8182; anticapizzeria.net
Pizza Style: Neapolitan, VPN-certified
Oven Type: Wood-burning
The Skinny: Delicious Neapolitan pizza from the president of the U.S. branch of the Verace Pizza Napoletana association
Price: Margherita pie (serves 1), $12.50
As a transplanted a New Yorker living in Los Angeles, I have often suffered pangs of homesickness for the streets of my youth. All I have to do is close my eyes and allow imagination and sense memories to transport me back to the Bronx.
One of the most poignant and vivid memories is of eating pizza, usually at either Paradise Pizza (just a few doors down from the palatial Loew's Paradise Theater) or at Burnside Pizza. Both establishments were ordinary, local businesses that produced extraordinary slices. I can clearly visualize a hot, plain slice, perfectly crunchy and chewy, and with a perfect balance of cheese and sauce, all for a mere 25¢.
Well, years have passed and, though the price of a slice has risen considerably, so has my degree of pizza sophistication. Having discovered in the '90s the wonders of coal-burning ovens and homemade mozzarella, my early love for this simple and satisfying food has evolved into an obsession. Imagine my excitement and relief when, more than ten years ago, I discovered that I lived just around the bend from Antica Pizzeria, Peppe Miele's Neapolitan outpost in Marina del Rey.
Miele, the president of the Verace Pizza Napoletana's American Division, has been preparing authentic Neapolitan pizza, as well as a full menu of pastas, meats, and other Neapolitan specialties (like timballetto and arancini di riso) in Los Angeles for many years. His lifelong passion for authenticity and integrity in the kitchen has resulted in a culinary oasis in Southern California's pizza desert.
The other night I went back for dinner, alone, so I wouldn't have to share the pizza, and decided to take a few notes, trying to recapture in words and images the transcendent culinary experience I have grown so accustomed to.
It was early for dinner so I had no trouble getting my favorite table. From this vantage point, there are no windows to remind me that I'm in the Marina Marketplace mall. All that can be seen is a mural of a Neapolitan street scene and a photograph of Naples' greatest product, Sophia Loren.
I ordered quickly—a gorgonzola salad and Margherita pie with sausage—grabbed a piece of house-baked bread, removed all but the crust (have to cut calories where possible), and dipped it into a dish of piquant, extra virgin olive oil nicely spiced with crushed red pepper and rosemary.
The salad of greens, radicchio, walnuts, and cheese chunks was fresh, balanced, and not overly dressed. A light, perfect starter. Then I noticed a slight trembling in my hands. Was it early onset Parkinson's (God forbid) or merely my growing anticipation? Clearly, the latter.
The waiter suddenly appeared and set the pie down in front of me. It was the perfect expression of the Neapolitan ideal as defined by the VPN. A crust made from "00" flour, topped with San Marzano tomatoes (canned). Buffalo mozzarella is available at Antica, but I went with the house-made fior di latte. All topped with basil. The red, green, and white of the classic Margherita pie, with a spicy crumbled sausage sprinkled throughout.
As can be seen in the photographs, a puffy, nicely charred cornicione encircled the pie. The upskirt shot reveals a well-charred bottom, courtesy of the wood-fired oven. As is typical of the Neapolitan pie, there is a liquid build-up in the center due to the "wetter" nature of bufala mozzarella and fior di latte. I learned years ago that, for my taste, it is wise to order the pie well-done. The crust, still not really crisp, is nevertheless, delicious. And if you are quick, you can fold the slice (as New Yorkers habitually do), gently support the end with the pinky finger, and bite the tip before any sagging occurs. Chewy, smoky, and almost sweet somehow, this crust is guaranteed to be finished off with a dip in the olive oil. No large chunks of crust left on the plate as is almost always the case in most of California's pizzerias.
Sadly, for the average pizza consumer, the crust is merely a surface for loading on various toppings. However, as Miele told me later, the crust is really the pizza's foundation and, just as with a house, if the foundation is weak, the house will collapse. No fear of collapse here, the crust reeks of simplicity and integrity.
As for the other elements of this pizza architecture, the creamy and fresh fior di latte and simple tomato sauce mingled cozily atop the crust. Again, the classical pizzaiolo's values of balance, simplicity, and integrity come shining through.
With all the pizza buzz ringing from coast to coast, it is fascinating that Miele's Antica Pizzeria has tended to fly below the media radar for so long. Interestingly, the No. 16 ranking given Antica in Alan Richman's Top 25 Pizza List in GQ already seems to have had an effect. The couple dining next to me had read the article and came to check out Antica. The man, an Italian native visiting L.A., confirmed that the pizza was truly authentic and unquestionably delicious. Not that I needed confirmation. My opinion of the pie can best be judged from the nearly bone-dry plate that now stared back at me.
Although I'm excited to see Antica finally begin to gain some well-deserved recognition, I can't help but think how ridiculously misleading Richman's article is. To rank L.A.'s Tomato Pie, a perfectly serviceable pizzeria, at No. 7 (not to mention the snubbing of Pizzeria Mozza), is to completely negate any credibility in the rest of the survey.
By the way, for all the pizza fanatics in the Pacific Northwest, Miele and other members of VPN will be in Seattle the last week of June conducting discussions and pizza demonstrations with that city's several VPN-certified pizzerias. For more information, check out Miele's VPN America website: verapizzanapoletana.org. Ciao!