Saturday, September 29, 2007

New York Pizza -- Vito's vs. Lamonica's

1066 Gayley Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90024
(310) 208-8671
Google Local Info

Vito's Pizza
846 N La Cienega Blvd
Los Angeles, CA 90069

Get Directions
(310) 652-6859
Google Local Info

Before the NYC pizza smackdown, a plug for my wife Sa. This is the final weekend of EEMED, an Evening of Experimental Middle Eastern Dance. It's some of the Southland's best belly dance troupes in a group show featuring non-traditional music and choreography. From Sa's Pirates-inspired piece with the Perfumes of Araby to Desert Sin's jaw-dropping Hut of Baba Yaga, it's a very cool evening of watching scantily-clad ladies shake it to slinky tunes. For more info and tickets, click here.

Okay, on to the chow.

The ragingest foodie debate in in town has to be about the "best New York style pizza." Not only who serves it, but if, in fact, it exists in California. (Logically, of course, it doesn't. If it's not served in New York it's no longer New York by definition. The same could be said about Santa Maria Style BBQ, or Ensenada Fish tacos, or Hong Kong style seafood. Anyone who's tried to find a proper chili cheeseburger outside of LA knows what I'm talking about.)

Now, I'm a native Southern Californian, but I've done some time in Manhattan. I ate a lot pizza there, at some of the "right" places and some of the "wrong" places, and found it all to be, you know, pizza. Some of it was very good, some of it unremarkable, but I didn't find anything quintessentially or homogenously "New York" about it. There were thick crusts, thin crusts, saucy pizzas, cheesy pizzas... just like here.

But to New Yorkers, there seems to be something ineffable in their pizza, such that they find SoCal pie, in all of its variety, to be unworthy the name. So I went to two of the top contenders -- or, some would say, pretenders -- to the title of "best NY style pizza in L.A." to see what all the fuss is about.

Lamonica's has a nondescript storefront on Gayley Ave. a few blocks south of the UCLA campus. (Sorry, no photos... Food Crazy forgot his digital Elph). Inside, it's a classic college-town vibe -- if the town is New York. The walls are decorated with New York street signs and a lightup subway map. You might as well be in the East Village. Lamonica's (a sign proudly proclaims) flies in their dough from New York. Some New Yorkers say their pie is all about the dough. (They say the same about their bagels. Some even assert that it's the ... ahem... savory qualities of the East River water table that gives New York dough its signature texture and flavor The pie at Lamonica's is not what I picture when I think New York pizza... it's not a big, floppy, thin-crust triangle, it's an average-looking, Pizza Hut-sized slice. But the quality is remarkable. It's a perfect balance of cheese and sauce. The sweet italian sausage on my slice is intense with fennel and sweet spice. But it is, in fact, the crust that's noteworthy. Perfectly browned and crisp on the bottom, with a gentle char. There's a custardy top layer that tastes like "more!" In fact, whether because of the surprisingly small slice or the deliciousness of the product, I was still hungry after one slice, and ordered another (pepperoni). In any rustic contruction like a pizza, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and that's the case here. The Lamonica's pie has a an intense, slightly gritty quality that, combined with the funky decor, certainly evokes New York.

Or maybe it was the East River I was tasting.

Vito's, formerly of Los Feliz, has moved into a nondescript strip mall on the stretch of LaCienega filled with art galleries, rug emporia, and mid-end restaurants. No Manhattan vibe here like Lamonica's; it feels more like a Subway than the subway. But the slice is awesome. It has the same custardy crust as Lamonica's, but here, thin slices of jalapeƱo offset the sweetness of the slice's Italian sausage. Maybe I'm just being influenced by surroundings, but the pie tastes somehow "cleaner" to me, less gritty, perhaps more Californian, and -- for my taste at least -- a little better.

I'm not sure yet how these pies would compare side by side to some of my other favorites -- Antica, Dino's, and my personal favorite Pizza Bella. And being a non-New Yorker, I wouldn't presume to venture an opinion about their "authenticity" (the most overrated word in food criticism, IMHO). But they are tasty, tasty specimens of the species, and if you haven't checked 'em out, you should.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Posh Nosh - Emmy Governor's Ball Sneak Peek

The Primetime Emmy Governor's Ball Sneak Peek
Shrine Auditorium
Sept. 6, 2007

I've made a bit of noise here about my journalistic integrity. How I always pay for my meals and prefer not to let cooks and servers know that I blog about food, so that I receive no special treatment that you, my readers, wouldn't. But when I got an invitation to the Media Sneak Peek of the Emmy Awards Governor's Ball -- including tasting the food catered by Joaquim Splichal -- how could I refuse? I figured since you, my readers, can't actually buy this food, and unless you're Anthony Bourdain or Oprah Winfrey you probably won't be attending -- what could it hurt?

So Sa and I went and checked it out.

The Ball is held in the Shrine Auditorium's banquet hall adjacent to the theater itself. We stroll in the back door and within two seconds are proffered a tray of the signature martini of the event, "The Emmy." It's a mixology of Grey Goose pear vodka, a rare vanilla/hazelnut liqueur called "43," grape juice, and a twist. You know I don't generally countenance vodka tainted with fruit flavorings, and prefer my martinis dry and straight... but this drink is delightful. We have two. Okay, three, if you count all three of them.

