LA's pizza industry seems to have taken a cue from its food trucks. From Santa Monica to Silver Lake, the region has reached a critical mass of fermenting dough, melting mozzarella, burning almond wood, and pricey ovens reaching staggering temperatures. And this gourmet infatuation with the Italian staple shows no signs of slowing, with nearly 10 pizzeria openings this spring (Sammy's Woodfired Pizza, Lucifers, and SliceTruck, among them), more scheduled for summer (Antico, Pitfire Pizza), and the Maria Shriver-backed Blaze Pizza planning upwards of 15 Chipotle-style restaurants in SoCal by the end of next year. The numbers don't lie: A Technomic study released earlier this year reveals 41 percent of consumers now eat pizza once a week—up 15 percent from 2010.
"I think LA has historically been under-pizzafied," says former Michael Mina corporate chef Anthony Carron, chef, creator, and cofounder of Westwood's six-month-old 800 Degrees (owned by Umami Restaurant Group), which creates customized thin-crust Neapolitan pies that cook between 60 and 90 seconds in a wood-fired oven. "There hasn't been much great pizza here, so you see a lot of people rushing in to fill that gap. It's accidental for me that Neapolitan is the rage—three years ago when I started thinking about it, it was still novel."
LA may be in the midst of a pizza coming of age, but it wasn't exactly devoid of the comfort food before. Wolfgang Puck's Spago and its smoked salmon pies begat the artisan-pizza movement, which Pitfire Pizza (opening its sixth location in Newport Beach this summer) turned informal in 1998, inspired by the casual-food movement. "We wanted to do a pizza version [of Baja Fresh], which is really ironic because now people are rushing to create the Chipotle of pizza," says chairman and cofounder Paul Hibler. With its giant red Mugnaini ovens, Pitfire now bakes about 3,000 pies daily. "One thing even highly acclaimed chefs discover is that it's a craft," he says. "It's a living thing you have to understand, and it's hard."
At just under six years old, Pizzeria Mozza (now in Newport Beach, too) is LA's most notable veteran. Launched by Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali, and Joseph Bastianich to great acclaim, it became an instantly impossible-to-get reservation. "It was a challenge to make a pizza that was not a copy of the style of somewhere else—it's the pizza I want to make," says Silverton. If Puck opened LA's gourmet-pizza door, Silverton's mouthwatering, creative pies ultimately swung it wide open.
"[Co-owner and cochef Steve Samson and I] had an appreciation for Neapolitan pizza as the best a pizza can be. LA just didn't have any," says Zach Pollack, co-owner and cochef at Sotto, a basement bistro on West Pico that has—since opening last spring—served up one of the city's best Margherita pies out of a showpiece, yellow, hand-built Stefano Ferrara oven. Echoes Bez Compani, owner and pizzaiolo at the 15-month-old Mother Dough in Los Feliz, "I always wanted to create a concept around Neapolitan pizza because there is such beauty in its deceptive simplicity. I got excited to add another dimension to an already thriving pizza culture here."
While the style, baking times, and toppings—from shrimp and Sun Gold tomatoes at Santa Monica's Milo & Olive to zucchini flowers and speck at Delfini Città in Beverly Hills—vary drastically, it seems dough makes or breaks a pie. It's the simplest recipe: water, flour, and salt, but with infinite results. At some spots such as Sotto, dough rituals are top-secret. At Santa Monica's year-old Stella Rossa Pizza Bar, chef/partner Jeff Mahin spent a year experimenting with different recipes (his dough rises in mason jars; when it reaches the top, it's ready) and researching types of flour to ultimately achieve a breadlike outer crust and thin, crispy bottom that holds mouthwatering knots of house-made organic Italian sausage and just-picked oregano.
By contrast, Neapolitan crust is soft and elastic. Century City's Obikà Mozzarella Bar's dough—made with stone-ground, partly whole-wheat flour—rises for 48 hours, with up to five temperature changes. "It's a little bit science and a little bit art as well," says Raimondo Boggia, CEO of Obikà USA. "When it's raining, cold, or hot, it's different. That's why pizza can taste different one day to the other, like a good wine." Mother Dough uses a starter with double-zero flour from Naples that Compani has cultivated for years.
When it comes to sauce and cheese, LA pizza chefs swear by Italy's San Marzano tomatoes, though cheese choices are wide-ranging: buffalo mozzarella imported from Campania (Mother Dough), burrata hand-delivered weekly by a local third-generation Italian cheese maker (800 Degrees), or even vegan "cheese" at Mohawk Bend and Urbano Pizza Bar, where every pizza can be made vegan, vegetarian, or gluten-free.
All of these pizzerias appeal to the universal comfort-food urge we all have. "Every stage of this pizza is immensely challenging," says Compani. "Make no mistake, working with fire and wild dough is a science, but there's magic to it, and that's what keeps me going."