Los Angeles: Is 800 Degrees Really a Pizza Game Changer?
10889 Lindbrook Dr. Los Angeles, CA 90024 (map); 424-239-5010 ; 800degreespizza.com
Pizza Style: Neapolitan
Pizza Oven: Woodstone wood-burning
The Skinny: Assembly line pizza aims for high quality at low prices, but consistency is a sticking point.
Price: Margherita, $6.50; Sausage & Peppers, $9.45; Extras, $1-3
Of all the new openings since the ridiculously overdue makeover of LA's pizza scene, no pizzeria has garnered more attention than Westwood's 800 Degrees. The presence of Umami Burger founder (and King of the All Braggadocio) Adam Fleischman as a backer is certainly one reason, but chef and co-owner Anthony Carron's concept of a Chipotle-like, fast-casual Neapolitan pizzeria is what keeps people talking.
Kelly Bone already posted a great 800 Degrees treatise you should check out, but for brevity's sake, here's how it works. You go through an assembly line where
sandwich pizza artists stretch your pie, top it based on your wishes from a humongous selection of ingredients (including rarities like truffle cheese and broccolini), and cook it in a wood-fired oven for you while you pay. Then you're off to create some Frankenstein drink from the genuinely cool Ferrari soda machine before a Hunger Games-like battle to find an open table. It's a revolutionary, legitimately great idea...that's been around since the mid-90's at Punch Pizza in Minneapolis, where Carron went to school. But still.
Chipotle is the comparison of note, but I think 800 Degrees is actually a polar opposite. Chipotle took cheap fast food burritos, shined 'em up (or mutilated them based on your perspective), and tacked on a couple extra bucks. 800 Degrees takes a premium product like Neapolitan pizza, cuts some corners, and charges less. Way less. The cheapest Neapolitan Margherita of note I can think of is Del Poppolo's ($10). You can walk out of 800 with a 12-inch Margherita for $6.50 and that's after they've already raised the prices.
But do you get what you pay for? Sometimes. And sometimes you get a lot more. But if the ingredients screwed your pie's pooch, it's probably because you chose poorly. Most of the toppings have quality labels on their packaging (Fra' Mani salami, San Felice flour, etc.) and and literally every component I've tasted so far falls in the "good enough or better" category. The sauce, made from a rotating stock of California "San Marazano styles," is balanced and relatively clean—good enough to dab your crust in as you're tidying your plate up—and every pie gets a full four ounce ball of Di Stefano fresh mozzarella torn up and spread around. Clearly they're going for volume to make a profit (and if you're worried about their bottom line, Fleischman would like to reassure you: "We're making a lot of money.").
So where's the problem? If the devil is in the details, the details in Neapolitan pizza are in the dough. The majority of the time, the crust at 800 Degrees is...pleasant. It's soft, moist, and chewy with just just the barest hint of sourdough. The cornicione is pillowy, and vacillates between flat and almost puffy enough. Anyone looking for meaningful char or leopard spotting is usually going to have pay full fare somewhere else, but there's usually enough flavor to ensure there aren't any crust orphans on your plate. Sounds good enough, right? Well that's when it's on, and consistency is the single biggest problem at 800.
In my sixteen visits, I've had two pies where the dough mix was off, leaving a scarily bland crust without any trace of fermentation, and two others where the cornicione was strangely tough and hard to chew. And the bake itself is always a white knuckle ride. Many pies come out fairly even, but I had one where the bottom appeared to be spray painted black (while the top was undercooked), and more than a couple others have had thick black burn lines running along one side of the pizza while the rest of it was a whiter shade of pale. And one complaint that always seems to apply? The shelf life of these babies is shorter than the line at Domino's. I realize that applies to all Neapolitan pizza, but I'm telling you, you've got literally five minutes to gear up and get it down before the crust gets gummy.
Based on the inconsistency, it's best to take full advantage of the toppings. 800 is build your own, but they offer eight combos for people who don't trust themselves. Of those, the sausage, peppadew pepper, and caramelized onion pie is the winner. Everything pops on the pie, especially the sweet peppadews, and it hits all five basic tastes the same way Fleischman's Umami burgers do. The basic pie? Not as exciting I'm afraid. I'm usually Mr. Margherita, but at 800 I always go with a topping (usually the very solid soppressata) to give it a much-needed kick.
Serious Eats Big Bossman Ed Levine recently said, "In some ways, 800 Degrees is one of the most interesting things happening with pizza in the country." Contrasting that, an elite Los Angeles pizzaiolo privately told me he'd rather eat Subway. I don't know if I'd go that far, but 800 seems at best like a lottery ticket to me. A good Neapolitan for under $8 (with a topping) is an incredible bargain, but when you catch a bad pie you're kicking yourself for not getting slices at Vito's. Also troubling is the fact that over the course of my 16 visits, consistency is trending downwards, not up. The photos you see here aren't spectacular, but it took me three trips to get a decent-looking pie. I was much more of a fan three months ago.
Given that the staff at 800 Degrees is battling a line 15 hours a day/7 days a week, it's unfair to expect that every pie be perfect. After all, great Neapolitan pizza is hard to pull off consistently for even the best. But because of that I sometimes wonder if they've bitten off more than they can chew. I'd happily recommend 800 to pizza "civilians," and those looking for bargains, but anyone who cares enough about pizza to come to this site has a fair chance of being disappointed. Can decent Neapolitan pizza be produced on a budget by an assembly line? Yes. Well, most of the time. However, I have serious doubts that great pizza ever will be.
About the author: Lance Roberts is a writer in Los Angeles. A longtime fan of Slice, he joined as a contributor in 2012.