We turn our attention to the room. It's pretty fucking fabulous. All done up in Art Deco black and white. A gigantic 100' by 40' billow of gathered white voile forms a faux ceiling. Four 10' by 10' fabric "chandeliers" in a shape suggesting a picture tube hang from the corners. (The 4x3 TV ratio is mirrored throughout the design of the room, from small hand-sewn sequins on the tablecloths to mirrored pillars).

Four silhouetted Emmy shapes --and she is the most graceful of the big awards statues -- billow languidly in fabric pedestals on the floor. Boxes of tightly bunched white roses form the centerpieces. White orchids grace Lalique vases around the hall. Calla lilies are wrapped in delicate bondage around flowing, nouveau, wrought iron stands. It's all unspeakably elegant.

After a not-dreadful amount of speechifying, the food comes out. First there are full-sized portions, meant for photography only. The press are snapping away with cameras the size of howitzers, and I feel a little out of place with my little digital Elph.

But we're soon distracted as the tasting plates go around. The appetizer is a Tower of Mango and Dungeness Crab, an architectural structure with chunks of avocado and mango on a bed of thinly sliced cucumber and topped with a lotus-root crisp. I say architectural, though you'd fire this architect as the thing falls to pieces at the first touch. It's delicious, though... with those ingredients, how could it not be?

Next came the main course and a beefy one it is: Filet Mignon AND Braised Shortrib, with Cippollini Onions, Marrow Flan, Potatoes Fondate and organic asparagus. This is all good stuff. My mignon, thin-sliced for the tasting tray, was overcooked. I doubt this will be a problem for the thick serving portion on the Big Night. The shortrib, braised in red wine, was to die for. Tender and not too slimy in the way that makes me generally avoid shank meats. The potato was a potato. But the marrow flan... oh my. As creamy and fluffy as the finest custard, with a mellow savoryness imparted by the marrow. This was a revelation. One can't help but wonder, though, why Splichal has chosen to serve asparagus, a famous wine-killer, when the bar is spilling a quite lovely BV Georges Latour 2003 reserve Cabernet (along with a less successful BV Chardonnay)?

For dessert, the Milk Chocolate Mousse with Champagne Gelee and Berries was lovely, though the Dove® Dark Chocolate Cup it came in was a bit much. (But then, Dove® is a sponsor of the event, along with Grey Goose® and BV®, so they may be forgiven.) The tiny "cherry vanilla cake" alongside was more breakfast muffin than dinner dessert.

I did wonder aloud to one of the servers if they had a vegetarian option; I was informed that not only was there a delicious butternut squash ravioli, but that the chef would be creating all manner of special requests on the spot to cater to the whims of whatever A-listers might order fussily.

Sa and I came away from our "tastes" quite thoroughly stuffed. She couldn't help wondering why they would bother serving larger portions to a group of people who, collectively, do not eat. The full size beef dinner is more than Calista Flockhart has eaten in her life.

Okay, I had one more of those "Emmy" cocktails before leaving. Which left me uncertain about much aside from this: if the food press regularly gets plied with alcohol at mid-day like this, you shouldn't believe anything they say in print, because they were drunk when they wrote it. As was, I suspect, the Emmy bigwig who announced: "The Academy of Television Arts and Sciences is very excited about this Governor's Ball... in fact we're excited about BOTH the Governor's balls."

I really don't know what that means, and I'm not sure I want to.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Most Underrated - El Pollo Loco

On foodie boards around town, there is a constant debate about what establishment most typifies Los Angeles. An out-of-towner will post "In LA for One Meal... Where?" They usually want something near their hotel, on a budget, not too adventurous, and a million other restrictions.

The most common replies are things like Spago, Pizzeria Mozza, and Saddle Peak Lodge on the high end; El Cholo in the middle; and Pink's, Tommy's, and In N' Out Burger on the low end. Now these are all fine places. But I'd like to propose that the quintessential, and perhaps most underrated Southern California classic for a quick, tasty, low-end meal is El Pollo Loco.

It doesn't get written up much. It's just there, plugging along as it has done since the mid-eighties. The menu continues to evolve, with burritos and tacos al carbon and, most recently, crispy-shell chicken tacos. But the staple is still the 2-piece chicken combo. Flame-grilled chicken in a unique, tangy marinade, taken fresh from the grill and hacked to the cuts you've requested before your eyes, and served with your choice of two sides, two tortillas (corn or flour), and a stack of goodies from the salsa bar. I strip off some of that hot, juicy chicken, lay it in a tortilla, add some of my whole beans and side salad (no dressing), some pico de gallo, a slather of the guacamole salsa, and some of my own Cholula... it really doesn't get much better than that at even the best taco joints.

I eat takeout from our local once a week or so; I wonder why have I never taken a visiting guest there? It's a uniquely SoCal chain serving uniquely SoCal food at great prices on every other street corner. You won't find anything quite like it west of the Mississippi. I think it's time someone gave Pollo Loco its due, and started talking it up. The time is now, and the one is me. What do you think?