Los Angeles shelters some of the most diverse and eclectic menus in the country. It contains countless of ethnic food enclaves that rival the nations themselves, constantly pushing the boundaries for healthy alternatives and showcasing hundreds of talented chefs. There are many dishes that L.A. has seemingly perfected — tibs and injera in Little Ethiopia, Thai boat noodles in Hollywood, tacos in a thousand different permutations. Over the past few decades, this city has slowly transformed into a gustatory wonderland.
But the pizza still isn’t quite right.
Or at least, there’s a standing assumption that the pizza in L.A. isn’t quite right.
Compared to a slew of cities heading east, pizza culture appears to have never hit California with the same urgency. Unlike its cracker-crusted, deep-dish, square-cut, honey-dusted counterparts, California pizza never bothered to distinguish itself. In fact, one of the only identifying factors for L.A. pizza is a blatant disregard for precedent, topping pizza with smoked salmon, barbecue sauce or even pasta.
Of course, part of L.A.’s pizza identity was formed by the chain California Pizza Kitchen, which has built a reputation for unorthodox, outside-the-box thin crust pies. Inspired by chef Ed LaDou of Spago fame, the concept of California Pizza Kitchen combined California cooking techniques with an Italian tradition, resulting in not-quite-Neopolitan pizza with an emphasis on flavor.
After Spago started serving smoked salmon and cream cheese on a pizza, L.A. began to consider the Italian delicacy in a new light. Nancy Silverton’s Pizzeria Mozza offered a unique but delicious take on pizza, grounded in its expertly made dough and wood-burning oven. Quickly and steadily, L.A. began to solidify its Italian identity.
Now, in the surge of restaurants committed to quality ingredients and authenticity, great pizza can be easily found. Another Nancy Silverton project, Triple Beam Pizza, serves Roman-style square-cut pie by the ounce in Highland and Echo parks. Cosa Buona serves classics with bubbling cheese and a leopard-speckled crust of char in Echo Park. Jon and Vinny’s serves chilled burrata on razor-thin Neopolitan crusts on Fairfax. Pizzanista! serves mac and cheese pizza by the slice on Sundays in the Arts District, matched by a hefty selection of vegan pies.
In a way, a city’s iconic pizza functions like a Rorschach test — a point of analysis for the uneducated tourist. Some cities base their pies off tradition (St. Louis’ bizarre provel-and-cracker situation), or comfort (Chicago and Detroit’s carb-heavy variations), or ease (New York’s marriage to the dollar slice).
For many, California’s pizza might be interpreted as a desire to stand out, to haphazardly combine flavors in a desperate attempt to gain recognition. Will pho pizza be the next barbecue chicken? No.
I tend to view L.A.’s pizza as a direct dialogue with its citizens. California’s loose definition of a proper pizza allows for chefs to push into new culinary directions, with a blank canvas to explore from every angle. Without a strict cultural adherence to a flavor or style, each facet of the dish can be reinvented: Unique sauces, doughs and toppings have all made their mark in L.A.
This uninhibited pie freedom also feeds into the assumption that L.A. has poor pizza possibilities. Expectations of red sauce and mozzarella cheese can be throttled by a Thai chicken pizza or a pizza hidden under a pile of arugula. Chefs can get too creative and fly too close to the sun. Take a New Yorker to the wrong pizza joint and watch their horror as their beloved slice is bastardized.
But a good pizza in L.A. combats all false beliefs. Thankfully, there are quite a few of them.
Christina Tiber is a senior writing about food. Her column, “Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself,” runs every other Thursday.