I’ve always been puzzled by the war that wages unceasingly in LA between...Gangs? Politicians? Celebutantes Hilton and Ritchie? No. Pizza.
On one side, people (for some it reason it always seems to be transplants from New York), undyingly swear that good pizza does not exist in LA. And contrary to popular belief, it’s not just a New York faction. Pretty much anyone from outside LA argues the same thing – there is no such thing as good pizza in LA.
On the other side, the argument is that there is plenty of good pizza in LA, it’s just different from New York. Or Chicago. There are places that serve New York-style paper-thin crusted pizza, or Chicago-style stuffed deep dish pizza, and it may not be exactly the same as it is in New York or Chicago, but really now, who cares if it doesn’t taste the same, as long as it tastes good? And no one can do California pizza like, well, La La Land.
Me? I don’t get involved in the pizza battles between LA and the rest of America. I just sit on the sidelines and amusedly watch with my $1.90 slice of cheese from Frankie & Johnnie’s, dusted heavily with garlic powder, salt, and crushed red pepper. I’m a cheap, gluttonous pacifist like that. Or else I simply ignore the perpetrators altogether because those of us who are above all that pizza sandbox squabbling will get the original pizza – pizza Napoletana. I can be a snob like that, too. :)
We went to Antica Pizzeria. It was my first time, and truth be told, I was excited about pizza, but not nearly as excited as the Bay Area Boy, who was babbling away about it being the only pizzeria in LA that has the certification of VPN. Virtual private network? No, o ye of utter tech-ness, it is Verace Pizza Napoletana. By conforming to a strict set of pizza-making guidelines as established by the VPNA and going through formal training, undergoing rigorous testing, paying off the Don of the VPNA, and proving your loyalty to “the family” by breaking a few arms and legs, you can hang a little green circle in your front window that says you serve authentic Neapolitan pizza. Okay, so there is no Pizza Don, but in my research, I did find out that there really is a Pizza Police. LOL!
The single authentic Neapolitan-style pizza place in Los Angeles is not somewhere on Third or Beverly near some other Italian places like Ago and Locanda Veneta, nor is it somewhere along San Vicente in Brentwood’s unofficial Little Italy. No, this VPN-certified pizzeria that serves authentic Neapolitan pizza as they do in the Old World is on the second floor of a shiny new mini-mall. In sparkling fresh Marina del Rey, where the only things I can think of for food are fraternity Spring Break bars like Baja Cantina and commercial restaurant chains. There’s got to be some rule in the VPN somewhere about proximity to the likes of The Chart House and Cheesecake Factory.
I’ve never been to Italy, let alone Naples, so I have no idea what the pizzerias there are like other than what I’ve read in magazines, seen on tv, and imagined. For some reason, I envisioned a well-worn cobblestone path leading up to a crumbly, charming little storefront with a wooden sign, and a stout, pudgy man in an apron standing in the doorway welcoming us with open arms and an enormous smile. That’s weird. It’s Mario Batali.
Antica Pizzeria is newer and cleaner than what I imagined, and Mario Batali was nowhere to be found. The front of the restaurant has a few glass cases outfitted with warming lamps over large silver trays. I didn’t take too long to examine the contents while we waited a moment for a table, but I did see the medium toasted cones that I recognized as arancini – something I remember from a rendezvous years ago with Celestino Drago during an event that I was doing. It kind of brought back a happy little memory that I quickly forgot again as we passed the pizzaiolo on the way to the patio. He was working in front of the wood burning oven putting the pizzas together, behind a pane of glass, I guess to protect him and his pizzas from freaky patrons with overzaelous flashbulb fantasies like me.
The bread that came to our table on the patio was very plain so I left it in the basket to save my appetite. Instead, I concentrated on the menu over a glass of pinot grigio. We were there for the pizza, but there were so many other things on the menu that I was thankful I was there with a few others. Now my friends and family know the rules – everyone has to order something different so that we can all play musical plates.
Thick slices of beautifully cut and grilled polenta was our starter. I thought earthy wild mushrooms would clash with light tangy tomatoes in the sauce, but the combination was deliciously deep and flavorful. As soon as I remembered the bread that I had initially ignored, I seemed to have forgotten my table manners. I scraped the sauce from the bowl with a s
lice. At least I didn’t bow my head and lick the bowl directly.
Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about pizza Napoletana to know if the two that we ordered, the Capricciosa and Bianca al Prosciutto, were done correctly. Since Antica Pizzeria is only one of few pizzerias in the US that has the VPN designation, I can only assume that the pizzas were made true to the specifications of authentic pizza Napoletana with respect to techniques and ingredients – these are objective qualities and I have no authority to say good nor bad. However, taste is subjective, so I can say whatever the hell I want. The pizzas were okay.
The crust is thin, which I prefer to big, bread-like Sicilian-style pizzas or thick, dough-y American delivery, and it is beautifully charred in all the right places with enormous, black blisters and bubbles that only comes from an oven that burns as hot as the surface of the sun. However, the crust is crisp all the way through, like a giant cracker, rather than crunchy on the outside with an ever so slightly chewy interior. One is not necessarily better than the other. Deliciously crunchy/chewy is merely my preference and weak, textureless Saltine-like crisp may be another’s preference. That is the reason why there are both specially cooked, high-end crunchy thick Kettle potato chips, and mass-produced low-quality laser-printer paper Lay’s on supermarket shelves. People have different preferences, and like I said, I may prefer good taste, and others may prefer...crap. ;)
The two pizzas we ordered were similar, which was a mistake on our part. I was lobbying for the Napoletana because it has anchovies, but we ended up with the Capricciosa, which has a light tomato sauce topped off by artichokes, mushrooms, olives, mozzarella cheese, and blanketed with layers of Prosciutto. The Bianca al Prosciutto, true to its name “white,” has no sauce, is covered with mozzarella, arugula, and like the Capricciosa, blanketed with Prosciutto. Normally, I would argue such silliness as “too much Prosciutto,” but the two pizzas at Antica Pizzeria really had a little more Italian ham than I could handle, and I can definitely handle my ham. For some reason, the Prosciotto was delicious when pulled off the pizzas and eaten straight, but on the pizza, it was just too much. Because they were left in large, somewhat unwieldy slices, the prosciutto also made the pizza difficult to eat.
In addition to the fraternal pizza twins, we ordered Bucatini alla Amatriciana. Bucatini is a noodle that looks like a thicker version of spaghetti, but is hollow in the center, like a long, thin straw. Certain sauces are meant for specific pasta shapes, but I couldn’t figure out why the hollow center made bucatini any better than a capellini or simple spaghetti for the pancetta, prosciutto and tomato sauce that it had been tossed with. In fact, the bucatini was a little too thick for my taste. Perhaps it would have been better for someone who loves the taste of the noodle over an accompanying sauce.
When we first got there, the hostess looked pained and I felt somewhat sorry that we were interrupting whatever she had been not-doing for her to take us to a seat on the patio. I can forgive a hostess, though, who doesn't always have the same financial incentive as servers. Our server was slow. Perhaps the fact that we were on the patio already doomed us to inattentive service. Patio dining always seems to take a little longer because it’s further from the kitchen, it’s not as convenient for a server who may also have tables inside, and it’s easy to leave lovebirds alone, seated outside enjoying each other’s company, the weather or a sunset. Our party was more than two, which doesn’t mean we couldn’t have been an orgy of lovebirds, but we weren’t.
Antica Pizzeria’s patio was almost three-quarters full which meant it probably had a dedicated server but it certainly didn’t feel like it. He took a long time to bring water then wine, take our dinner order, put the order in with the kitchen and pick it up. Perhaps the kitchen was slow to prepare the food, but if the VPN-certified wood-burning oven is a blazing 800 degrees, how long could it possibly take to cook a pizza?!?!
The food at Antica Pizzeria was good enough that if someone recommended it again, I would certainly go back to try a few more things. Unfortunately, the service wasn’t decent enough that I’d suggest Antica Pizzeria myself.
The pizza battles in LA will wage on, and Antica Pizzeria didn't enlist me onto LA's side. But neither have I been convinced to the other side. Let's just make pizza, pals, not war, okay? (Don't tell me you didn't see that one coming.)