Pizzeria Mozza – Newport Beach, California
“Breadmaking is one of those almost hypnotic businesses,
like a dance from some ancient ceremony.
It leaves you filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells
–there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise,
no hour of meditation in a music throbbing chapel
that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this
homely ceremony of making bread.”
~M.F.K. Fisher, The Art of Eating
For those of us geriatrically advanced enough to have had moms who actually baked bread in their ovens, the singular joy of those incredible yeasty bouquets wafting toward us is a treasured memory, one we relive when we visit old-fashioned bakeries. The sense of smell, more than any of our other senses, influences our ability to recall past events and experience. It’s very well established that fragrance is one of the most potent mediums for conjuring up a memory and for tugging at the heart strings.
At most pizzerias, it’s the aroma of garlic and sauce simmering on the stove that greet you, sometimes even before you walk in. Step into Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach, California and your sense of smell might go into overdrive as your nose seeks out the incomparable fragrance of baking bread. That, at least, was my inclination knowing that one of the three partners who founded and own Pizzeria Mozza also founded one of America’s most hallowed havens for the staff of life.
That partner would be Nancy Silverton, founder of LaBrea Bakery, the premier artisan bread brand in the country. Founded in 1989, LaBrea Bakery sparked an artisan bread renaissance, ultimately leading to the bakery’s breads being sold at premier grocery stores and restaurants across the fruited plain. Today, as La Brea Bakery celebrates it’s 20th Anniversary, its freshly baked, old-world breads are available in 17 different countries. Longtime visitors will tell you LaBrea maintains the same signature taste, texture, and quality that was born in South La Brea Avenue so many years ago.
The other two partners are household names among foodies. One is Mario Batali, the peripatetic restaurateur, cookbook author and television personality. Batali is renowned for pushing the envelope, taking a contemporary approach to traditional cooking. In doing so, he has earned a number of James Beard awards. The third partner is Joe Bastianich, a restaurant impresario who partnered with Batali to launch Babbo, one o the most highly regarded Italian restaurants in America.
When it first launched in Los Angeles in 2007, Pizzeria Mozza instantly became one of the hottest reservations in the Los Angeles area. Los Angeles Times Pulitzer Prize and James Beard award-winning food critic Jonathan Gold called Pizzeria Mozza “the hottest restaurant opening since Spago launched in 1982.” Six years later, reservations are still a must. Based on its success, it was a given that Pizzeria Mozza spin-offs would open, the second launching in 2010 some 8,782 miles away in Singapore. The third opened in Newport Beach in 2011.
Whether by design or by accident, the Newport Beach restaurant evokes images of Batali’s signature crocs. Both the signage and awning are the same bright orange color Batali sports on his feet. The cynosure of the main dining room is a brick wood-burning oven which will bake a pizza in three minutes at temperatures of 500-600 degrees, burning only almond wood. Seating along the bar is in personal space proximity, but it might be worth getting to know your neighbors just to be able to imbibe the preternatural melding of fragrant smoke and baking bread.
The menu is an exercise in salivation control. It reads like a delicious novel, each item conflicting you between wanting to order it immediately or reading further just in case there’s something even better. Fortunately our inaugural visit was with friend and passionate fellow foodie Sandy Driscoll, an LA resident who’s navigated her way through the menu during several visits. Sandy is the very best kind of friend for visiting restaurants, the type of friend with which whom you’re comfortable reaching over with fork or spoon and sampling each others’ food is expected. Male friends don’t share in this way.
The menu is segmented sensibly, starting with some thirteen antipasti, all showcasing the fresh bounty of California’s farms. Next on the menu are five insalate, each one desirable. Carne–four Italian meat dishes the envy of any charcuterie–follows then it’s bruschette, three toasted bread offerings topped with assorted ingredients. Three panini are also available, but by the time you’ve read this far, you’re ready to peruse and imbibe the pizza menu, thirteen different pies as inventive and inviting as possible. It’s likely that only after you’ve sampled all of the previous fare that you’ll even look at the piatti on the back side of the menu. The piatti are three specials of the day (such as brasato al barolo).
The fried squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta is a farmers’ market favorite available seasonally. The squash blossoms are ethereal, sheathed in a delicate tissue-thin batter tinged with just a bit of sea salt. The bulbous flower yields sweet-savory cheese nectar with each bite. As with all antipasti on the menu, the squash blossoms are decadent and delicious, but they don’t linger and by the time you get your pizza, will remain a pleasant memory.
Since Sandy introduced me to burrata several years ago, it’s been on my “must order” list. Burrata, an almost unnaturally soft and moist fresh Italian cheese made from cream and mozzarella, is ethereal in its texture and as rich and creamy a cheese as you’ll find. In fact, in Italian Burrata actually translates to “buttered.” It bears a strong resemblance to mozzarella, but is much softer and when penetrated by a knife or fork, has an interior that spills out, revealing unctuous, stringy curd and fresh cream.
At Pizzeria Mozza, burrata is available as a condimenti for your pizza, but can also be found on the bruschette menu. More specifically, burrata shares canvas space on a perfectly toasted pane with speck (a salt-cured and smoked juniper-flavored Italian ham) and pickled ramps. Every ingredient atop the bruschette is fabulous in its own right; together the combination may elicit a foodgasm or two. The whisper-thin speck is porcine perfection. The pickled ramps are infused with a sweet-tangy marinade which renders every bit of them thoroughly delicious. The burrata was, of course, outstanding.
