Saturday, May 2, 2009

The Tricky Subject of American Pizza

A case can be made that the best pizza in Los Angeles is the unlikely creation of a Jewish woman dedicated to Italian cuisine. Her restaurant is located on a stretch of Melrose Avenue best known for its retail shops specializing in teeny-bopper fashion, drug paraphernalia, and second-hand apparel. I'm talking, of course, about Evan Kleiman's 25 year-old Angeli Caffe. Kleiman is a pioneer in what was once known as "Cal-Ital" cuisine, which is essentially the marriage of Italian food and California produce. In Angeli's case, the "Ital" is both traditional Italian and Red Sauce cuisine, and the "Cal" includes a penchant both for great, locally sourced produce and a sliver – just a tiny, tiny sliver – of the California loopiness ridiculed in Annie Hall.

Angeli Caffe reminds me of Donald Fagen's uber-Eighties Nightfly album: at first, the menu and the room feel dated, but upon reflection, it is evident that Angeli is a gem. For example, the menu includes dishes such as fried calamari, spaghetti aglio e olio, spaghetti burro e parmigiana – all classics, but currently (and unjustly) unfashionable in Los Angeles. Then there's the dilemma of the ridiculous, Benes-esque "Insalata Californiana" in which Woody would get his sprouts (though not any mashed yeast). Nevertheless, Angeli exudes hominess in part due to its genuine, hospitable staff, but also because it possesses a muted stylishness that recalls the Italian trattorias of New York, if not Italy itself. Thus, Angeli has aged gracefully. I was only mildly surprised to learn that Thom Mayne's inimitable architecture firm Morphosis designed the place.

Angeli's particular genius is its bread. The small spherical loaf has a soft interior and crusty exterior that is at once rich-tasting and austere. When sliced horizontally, the loaf is put to good use with the panino grosso; with its Italian meats, cheeses, marinated onions and roasted peppers, this artery-clogging boat of deliciousness is an excellent riff on the Italian sub. But the dough, with all of its taste and texture, is put to much more productive use in Angeli's pizza. Lately I've been alternating between the workaday margherita, the basic mozzarella cheese pizza, and the spicier and more interesting puttanesca, which is tomato sauce-driven, gently accentuated by shards of black olives, red pepper, anchovy, garlic, and capers, though no cheese. On a few recent occasions, we've also ordered their utterly delicious pizza with pepperoni and caramelized onion. With its basic tomato sauce, Angeli has the chops to be a great Red Sauce joint. This sauce has a pleasant sweetness and textural plumpness that makes it a joy to eat with ravioli or even vegetarian lasagna. (If I had to be vegetarian, but wasn't allowed to kill myself, I could survive well on a diet of Angeli's vegetarian offerings. I'll go so far as to say their meatless Lasagna Angeli is superior to their Bolognese version.) At this moment in time, I'm compelled to order dinner from there at least once a week, so it's a good thing that prices are quite reasonable. The wife wants me to point out that they also make a decidedly solid Caesar salad, thereby disproving my theory that such a salad should not be ordered in an L.A. Italian restaurant. This week, I was especially delighted to learn that Angeli also makes a mean chocolate chip cookie. (To our devoted Tribeca readership, I apologize. I started going to Angeli a few weeks after your visit. A certain small red-headed Red Sox fan and his parents may have enjoyed Angeli more than a La Brea Avenue competitor.)

Invigorated by my discovery of great local pizza, I decided to take my show on the road and revisit some old favorites in the Cleve. (If nothing else, our recent Passover visit to the Cleve provided me with an excellent opportunity to throw my people's daffy dietary dogma about dough to the wind.) So for a pre-Seder nosh (oh, suck it, my fellow Jews), I ordered a large pepperoni pizza from Geraci's, the beloved University Heights institution, which opened in 1955. (For you investment bankers out there, Geraci's is in its 54th year of operations.)

Geraci's is an old-school red sauce joint, famous for the thickly sliced, charred pepperoni that adorn its pizza. This type of food, basic and sentimental, never truly found a home in L.A., which is all more the reason that it was my first stop in Cleveland. What I found was tasty, but hardly a revelation. Those pepperoni were as good as ever, but the surfeit of melted cheese and oily, spongy dough overwhelmed the sauce, diminishing the pie's overall quality. (Still, I ate half of it before Seder and snuck into the kitchen for another few slices during Seder.)

