Life of Pie: L.A. Celebrates Its Pizza Moment
No matter how you feel about the finished product (and, like most pizza, 800 Degrees' pie is the subject of intense debate), the experience of dining there is pretty remarkable. If you don't have to wait on a line that stretches down the block -- as it does during most lunch and dinner rushes -- you can be in the door, choose your toppings, pay and have your pizza (its dough made with San Felice 00 flour and mixed in a special mixer from Italy) in four or five minutes. At $6 to $9 a pop and an astonishing 1,200 pizzas served daily, there really is no other pizza operation in the country aiming so high in terms of quality in such a fast-casual atmosphere -- and for so little money.
"In some ways, 800 Degrees is one of the most interesting things happening with pizza in the country," Levine says. "I mean, here is a guy trying to do for Neapolitan pizza what Steve Ells did for burritos at Chipotle." That is, speed up and proliferate a high-quality version of a mass-appeal product. "And you kind of want to hate it. But you know, it's pretty good."
It's hard not to come across the Chipotle comparison when reading or talking about 800 Degrees. Was it a conscious decision to emulate that model? "It was definitely in our minds," Fleischman says. "But we wanted it to be less corporate and feel more cozy."
I ask him if he's hoping for world pizza domination, and he says no. He's definitely planning to expand, but he says, "We're looking for the right fit in terms of other locations, and we're not looking to start a franchise."
Fleischman explains: "We flew to Seattle to look at a chain that was doing something similar, pizza to order, and they were basically putting sauce on tortillas and sending them out. We're concerned with quality. We genuinely want to make one of the best pizzas out there."
I tell him that the rumor around town is that 800 Degrees is losing money because there's no way it can deliver such a quality product -- the sauce is made with San Marzano tomatoes, the mozzarella is made by the same cheesemaker Mozza uses for its pizza -- at such a low cost. Without a pause, he says, "We're making a lot of money."
On the other end of the spectrum from 800 Degrees is the DIY, obsessively perfectionist pizza at places such as Mother Dough in Los Feliz. Mother Dough is, in some ways, the perfect expression of the cultural intersection that has led to the Era of Pizza: Gen X money, hipster aesthetic, food-nerd sensibilities.
Mother Dough owner Bez Compani had an oven built by Stefano Ferrara, just like Sotto (albeit a much smaller oven). Compani is hands-on responsible for not only every pizza, from dough through stretching and cooking, but also the handmade tables in the restaurant and the vintage-industrial design of the place. Mother Dough is restaurant as temple, with the oven at the back as altar and pizza as deity.
This trend worries Levine as much as it excites him. "On the one hand, now practically every city in America has a proper oven and someone trying to make great pizza. On the other hand, as it explodes, my worry is that anybody thinks that if they build a wood-burning oven, use San Marzano tomatoes and use fresh mozzarella, then that makes them a great pizzaiolo. And it doesn't. You really have to learn from someone."
That's not to say pizza must be mozzarella and tomatoes and a wood-burning oven. In New York, they might be rigorous about what counts as an authentic slice. But in L.A., innovation has been everything.
Indeed, even though edible pizza barely existed in L.A. before Mozza opened (to hear most food aficionados tell it), it's worth remembering that when Wolfgang Puck opened Spago 30 years ago, he did it to serve pizza.
In fact, Levine says, "Before Nancy set out to make really good pizza, the only real pizza culture in L.A. was Wolfgang Puck."
The Austrian-born Puck traces his interest in pizza to a time when he was living in southern France and a friend of his worked in a pizzeria. "At that time, all we could afford was pizza," he says. A lifelong taste for pizza was born.
Years later, when he was looking to open Spago, Puck realized that no one in L.A. was making pizza. "So I decided to do pizza. Everyone thought I was crazy," Puck says. "I tried to explain to them, I'm not going to serve traditional pizza, I'm going to serve smoked salmon pizza, or duck sausage pizza."
It may seem like a played-out idea now, but at the time, the idea of "Jewish pizza," topped with smoked salmon and crème fraîche, was revolutionary -- especially in a town that had only seen pizza through the lens of chains and cheap takeout.
So how did Puck learn how to make pizza? "I don't know, I just learned," he says. "I opened a Chinese restaurant, and I've never been to China. So."
What's interesting about this isn't really how or why Wolfgang Puck made pizza, but that despite everyone declaring that L.A. "isn't a pizza town," two of the most important restaurants in the city's history were built on the stuff. And if things go the way Fleischman's fans are certain they will, the city's next great restaurant empire will be built, in part, on pizza.
Back at pizza school, I ask a couple of my fellow students why they're here. To my surprise, no one says, "Because I want to learn to make pizza at home." In fact, everyone I ask reports that they are unlikely to try the complex recipe, even after it was demonstrated in great detail in front of them.
Some echo the reasoning of Nancy Michalski, the CEO of a medical law firm, who was at the class with an important client. It's Michalski's second time at the school, and she says, "I love cooking, and Mozza is just such a great restaurant."
But most say they are here because they love pizza. Simple as that.