The argument about who serves 'the best pizza in L.A.' is waged fiercely on the Internet's food blogs, with no resolution in sight. (Usually there never is a resolution to the question of 'the best' anything, merely a range of choices according to one's own tastes and timing.) I must admit that in the past I have contributed to the dispute by throwing my hat in the ring for Vito's Pizza on LaCienega, which offers up a large, thin-crusted pie with 'made fresh daily' toppings and a huge grin from Vito. I am not abandoning my New Jersey-born buddy, and his location is convenient to my Beverly Hills residence, but I must admit that now a new contender has entered the ring. Has it ever!
It all began some days before the July 4th holiday weekend when I received a call from old friend Rich Melman, the legendary Chicago restaurateur whose Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises owns some 80 restaurants around the nation; he was the recipient this year of the James Beard Foundation's Restaurateur of the Year Award. A 20-year subscriber to my Jay Weston's Restaurant Newsletter, he has rarely interjected himself into my critical ken, so I know to pay keen attention to his recommendations. He told me that his newest chef/partner at LEYE was a brilliant, innovative 27-year-old fellow named Jeff Mahin, who is the main creative force behind their latest concept, Stella Rossa Pizza Bar (2000 Main Street -- at the corner of Bricknell -- in downtown Santa Monica, with valet, street and underground parking, (310) 396-9250, www.stellarossapizzabar.com. Next door to and partnered with M Street Kitchen, a LEYE restaurant). When he told me Jeff's culinary credentials, I immediately gathered my reviewing team of Penny McTaggart and David Rapoport and made arrangements to gorge myself on pizza the Thursday evening before the holiday. (How do I prepare for a heavy food night? By drinking lots of liquids all day, abstaining from a hearty lunch, and daydreaming about the meal to come.)
The place is interesting, a rather laid-back and, yes, hip environment... open kitchen, exposed brick walls, wood flooring and tables, kind of intimate and relaxed, just what you want for a pizza joint. Tea lights on each table, distinctive wine and local beer offerings scripted on the mirror-lined walls, and boutique wine varietals on display overhead. Music turns out to match the personality of the buzz-cut young owner with interesting arm tattoos (ask him why he endured 60 hours of pain to get them and his artistic reasoning will fascinate you.) We heard Beastie Boys, Jane's Addiction and Mumford & Sons jamming (thanks to Penny for this identification, I was clueless). There was a youngish crowd of amiable people sitting around on stools at the bar and at tables enjoying the vibe and seemingly blown away by the artisanal pizzas coming out of the kitchen under the supervision of Chef Patrick Costa.
Yes, let's talk about those pizzas. We ordered three of the 12-13 inch Neapolitan-style pies to start (priced from $12.95 to $15.95), all cooked in a stacked oven at an extremely-hot temperature of 600 degrees. The organic Italian Sausage pie comes with sausage made in house, with tomato, fresh mozzarella, hand-picked oregano and fennel pollen; we followed it with the traditional Margherita, with tomato, fresh mozzarella, sweet basil and extra-virgin olive oil (the oil is from Chile, selected after tasting hundreds), finishing with a Bloomsdale Spinach one, with crispy purple kale, young Pecorino, cracked black peppercorns and again a drizzle of olive oil. Later we went for a fourth, which turned out to be my favorite: hand-shaved Mushrooms (Criminis), with Gruyere, melted onions, black truffle, torn parsley, rosemary and thyme.
Jeff sat with us and in a rapid-fire dialogue explained his ambition here: "We want to achieve perfection -- or as close as we can get -- in the simplest and most beloved of foods, pizza. Every week I go to the Santa Monica Farmer's Market to get the freshest ingredients." I questioned him about the pizza dough, the heart of every great pie, and he said: "We feature locally-milled flour from the San Joaquin Valley, filtered water, sea salt and fresh yeast that's fermented for 18 hours in those jars in the kitchen and then shaped and placed in special jars for an additional 12 hours. We developed over 30 different crusts over the course of a year before getting this version." I asked him about his background, deeply unique for any young chef, let alone a pizza chef. Melman had told me that he had worked at some of the most respected restaurants in the world, including the Michelin three-star The Fat Duck in Bray, England, Nobu New York, and Arzak in Spain (my favorite eatery in that country). "I think of myself as sort of a food scientist," he noted. "My father is an engineer who goes to Japan once a month, my mother is a metallurgist, and I studied mathematics and science at UC Berkeley. In 2006 I applied to work at Hester Blumenthal's The Fat Duck, and spent months in the kitchen helping to create and recreate a number of well-known dishes (including pizza) for a BBC documentary, In Search of Perfection." He then explained how he had returned to the U.S. and went to work at Chicago's modern seafood place, L20, for LEYE, where he became its youngest corporate chef and partner. After my recent dinner, he emailed me a wonderful, cryptic message: "My idea of feng shui is to have them arrange the pepperoni in a perfect circle on my pizza."
There are some other delicious offerings at this enjoyable, casually elegant place, like the fresh Burrata cheese (locally from Stefano, silky soft and the best I can ever remember) with grilled grapes ($10.95), and prosciutto ($12.95), la quercia prosciutto rossa from Berkshire hogs out of Iowa, made by a couple who work in every aspect of the meat-curing business. Our delightful waitperson, Natalia, offered me samples of several local draft beers, all $7.00, and Penny had a glass of Shiraz for $9. Their happy hour has $4 draft beers and $5 wines.
Were these the best pizzas I have ever eaten? Yes, they were. I have had pizzas all over the world, including its birthplace in Naples, and none has ever matched these pies for thin crispness, freshness of ingredients, delicious blackened crust... all in all a flavorful wonder. As I said, it's all a matter of taste and timing. Tonight, in a little place in Santa Monica, I finally had an epiphany. It is possible to be the best at something!
They join the pantheon of really wonderful pizzas which I cherish in my rich life, the smoked salmon with crème fraiche and caviar one at Spago and the prosciutto with figs at Vito's, as well as the four cheese one I eat almost every Saturday at Le Petit Four on Sunset. But I am already planning my next drive down Ocean Park Blvd. from Pico (where I turn left on Gateway) to a right on Main Street (about 25 minutes from Beverly Hills). They serve about 2,000 a week now, but once the word gets out they will be making many, many more. Thus far no delivery, just eat-in and pick up, with lunch coming soon. Open from 5:00 pm to midnight, and to 1:00 am on Friday and Saturday.
Life is good when you have a few great pizzas to share, but these at Stella Rossa (Red Star) are beyond the pale, a whole new experience. Enjoy.
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