Since a 2012 visit to The Purple Pig on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, bone marrow al forno has become an obsession, one for which I would endure twelve Herculean labors. While other foods may be considered rich, bone marrow is almost obscenely so. It’s one of the richest, most unctuous ingredients available. At Pizzeria Mozza, two split-roasted beef bones reveal in troth-fashion, a trove of irresistible marrow. Almost too rich to eat on its own, the marrow is best enjoyed atop toasted bread with just a light pinch of sea salt, garlic cloves and parsley. I’m already looking forward to my next bone marrow indulgence.
The pizza menu is a showcase of California freshness, every ingredient a complement to the beauteous bread canvas on which they’re laid out. The crust is blistered and puffed at the edges, tapering off to a whisper-thinness at the pizza’s middle. It’s a crust which–credit Nancy Silverton’s mastery of the bread oven–will evoke fond memories of your mom’s baked bread. When this crust hits your eye, it’s amore. When it hits your taste buds, it’s “I’ll cheat on mom’s bread and I don’t care if she knows about it” good. Each pizza is about ten-inches round, a personal sized pie you’ll want to share with good friends.
Pizza, unlike burgers, is so much more than the sum of all its components strewn out on a bread canvas. Often the most overlooked aspect of a great pizza is the sauce, a perfectly seasoned tomato sauce that lends shimmering deliciousness, moistness and personality to your pizza. Pizzeria Mozza offers three pizzas on which the sauce is showcased. The three Bianco DiNapoli Pomodoro pizzas use a sauce made with certified organic tomatoes grown in Los Gatos, California by Robert DiNapoli and Chris Bianco. If the name Chris Bianco sounds familiar, it’s because he’s widely credited with creating the best pizza in America at Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.
Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes aren’t found on too many pizzas. Organically grown, these plum-shaped beauties are packed with a touch of sea salt, organic basil and topped with their own juices. The results are a sweet tomato so good you’ll want a bushelful. At Pizzeria Mozza, the tomatoes are hand-crushed onto the dough and topped with other signature ingredients. An excellent combination includes prosciutto di Parma, rucola and mozzarella di buffala, all premier ingredients, all downplayed by my enjoyment of the tomatoes. Frankly, Nancy Silverton’s pizza crust and these tomatoes would have made for an outstanding pizza on their own.
The most popular pizza on the menu is the “meat lovers” pizza (though to call it such would be to give it the same sobriquet as a vastly inferior chain pizza) featuring bacon, salame, fennel sausage, guanciale, tomato and mozzarella. The fennel enriched sausage is a coarse blend and it’s piled on in intimidatingly large chunks. It’s easily the most plentiful among the toppings and it’s the most flavorful, too.
While ingredients are predominantly from California, Pizzeria Mozza cares more about the quality of their ingredients than about their place of origin. One pizza showcases Coach Farm goat cheese, an authentic, artisanal goat cheese made in the traditional methods employed by French farmstead cheese-makers. Vive la différence! This goat cheese is rich and creamy, but not at all gamy or overpowering. It’s a perfect foil for leeks, scallions, garlic and bacon. As with the sausage pizza, the goat cheese is apportioned generously.
Even if you don’t have room for it, you’ve got to try Pizzeria Mozza’s desserts, all of which are formidable equals to the menu’s savory fare. One must-have is the Caramel Copetta, a “sundae” of caramel ice cream, marshmallow fluff, caramel topping and Spanish peanuts with a pizzelle cookie at the bottom and more than a pinch of sea salt. The combination of sea salt and caramel has become almost de rigueur in many restaurants, but few couple these ingredients so well. The interplay of salty and sweet ingredients makes this a memorable dish. It’s deliciousness makes it a dessert we’ll order again.
One of the most refreshing desserts we’ve had in recent memory is the strawberry gelato pie with caramelized almonds and Saba. Upon reading “Saba,” my mind immediately conjured images of Japanese mackerel at a sushi bar. Thankfully, Saba is also a word for a sweet-tangy Italian condiment made with grapes. In any case, it enlivened this pie (not that it needed much help) with just a bit of cloying sweetness to meld with the tangy sweetness of the strawberries.
My dessert, the Stone Fruit Copetta (apricots, sbrisolona (a crunchy Italian tart), vanilla gelato) was the least successful of the three, a Rodney Dangerfield “no respect” dessert considering I had the entire cup almost to myself. Apricots are an acquired taste, an often overwhelming and powerful sweet-tangy fruit with a deeply intense flavor. The Stone Fruit Copetta is almost an anti-dessert in that it’s not overly sweet and won’t win over too many hearts and appetites, but I liked it a lot. Perhaps I can relate.
Service at Pizzeria Mozza was terrific. A highly professional and personal wait staff answered all our questions and was on-the-spot with refills and advice. When we lingered long after our meal, we were offered a complimentary glass of wine to move from the patio to the dining room so the restaurant could accommodate a private party. It’s wholly unlike the stereotype of LA service.
Pizzeria Mozza is on my short list of restaurants which have provided “best pizza experiences” of my life, joining the aforementioned Pizzeria Bianco and Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana as the three most transformative pizzas I’ve been blessed to experience.
800 W Coast Highway
Newport Beach, California
LATEST VISIT: 30 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Bone Marrow Al Forno, Fried Squash Blossoms, Pane Pomodoro, Pizza, Strawberry Gelato Pie, Stone Fruite Copetta, Caramel Copetta