H-Bomb and J-Wy of the West Village, who graciously flew to the Cleve to meet the Fress's most recent collaboration, accompanied us to Justin's and my longtime favorite, Presti's Bakery, in caricatural Little Italy – "on the Hill," as they say. Presti's is famous for its pizza. They also used to be famous for late-night doughnuts, but they went out of business shortly after I left Cleveland. (Connect the dots as you will.)

As the legend goes, Rose and Charles Presti Sr. opened Presti's Bakery in 1903 using recipes that were codified on the family's journey by boat from Sicily to America. The bakery moved around and, by 1943, settled into a tiny storefront on Mayfield Road on the east side of Cleveland. In 1999, Presti's moved out of the old storefront and into a modern, antiseptic café on the same block. All of a sudden, Presti's had this expansive space with a massive kitchen and plentiful seating. With a lot more money at stake, the dictatrix who ran the joint was relegated to the back, and customer service became the province of middle-aged moms and even a nose-ringed CIA student or two. Presti's offerings naturally expanded, though without the benefit of those mythical Sicilian recipes. For example, on this particular visit, I observed a croissant, sliced horizontally, with a slice of desiccating melted American cheese inserted in the middle. Somehow I don't think this creation is central to the Sicilian tradition.

During my formative years, Presti's sold loaves of bread, slices of pizza, and little else of note out of this storefront. The presiding figure was a short, slender elderly woman with Mussolini's temperament. She brooked no dissent and wasn't exactly giving the customers a hearty welcome. I once saw her threaten a rowdy toddler with a rolling pin. This utter charmlessness was her charm, and she neither noticed nor cared that we found her antics entertaining. We'd order a few slices, perhaps a stromboli, and when weather permitted, sit on the rough-hewn wooden bench out front. Then we'd enjoy our pizza while watching the neighborhood drama. The stage was set by the large storefront across the street whose unavoidable sign read "Brotherhood Loan Company." Such a blatant disregard for contemporary mores and laws against loansharking was just priceless. J-Wy and I would watch the locals do their best to act like Scorsesean wiseguys. My favorite was the gentleman wearing the black satin baseball jacket emblazoned with Giorno Di Paga on the back. I also particularly enjoyed a debate between two goombas about whether Phoenix was in Colorado or Arizona. (In my mind, the argument has yet to be resolved.)

During our Passover visit, J-Wy and I returned with our ladies for our beloved pizza. Presti's sells a handful of varieties, but I'd be unable to name a single one other than the cheese. (Though I will admit to a dalliance with the artichoke pizza around 15 years ago, and would place a small wager that that artichoke pizza is still served daily.) For the record, the pizza is kept at room temperature in large rectangular sheets and is cut into rectangular slices. The pizza is better when it is still hot from the oven, but I never mastered the timing necessary to get it. Suffice it to say, it's well before lunch time. Presti's sadly dispensed with its fascistic tendencies when it moved, and now it even asks customers if they want their pizza warmed in a microwave. Not only is this practice pathetic, but the staff never warns that a microwave would only vitiate the dough's texture. They might as well ask people if they want mayonnaise on their pizza (or anything else for that matter.)

Presti's cheese pizza is of historical interest because it provides a link, however legendary, to 19th century Sicily. But its enduring greatness owes to its kaleidoscopic unpredictability. The thin-crusted dough is delicious, but it varies in taste depending on what section of the sheet it is coming from. On the rectangle's periphery, the dough is crusty and has a more pronounced crunch, while the interior slices are much softer. The tomato sauce varies along the spectrum of sweetness and spiciness, but it is always delicious. It could be cigarette ashes that provide the occasional bite. The quantity and configuration of the mozzarella cheese also varies; it can cover most a given slice, or sometimes just a small portion of it. The most flavorful slices are always the middle slices, which have no crust whatsoever. Somehow they have a little more sauce and absorb a little more olive oil. They're definitely heavier than the peripheral slices and infinitely more delicious.

