Venice, CA: On Gjelina and the Rise of Cheffy Pizza
1429 Abbot Kinney Blvd Venice, CA 90291 (map); 310-450-1429 ; gjelina.com
Pizza Style: Artisanal
Pizza Oven: Wood-fired
The Skinny: Nice middle ground between fancy and filling, with good toppings and a light baker's crust
Price: Pomodoro with Burrata, $14; Lamb Sausage, $15; Grilled Radicchio & Bacon, $15; Nettles $14
"Cheffy" is a word that can go a couple different ways. To some, it means high-quality, ingredient-driven food that's sometimes complex, but always skillfully prepared. Others use it dismissively, and even pejoratively, to write off fare that they view as pretentious, esoteric, or overly complicated. No matter where you come out on the usage, I can assure you of one thing: Gjelina serves cheffy pizza.
To be clear, Gjelina is not a pizzeria; it's actually the standard-bearer of locavore cuisine in oh-so-trendy Venice, CA. Still, chef/owner Travis Lett serves up a ton of pizzas—18 different ones on his late-night menu—and though most are fairly minimalist, there are a lot of unique combinations on display. As in plenty of tallegio, fontina and goat cheese, and very little mozzarella. Going "off book" isn't necessarily a new thing in a Paulie Gee world, but I believe cheffy places like Gjelina helped prime us for the explosion of creative pies that we've seen in the last five years.
Lett serves "artisan pizza"—a frustratingly vague class of pie that usually consists of non-Neapolitan thin crust pies cooked in a wood-fired oven, made by people who (purportedly) give a sh*t. The staff at Gjelina obviously cares because there's always a robust, bready tang in the crust to mitigate the swaths—not spots—of char. There's flavor to burn here, literally. Where it can get dicey is the texture. The fermentation sometimes gets a little wonky, so some ends have slightly spongy crumbs with perfectly crisp exteriors, while others fall victim to gaseous bubbles, all crusty and hollowed out. They're a little sloppy on the stretch, but as it is with most cheffy pizza, the focus here is more on the ingredients than the dough. And that's okay.
The first pizza that ever went into Gjelina's wood-fired oven four years ago was the "Grilled Raddichio, Bacon, Fontina & Tomato Confit" (that's right, no nicknames here), and it's still my favorite. The singed, bitter leaves meld with a generous helping of smoky bacon strips and pockets of ridiculously bright, sweet tomato over a smooth fontina base. It's a perfectly balanced pizza, which isn't so easy with all those intense flavors.
"Nettles with Garlic Confit, Chili, Fontina & Parmesan" is more delicate, but it's another winner. If you haven't had nettles yet, they're like spinach with a little more herb and a little more flavor. They're fantastic with the garlic and the creamy mix of cheeses. The chilis, which show up all over the menu, deliver a necessary jolt, but I could have used even more of them.
Where it starts to go south for me is the "Lamb sausage, Tomato Confit, Rapini, Pecorino and Asiago." It's a fairly popular pie, so I'm surprised I don't like it more. Independently, all the ingredients are fine; together they're muddled and overly earthy. The sweetness of that wonderful tomato confit gets trampled by the funky aged cheeses and the harmony breaks down for me. Of course, there's every chance I just don't like lamb on my pizza, so it might be worth fact-checking me.
The most disappointing pie is, unsurprisingly, the most basic one. No, not a Margherita. Gjelina may be the first new school place to take old faithful off the menu. The "Pomodoro" has a cooked tomato sauce, oregano, chili, green olive oil, and optional burrata (an option I exercised). It's not a bad pie, but unless you've got your dough going at top speed, sauce and cheese alone are likely to disappoint. However, the biggest snag was a strange aftertaste emanating from the cheese (Kelly Bone's palette said "playdough"). I'm not sure if it was just a questionable batch of burrata, but there's something seriously wrong when you're eating around cheese on a pizza.
If you're in the mood, there's other quibbles, starting with $14-15 for a 10-inch pie. And the crust just isn't as good as the equally dainty (but slightly pricier) Pizzeria Mozza or Milo + Olive. On the other hand, you can't knock the quality of the ingredients. You get what you pay for at Gjelina (burrata incident aside).
Now, back to that word, "cheffy." There may be a little too much goat cheese floating around the menu for my taste, but I've never understood why people get so annoyed by ambitious pizzas. It's the same for movies. I'm unapologetically excited for Fast & Furious 6 (please watch goofball supreme Vin Diesel drive a car out of an exploding airplane if you are not), the movie equivalent of pepperoni with extra extra cheese, but I'll take an ambitious but flawed film, like Life of Pi, over it any day. And so it is with pizza.
If you just want a simple pie that you know is going to satisfy, you're probably safer shooting up Main and hitting up Stella Rossa, or even Joe's. Of course, even Travis Lett would tell you that. After all, Gjelina started the whole "no substitutions/additions/subtractions/so suck it" thing in LA before it was cool/backlashed against/grudgingly accepted. But if you want to stretch a little and try something more unique—and you don't mind booking three weeks in advance or waiting outside for an hour—Gjelina might just be your jam.*
*Sorry. Too much time in Venice.
About the author: Lance Roberts is a writer in Los Angeles.