5616 E 2nd St, Long Beach, CA 90803 (map); 562-987-4000; michaelspizzeria.com
Pizza Style: Neapolitan
Pizza Oven: Wood
The Skinny: Fairly good Neapolitan with good toppings that can't live up to the hype it created.
Price: Margherita, $12; Squash Blossoms, $15; Pistacchio e Stracciatella, $15
Zagat was a pretty swell idea. Back in 1979, Nina and Tim Zagat began compiling restaurant recommendations from friends as a way to circumvent unreliable newspaper critics and, in the words of the company they eventually founded, became "the first provider of user-generated content." I can't speak for the 80s, but in the 90s and early 2000s, Zagat kinda worked. The folks willing to go through the trouble of voting analog (while crafting perfectly
bland "pithy" one-liners) were passionate enough about food to make relatively good picks; Zagat was never gospel, but the recommendations were at least in the ballpark.
Then the internet hit puberty. Crowdsourcing got easy, social media blew up, and Yelp laid waste to the recommendation game by harnessing the tyranny of the majority (Note: If you need an explanation on why crowd-sourced food opinions usually aren't worth your time, skip to the endnote). Zagat was forced to adopt the tactics of the young upstart and today it lives on as Google's in-house Yelp clone.
Why does this incomplete history lesson matter? Because of these sorts of questionably-curated "Best-Of" lists. As more and more pizzerias open, these recommendations make it harder for people to identify truly great food. Enter Michael's Pizzeria in Long Beach, recently named the top-rated pizza in the country by Zagat.
I'll get straight to the pizza. To no one reading Slice's surprise, Michael's is not the best pizza in the country, or even in Los Angeles (which is actually 45+ minutes away). This isn't to say it isn't actually pretty good, but for reasons I'll explain later, it's somewhat difficult for me to accurately judge.
Let's begin with the Margherita DOP ($12). I think we're moving away from that particular pie as our standard barometer, but if you're still tracking that stat, the one at Michael's doesn't rank so high. I liked the faint dusting of herb in the relatively vibrant tomato sauce, as well as the taste and texture of the homemade fresh mozzarella (before it congeals and gets a little rubbery), but the crust really failed this one. There's decent flavor, even though it's a young dough (one batch made in the morning sits out all day while the evening mix gets a brief visit to the fridge), but the ends were flat and slightly crusty and the crumb was oddly stiff and compacted. And as you can see, there isn't much char to provide the complexity you would hope for in a Neapolitan pie.
The cornicione on the Flori di Zucca ($15) was lighter and more delicate while gaining some spring. The thick layer of mozzarella on a moist bed of ricotta had a healthy dash of honey that made for a legitimately delicious base, but there weren't enough squash blossoms to make a real impression on the pie. Still, this was a genuinely good pizza that I'd happily order as long as I know that I'm basically getting a white pie. At its best, Michael's serves accessible Neapolitan-ish pizza for the masses, and this one isn't likely to disappoint.
For round two, I tried the larger and swankier downtown location and the results were slightly better. On first glance, this Pistacchio e Stracciatella ($15) pie looks like a dessert pizza flooded with whipped cream, but that's cheese, my friends. The buttery stracciatella, bathed in cream, quickly begins to melt over a thick slab of mild mortadella while pistachios provide a crunchy counterpunch. The first couple bites (with a knife and fork) are decadent, but don't try picking up a slice. There's no cheese below the mortadella, so there's nothing to anchor anything down and the toppings hydroplane off the crust like it's a slip-n-slide. And while there was actually more flavor in the dough here than at the other location, there simply isn't enough flour and water to compete with the mountain of toppings. It's a stunt pie for sure, but if you're feeling brave it's probably worth the risk.
My final pie, a Margherita with housemade sausage ($15), was a burn victim. Again, the toppings were uniformly good, but the pie was doughy on top and black on the bottom (with a small helping of oven dust). It was one of those pies you don't realize you should have sent back until you've eaten half of it...but it was still better than the first Margherita, which thankfully appears to have been an anomaly.
Now, back to that "best pizza" business. Admittedly, Zagat tried to walk the claim back and stressed that while Michael's was one of the highest scoring pizza in the country, they're only comfortable saying it's the best in Los Angeles. But then owner Michael Dene challenged Lucali to a pizza-off (not the right guy to pick a fight with), followed by the cities of Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. When someone so wants get in the ring with heavyweights, aren't you forced to judge them accordingly?
If I had stumbled into Michael's without any context, I probably would've been pleasantly surprised. Instead of counting all the ways it was lacking compared to masterful Neapolitan pizzas at Kesté or a dozen places I worship, I would have been content to eat at a merely good pizzeria that serves imperfect but relatively tasty pies. However, it's hard not to be colored by news stories or brash declarations on a blackboard:
Is it some great sin to declare your pizza the best? No. The restaurant business is a cruel beast out to destroy, so I can't begrudge any owner doing their best to get their name out. But to bastardize a Spiderman proverb, with great proclamations come great expectations, and Michael's simply can't live up to the hype. With that said, I'm sure Dene is happy to take his lumps from the pizza freaks if it means selling out of dough by nine.
So. Is Michael's even the best pizza in Long Beach? I can't say definitively because I have eaten exactly zero other pizzas there. But it probably is, and both locations were fun spots to grab a pie. That may not be enough for Michael's, but it's probably fine for the rest of us.
That Final Note on Lists
Look. Everyone deserves a voice, but every voice should not be heard at the same volume. Would you trust the collective opinion of 10,000 people in one city who all love one particular local pizzeria or one Adam Kuban who's had 10,000(ish) different pizzas? Moving to another medium that everyone thinks they're an expert on, are you going to tell me that The Avengers, a movie I like, is better movie than a new classic like Before Midnight just because it made 934 million dollars more? No. Popularity is not a judge of quality.
I recently had the best sushi I've ever had in my life, partly because I generally don't enjoy it. Is my opinion on sashimi just as valid as another person who's been a regular at that Jiro Dreams Of Sushi joint in Japan? I think not. We all agree that it's usually better to just call a plumber than to get the tools out yourself, so why don't we just leave pizza lists and recs to the Kubans? Food and art are only subjective to a point.