1066 Gayley Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90024
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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 jalapeño 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.