Family Tradition at Antonio's Pizzeria in Sherman Oaks, California

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[Photographs: Lara Bowman]

Antonio's Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant

13619 Ventura Boulevard, Sherman Oaks CA 91423; map; 818-788-1103; antoniospizzeria57.com
Pizza style: Pizza Parlor Pizza
Oven type: Gas-fired stone and brick
The Skinny: An unpretentious slice of family tradition.
Price: $11.50 to $19.95 per pie

Family owned and operated since 1957, Antonio's Pizzeria was one of the first Italian restaurants to open in the San Fernando Valley. Brother and sister team Steven and Alexandra Lunardon took over the business twenty years ago, and have honored and maintained the family pizzeria's recipes and traditions.

An aroma of garlic gently perfumes the air as you enter. Empty Chianti bottles hang along the walls, and red checkered tablecloths drape the tables. You could be forgiven for forgetting what year it is.

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With Frank Sinatra crooning in the background, I ordered one pie topped with half pepperoni and sausage and another with half mushroom and eggplant. Antonio's pizzas are cooked in a gas-fired stone oven. The family recipe pizza sauce is uncooked and mildly seasoned and topped with freshly grated low-moisture mozzarella.

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Sinking my teeth into the first slice of pizza, I noticed that the thin crust could have spent more time in a higher temperature oven; it's a little soft and lacks any char. Admittedly, we arrived at their opening time of 4:00 p.m. for a rather late lunch, so the ovens may not have been up to full temperature. The crust eventually began to sag from sogginess, especially on the pepperoni and sausage pie. Some slices suffered an unfortunate and unexpected avalanche-slide of toppings.

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The highlight of both pies was the outstanding sauce. It was pleasantly bright tasting and flavorful, appropriately portioned and definitely not too sweet or overly seasoned. The sauce is a long-held family recipe and I can understand a devoted following developing for Antonio's based on the sauce alone.

The handmade sausage was also delicious, with a perfect dose of fennel and garlic, though some might prefer a little less salt. The pepperoni was spiced with paprika and garlic (and just enough grease—you know you love it, pepperoni fans.) All of the pizzas were finished with a light dusting of dried oregano, but it wasn't overpowering.

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When I ordered the eggplant-topped pizza, I imagined a lovely marriage between eggplant parmigiana and pizza. But the eggplant was a sad miss for me. Even though it was sliced thinly, it arrived nearly raw on the pie. The standard button mushrooms were fresh and plentiful, overloading the pie a bit. A smaller amount of another type of mushroom such as crimini or shiitake would elevate this topping to new heights.

If you head to Antonio's, I'd recommend that you stick with the sausage and pepperoni pie, and consider arriving later in the evening with the hope that the oven will really be blazing. Are the pies perfect? No. But the excellent sauce and warm atmosphere set Antonio's apart from the pack.

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