Presti's pizza represents a Spartan style, suitable only as cheese pizza for a tiny bakery. No restaurant could serve it and hope to pay the rent for more than a few months, which is why today's Presti's offers such a gallimaufry of comestibles. That said, it's easy to see how Geraci's with its pizza pies became popular when I was growing up. Geraci's pizza is much more accessible and can adapt to any number of toppings, which is what most people want. It's like Domino's, except that it's good. Still, as I contemplate the evolution of American pizza, it seems as though something was lost in pizza's journey from a traditional Italian staple to an American ubiquity. Thankfully, Evan Kleiman reinvigorated the genre back in 1984. Her pizzas share a lineage with Presti's because of their mutual emphasis on quality dough, and the purity and simplicity of traditional flavors. But Kleiman is not tethered to the distant past. Twenty-five years after opening, Angeli Caffe continues to make a consistently revelatory pie. In a neighborhood that boasts Nancy Silverton's über-hyped – and admittedly delicious – Pizzeria Mozza, Angeli makes the only LA pizza that I actually crave.

Angeli Caffe

7274 Melrose Ave.

Los Angeles

(323) 936-9086

Geraci’s Restaurant

2266 Warrensville Center Rd.
University Heights

(216) 371-5643

Presti’s Bakery

12101 Mayfield Rd.
Little Italy

(216) 421-3060


Wyatt said...

First, "J-Wy" is an offensive diminutive.

Second, don't disrespect grandma. She is still alive and may beat your graceless ass.

Third, I don't know who you ordered a few slices with but it was not me. Your donkey loving ass ordered 4 or 5 slices several times a week and toted another half-dozen home.

Fourth, you spent 1 paragraph discussing Presti's pizza and 5 paragraphs discussing minutia so tangential to food that this blog might as well be about interior decorating (a topic that is probably best left off public forums).

Fifth, goomba is not the proper nomenclature.

Finally, your description of Presti's pizza is annoying in its inaccuracy and lack of detail. Needless-to-say, here is nothing worse than being annoying.

Thin crusted pizza is the preposterous NYC "cardboard like" garbage that you correctly make fun of in an earlier blog (which my wife unfortunately loves) and that is served at affronts such as Joes. Presti's crust is not "thin-crust". While certainly not the bloated nauseating thick crusted Cheeecago pizza, Presti's crust has some heft to it and is chewy places(generally in the center slices).

There is no discussion in your blog of the consistency of the sauce or exquisite use of garlic.

While there is a discussion of the cheese, you miss the point. Modern pizza joints slather low quality cheese on pizza, which results in the pizza simply tasting like cheese. Presti's uses less cheese, which allows a balance of tastes as between the cheese, the sauce and the crust.

I normally do not get upset, but you have offended an institution and should be ashamed.

Steve said...

After four years of taking Mack Jones classes and seminars on "infra" politics, the sad result is that you are an illiterate varmint. I clearly complimented Grandma and her ludicrous behavior. I'm sure she's proud of her conduct.

Note - a few pieces equals a dozen.

Moreover, I did not ever call Presti's pizza "thin-crusted." I just noted that the peripheral pieces' dough have a different taste than the center. See my earlier comment on your shocking inability to read.

Your points about garlic and cheese are right. I forgot about the garlic, but it goes without saying that less cheese is more. Also the sauce is clearly and consistently great, but it does fall along a spicy/sweet continuum.

I'd suggest to certain readers that they comprehend simple phonics before submitting asinine comments.

Wyatt said...

Silly little boy. The following is a quote from your blog: "The thin-crusted dough is delicious, but it varies in taste depending on what section of the sheet it is coming from."

The only reason you know about infra politics is because you were sitting next to me in class.

Point to you: A few slices can mean a dozen.

Steve said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve said...

Just b/c it's not baked meal like that matzoh they sell in NYC doesn't mean it's not thin.

Still, I'll make a clarification.

Didn't infrapolitics mean that black people can steal Whoppers while on the job as long as they aren't seen?

Marisa said...

Oh, get a room!

Cristine said...

All i can say is i love pizza! thin crust pizza is great! :)

Anonymous said...

good points and the details are more precise than elsewhere, thanks.

- Thomas