Do you have any idea of how many pizza places there are in and around Santa Monica? There’s no way that I could begin to try even half of them. On the other hand, in order to write this article I did visit about 50 of them, so I have some idea about it.
The first problem with writing about pizza is that, like some other things in life, even when it’s not the best it’s very good.
But what makes one pizza better than another? Well, tastes may differ, but my criteria are: a thin crust that has flavor and texture (not cardboard, not bread), enough tomato sauce to taste with some acidity, mouth-filling cheese, and not dry overall. And of course the toppings have to be excellent.
Making good pizza dough is not as simple as you might think. The kind of flour is an issue. The amount of yeast can be critical. Salt, oil, and water are a must, but the proportions must be just right. And finally, the decision of whether or not to add sugar (I say no) is an important consideration.
So, with those tastes in mind, here are a few of my findings:
If you want to try a pizza that meets almost all of the requirements listed above, try Stella Rossa on Main Street. This serious pizza bar has an almost perfect crust, tomato sauce with taste that comes through with acidity and maybe a bit too much sugar, and really delicious sausage topping. Only the cheese lacks perfection — there’s not enough of it, and it doesn’t have the soft gooey texture I look for. And sometimes they overcook the pizza a bit. Yet, this is a really good pizza, with draft beer close by, over 50 wines in a reasonable price list, and really attractive waitresses. And they have white pizza, made with a cheese sauce instead of tomato sauce, which some prefer, but it’s not for those of us who prefer traditional pizza.
One of the least appetizing pizzas, one which meets none of the above criteria, was at Pizza Antica in Santa Monica Place. They have the good looking oven, and the sausage and mushroom toppings were OK, but the crust was like cardboard, I couldn’t taste the tomato sauce, there was very little cheese and the little there was had no flavor, and the whole thing was dry. The pizza by the slice across the patio in the food court is much better, and fairly typical.
So I asked a few friends to point me to their favorite pizza spots. One suggested the Antica Pizzeria in Marina del Rey, which I’m told has been there for a long time. We went together. It was an old fashion Italian restaurant, and the pizza was OK, but not great. But if I were in the Marina and had to have pizza, I might go there.
Then I looked on the Internet for ideas. California Pizza Kitchen showed up prominently, and I remembered that there is one in Santa Monica, on Wilshire Boulevard. I tried it, and it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either. It just didn’t have either great texture or great flavor. I think the problem was with the cheese, or lack of it.
On another occasion I went to Il Fornaio on Ocean Avenue, which I’m now told is closing soon. Here they serve a very good pizza that meets most of the criteria I am looking for. Too bad it’s closing. As I left I noticed that the restaurant next door, Ivy at the Shore, also had pizza, so the next day we went there. This was a particularly good, very delicious pizza with porcini mushrooms, flavorful tomato sauce, and moist unctuous cheese. It was clearly made in a wood-burning oven, which makes a difference. I thought perhaps I had found the holy grail of pizza.
But the next day I was shopping at Whole Foods market on Lincoln and Rose, and I noticed a pizza counter there, so I asked for a few free samples. And these were equally delicious, with an even thinner crust and great toppings, but without the wood and smoke taste in the crust.
A week later an Italian friend of mine, Diego, suggested that we try Gjelina on Abbot Kinney Boulevard, with some friends in from Italy. Gjelina is a really good restaurant with a lot of first class dishes not found everywhere. We had a mushroom pizza that was out of this world. Even the Italians admitted that this was as good as any pizza in Naples, the home of pizza. I’m still working up the courage to write about the other dishes we had — they were so wonderful they almost defy description in words.
I went to a lot of other pizza places, and had some reasonably good ones. But the ones I’ve mentioned here stood out.
Every time my dad finished dinner, he would lean back and say, “That was the best dinner I ever ate.” I was beginning to think this was happening to me with the pizza. But when all is said and done, here is what I think about pizza around Santa Monica: If I want to take it out, I would go to Whole Foods. If I want to go to a full-service restaurant that also serves pizza, I would go to Gjelina (if I could get in) or Ivy at the Shore. And if I want to go to a pizza joint, sit at the bar, have a good beer and talk to the waitresses, I would go to Stella Rossa — and ask for extra cheese.
Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.