PEAK PIZZA

Stop the (panini) presses—I’ve found pizza’s Holy Grail! Chef Daniele Uditi of Brentwood’s Pizzana has transformed Neapolitan pizza into neo-Neapolitan pizza and taken it from humble to awesome. His Neo Margherita is now my all-time favorite pizza, rivaling my childhood memories of New York and New Haven pies.

Pizzana opened to great fanfare just over a year ago, thanks to its celebrity owner (Chris O’Donnell of NCIS: Los Angeles), celebrity pastry chef (Candace Nelson of Sprinkles cupcakes fame) and a glowing L.A. Times review from Jonathan Gold that immediately began packing the 46-seat venue on San Vicente, just west of Barrington. (You can make reservations but go early to guarantee seating. Trust me: there will be lines later.)

What’s the secret of good pizza? It’s the water, it’s the cheese, it’s the tomatoes, it’s the crust, it must be deep dish, it must be thin…yada yada. On the Netflix series “Ugly Delicious,” David Chang devotes the first episode to pizza, from Pepe’s in New Haven (the one I grew up with), to Tokyo where they serve tuna and mayo pizza (oy!), to Wolfgang Puck’s contemporary take with toppings like smoked salmon (heresy!), and even Domino’s delivery.

Daniele Uditi is a fourth-generation baker from Naples, who adds no yeast to his dough. He makes it with a “starter” or “mother” dough that originated in his Italian aunt’s kitchen, 63 years ago. He feeds it daily and ferments it for 48 hours—no, it’s not sourdough. “Sourdough overpowers the taste of the ingredients,” says Chef Daniele. “Our flour is not super refined, still has fiber inside, and after fermenting, the starch and sugar are all breaking down, so you have no trouble digesting it.”

It creates an especially delicious crust, strong enough to hold the toppings but flexible enough to hold or fold without flopping. “The problem with Neapolitan pizza is that the toppings slide off the crust when you eat it.” That’s definitely not the case here. “It doesn’t do what I call ‘Aladdin shoes,’” he says. “You know how when you leave pizza out and it bends with a little curl like the genie’s shoes…”

And while he does subscribe to the “farm to table” ethos, using local produce from Santa Monica Farmers Market for his appetizers and salads, Chef Daniele imports his organic, stone-ground flour, San Marzano tomatoes and fior di latte cheese from Italy, “the ingredients I ate as a child. I wanted the same taste of that simple Margherita pizza but translated to California.”

Fior di latte, he explains is a “drier version of mozzarella, perfect for pizza. It doesn’t wet the bottom or discharge much water, it’s a little saltier so it has a more pronounced flavor.”

Chef Daniele works directly with the people who craft his fior di latte cheese, grow his tomatoes, mill his flour and provide his salt. “I use seven different Slow Food products,” he says, “from the flour to the anchovies, to the salt, which comes from Sicily, made artisanally, it’s a brownish wet salt, not refined white salt.

“We are the only place that uses tomatoes grown in the San Marzano region. We own a little field there with a guy who grows tomatoes just for us. The cheese is made with a special recipe I collaborated in creating with the cheesemaker, and the Italian flour is specially milled in Venice (Italy) just for Pizzana.”

The dough is mixed by hand, and unlike Neapolitan pizzamakers, Daniele adds more flour when stretching it. “I was a bread baker, so I treat pizza a little more like bread, to support the toppings.” During the week they’ll make upwards of 220 pounds of dough (“We have to plan two days in advance”) to fire more than 250 pizzas a day; on weekends they make up to 400 pizzas a day in their super-heated wood-burning oven.

And yes, Pizzana does do both takeout and delivery. But they offer a unique feature. “We started to sell pizza uncut, so people can preheat their home ovens to 500 degrees, put it on a rack for 2 – 3 minutes, and it tastes just as it does at the restaurant. Think of it: Bread is already baked, but it’s more delicious when you toast it. It’s the same principle for the pizza.”

And instead of a few lonely basil leaves (which you can still get on the traditional Margherita), Neo-Margherita gives you the experience of basil crumb. “I don’t know if I invented it but I don’t see anyone else using it! I make a basil powder or dust, mixed with bread crumbs, Parmigiano—the good stuff, aged 36 months—sprinkled on top, then baked.”

There are plenty of other toppings, pepperoni of course, or the Amatriciana (bacon-infused sauce), the Carnivoro (chock full of meats), but vegetarian tastes are also indulged with choices of squash blossom, artichoke and basil pesto (Verde), and the Ortolana with zucchini and eggplant.

You don’t need to feel guilty eating his pizza, says Chef Daniele. “In Italy, Margherita pizza is prescribed by doctors to be eaten once a week on the Mediterranean diet. Anti-oxidants from the tomatoes, protein in the fior di latte and fiber and carbs from the crust; it’s a balanced meal.”

Pizzana is located at 11712 San Vicente Blvd., call (310) 481-7108 or visit https://pizzana.com

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, now retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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