2019 E 7th Street Los Angeles, CA 90021 (map); 213-627-1430 ; pizzanista.com
Pizza Style: New York
Pizza Oven: Baker's Pride
The Skinny: Hip downtown destination for dense, unbalanced New York slices.
Price: Slices, $2.75; Sicilian, $4; 18" pies $18 and up
Pizzanista! (their exclamation point, not mine) shares a wall with Tony's Saloon in the burgeoning downtown arts district, where one second you feel like you're in vibrant Brooklyn West and the next you wonder if you're starring in a Judgment Night sequel. Originally opened by skateboarding legend Salman Agah and Todd Giordanella (as Toddy G's), the partnership dissolved rather quickly and publicly, and Pizzanista! emerged from the wreckage with Agah and wife, Price Latimer Agah, at the helm. Little, if anything, has changed in the fourteen months since the name change, partly because heavy hitter Steve Samson, one-half of the dynamic duo at Sotto, had already contributed recipes, and partly because no one was complaining about the food. That is, until now.
Before I get my pitchfork out...some full disclosure. I was disappointed enough with Toddy G's that I never bothered to make the trek to Pizzanista!, and my first trip back was, in hindsight, a disaster. My slices were bad enough that I drove back across town the very next day (on Carmageddon II no less) to figure out where all of the raves were coming from. What follows is a tale of two slices...each unsatisfying in their own unique way.
Night one, I started with a plain cheese, the lego building block of all good slices. One of the big talking points at Pizzanista! is the sourdough crust (and yet another supposed 200-year-old starter sourced back to Italy), but I honestly couldn't find many hints of natural fermentation. What I did get is that crunch you absolutely dread—the kind that alerts you to the fact that you just lost a game of stale slice roulette. Complicating matters was a heavy dose of ash from the unbrushed oven floor that imparted a burnt-up-beyond-all-recognition taste to every bite. Moving inwards, sporadic heaps of aged mozzarella and too salty Grana Padano were masked by the over-tanged, bordering on sour sauce. Large flakes of herbs didn't do much to correct the imbalance. I don't mind an uncooked, unsweetened sauce, but I personally don't believe that the canned tomatoes that Pizzanista! uses are good enough to go uncooked or naked.
Hoping some toppings would improve the situation, I moved on to pepperoni. Though it was loaded with spice, the pork didn't gel with the rest of the pizza and the slice ended up being one-dimensional. Even worse, was an overly generous re-heat. The thin edge of the triangular crust looked like it'd been outlined with a sharpie and the bottom was so black I'm too embarrassed to share the upskirt.
Just as I was ready to write off the entire space once again, the Sicilian slice came in to save the day. The crumb had a dense, oily texture, like if full two full inches of dough had been compressed down to one fifth the size. Moist, and full of the rich sourdough notes I had lost hope of discovering, the crust made up for any shortcomings in the ingredients. It couldn't make up for the two regular slices though.
The next day, I got to Pizzanista! early to insure fresh slices, and sure enough they tasted completely different—though I still couldn't find much sourdough floating around. Thick and fluffy, the ends were much closer in taste and texture to a well-made breadstick than anything else. The slices are floppy and foldable, but there's so much heft in the bread and toppings that you really don't want to crease them and double your intake.
The Margherita was an improvement in flavor, thanks to some buttery fresh mozzarella, but I suspect that the lighter touch with the still problematic sauce was a bigger factor in my enjoyment.
Better still was the Meat Jesus. As you can probably guess, it features an assload of tasty, high quality sausage, pepperoni, and bacon for those who choose to worship the pig. It was the only slice with enough flavor to counter the onslaught of tang from the sauce and bring harmony to the pizza. Who said fat is bad? And as an added bonus, you only need one massive slice to stay full for 37 hours or so.
The biggest surprise (and disappointment) from the second visit was an ill-fated return to the Sicilian. Everything was more muted this time. The crumb wasn't nearly as moist, it didn't have the big sourdough notes, and the edges lacked the same formidable crunch from the night before. Don't get me wrong, it was still good slice, but it tasted a lot more like everyone else's version of a Sicilian this time around.
Now it's time for one more disclosure. I didn't even taste one of the biggest (if not the biggest) selling points of the joint. See, there's a healthy cross-section of vegans on the east side, and Pizzanista is doing them all a solid by offering vegan cheese and meat options. I stared at a Daiya cheese slice in the case for literally two minutes, but I simply didn't have it in me to pull the trigger. Lucky for me, Kelly Bone is happy to take any and all vegan bullets and would like to assure you that the "faux" slices are fantastic. I have no doubt this is true. If you are vegan. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
I honestly haven't been to Pizzanista! enough to know how big of an issue consistency is, but I get the sense that I probably caught them on a rare (very) off night. With that said, if round two was indicative of Pizzanista! on a good day, I wouldn't put them in my top tier of LA slices. Still, putting aside the fact that I've put a contract hit out on the tomato sauce, it's a legitimately cool place to hang out with friends—especially at the indoor/outdoor counter.