Monday, November 30, 2009

Pizzeria Mozza can convert a cheese-hater

It's a miracle that I made it to Pizzeria Mozza at all. After losing time while surfing in the OC, I made my way back (with a sliced toe), got lost looking for the freeway, charged through traffic (thank goodness I had my trusty iPhone that told me to avoid the 5, so I expertly traversed from the 5 to the 22 to the 405 to the 110 to the 10), my friends begged the hostess and managed to circumvent Pizzeria Mozza's reservation policy that they would give up our table after 15 minutes. Someone must have really wanted me to make it to the restaurant. After all, this dining experience could potentially transform me into a pizza-lover, or at the least a pizza-tolerator.

So yes, I have a major cheese issue. No it's not lactose intolerance. I ate cheese that had been sitting out in 100 degree weather many years ago and ever since then, I've had problems eating cheese, especially if it's melted and gooey. It's not like I don't try. The last time I had pizza, it was takeout Papa Johns on a late working night. I took a couple bites and automatically had to barf it out. I had the same gag reflex with lasagna and grilled cheese. However recently in the last week, I have been pleasantly surprised by pizzas. I had a slice at Bottega Louie and at Jones. It was then when I came to the realization that Pappa Johns had screwed me for over 5 years. After that bad pizza, I shunned all other pizzas without realizing that if the mozzarella was fresh and not greasy, I *might* be able to eat a slice. Now mind you, I was going to take baby steps. Only good quality pizza and only 1-2 slices max. So, where would one go for the best pizzas in town? Pizzeria Mozza or course! I've deliberately stayed away from the Pizzeria but have enjoyed the Osteria. Not any more; I made the 1st reservation I could get for Pizzeria Mozza which was Sunday lunch at 2pm.

Pizzeria Mozza first opened in 2006 and the brand expanded to include the more formal Osteria and delivery takeout Mozza2Go. Mozza is owned by Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery and prior co-owner of Campanile and ex wife of its chef Mark Peel, Mario Batali of Babbo in NYC, Foodnetwork, PBS and buddy of Gywneth Palthrow, and Joseph Bastianich who is Batali's long time Babbo partner. But this is really Silverton's project; you'll rarely see Batali and Bastianich on the premises.

Thankfully, the hostess arranged for another table given that I would arrive 30 minutes after our reservations. I'm glad that despite the popularity of the place, they were very cooperative. While waiting on me (sorry friends!), they ordered wine at the bar. The bartender was great; he gave tastings to my friends when they didn't like the 1st glass that they had ordered. A+ for effort but unfortunately my friends still didn't like any of them. I have to say that they are not high-maintenance wine drinkers, but apparently the wines they sampled had a watered down taste. But I understand, it's all about preference and I appreciate that the bartender tried to find them the right glass.

The menu includes pizzas, salads, panini and a variety of antipasti. I love small plate dining and if I had my way, I would fill up on the antipasti including bone marrow, corn and Brussels sprouts with prosciutto breadcrumbs. But not this time, I was here to experience the Mozza pizza.

The main dining room was smaller than I had expected, no wonder reservations are hard to come by. The tables were close together and it was loud and bustling at 2.30pm on a Sunday. When I finally arrived with wet/salty/kelp in hair (yes girls, that's the new look these days), we were seated in the private room that looked like a cellar lined with bottles of wine. Don't try to steal any of the wine, we saw some security cameras pointed at the bottles. The space was intimate and private enough that I didn't feel bad about taking photos and distracting diners.

Staircase lined with candles

Our waiter recommended a bottle of wine (Costa d'Amalfi "Furore") when we asked for something a bit more heavy bodied. The wine was one of the priciest at $46 (which isn't that pricey at all) but was just alright. We've been having quite some issues with the wine.

Bread sticks came wrapped in paper; rationed one for each of us.
I was a little disappointed that we just got bread sticks instead of bread. After all, Silverton is the queen of fresh artisan bread.

Chicken liver bruschetta with capers and guanciale
I've heard many raves about this dish and I concur. It was delicious and I'm glad I got my own piece. The liver was not too creamy and had a bit of texture. Everything worked so well in this dish. The capers were embedded in the liver and you could barely taste it (which was good for me). I love the guanciale that was fried and crispy which I thought was a nice touch. The crostini was toasted and drizzled with good olive oil. Absolutely amazing bite.

Chopped salad which included lettuce, radicchio, red and yellow cherry tomatoes, provolone, peppercini, garbanzo, salami. The peppercini lent a nice spice to the dish. I don't particularly care for salads so I wasn't in love with this but it tasted fine.

Pizza with squash blossoms, tomatoes and burrata
This was a unique pizza that came in a beautiful presentation. I'm glad we ordered it because we wanted something different from what you could normally get elsewhere. The pizza had a bit of a bitter flavor from the squash blossoms and the burrata cheese was creamy and rich. It was a good first step to a pizza for me because the cheese was a small portion and did not taste overwhelming. One of the key factors of a great pizza is the dough and Mozza delivered. The crust was fresh, crispy, light and not too doughy.

Pizza with fennel sausage, panna, onions and scallions
I had heard that the fennel sausage pizza was overly greasy but we quickly realized that there was another fennel sausage pizza (with bacon, salami and guanciale) on the menu that might have been the greasy one. This pizza was really good as well. It smelt amazing when it came out and had a sweetness from the onions and saltiness from the sausage. The sausage was flavorful and supposedly homemade. I thought the pizza would be rich from the panna (Italian cream) and mozzarella but I didn't even notice they were in the pizza. The cream and cheese were both mild and worked well with everything else in the pizza. Apparently the cheese is delivered daily which is why it tastes fresh and of good quality. Believe me, I know. I am a cheese critic.

There was no room for dessert and can you believe that we had leftovers? I think we were all overstuffed from our weekend thanksgiving binge.

I really enjoyed lunch at Pizzeria Mozza. The service was very efficient (lunch took 1 1/2 hours) and accommodating. Our waiter was very amicable and gave good food recommendations and the bartender was patient with my friends' wine selections. The food was excellent. Yes it's not the cheapest pizza meal at around $170 including tax and tip for three diners. Most pizzas cost around $13-18 and $22 for the burrata pizza, and they are about four slices each. However the dough was delicious, the ingredients were fresh and they all worked really well together, as though Nancy Silverton had experimented tirelessly until she found the right combinations for each of her dishes. The presentation was simple yet lovely. Yes, Mozza has turned me to pizza, although that liver bruschetta still has my heart.

Hits: liver crostini, pizzas, service
Misses: still popular so make reservations, not the cheapest meal
Rating: ****

Pizzeria Mozza
641 N. Highland Ave.,
Los Angeles, CA 90036
(323) 297-0101

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