A group of friends and I decided to get together for lunch someplace none of us had gone before. I have been wanting to go to Pizzeria Mozza for a long time, and my coworkers, who had never heard of it, were excited about it after reading the reviews I provided and, most especially, the menu. So Mozza it was.
The earliest we could score a reservation for lunch at Mozza on a Tuesday was 1:45, but I pounced on it nonetheless. We spent the rest of the previous afternoon drooling over the menu taken from the website, trying to narrow down what pizzas we would order (as well as a few choice Chowhound threads for guidance). On arrival, we were seated promptly, despite arriving about five minutes early, but it took a bit of time to get our order taken, and service was consistently a little tardy throughout the meal, with just two harried waitresses to serve a room that was packed to the rafters even in the mid-afternoon. At no point during our nearly two-hour-long meal did the crowd ever wane. If you are pressed for time, Mozza is not the place for you.
We settled on two antipasti, a salad, the plate of the day, and, initially one pizza. The arancine arrived first, perfect tiny little balls of risotto melded with cheese, rolled in breadcrumbs, and deep-fried, served atop marinara. (If you want descriptions on your menus, you are out of luck. Fortunately for my fellow diners, I knew what they were.) I think their small size kept them from being greasy, as larger versions of the dish have a reputation for being. The gooey cheese and marinara recall those wonderful comfort foods of Little Italy trattorias. One diner, the Healthy Eater, ordered the asparagus antipasto, expecting to inject a little healthfulness into the meal, and her face visibly fell when she saw the thin, crisp spears come deep-fried and served with an aioli, golden with plenty of egg yolk. They were fried just enough to make them slightly tender but enough not lose their snap; though excellent, I’m not sure I would jump to order them over trying other menu items.
We saw plate after plate of “Nancy’s” Chopped Salad being brought out to other tables, and with good reason. It is really excellent. Shredded iceberg lettuce, red onion, grape tomato halves, garbanzo beans, salami, and flakes of fontina cheese, tossed in oil and vinegar. Like the arancine, it recalls Little Italy more than the Old Country itself. We could not stop eating this. Of course, this was another blow to the Healthy Eater, to whom I teased, “The salad may just be the most fattening thing we ordered today,” as she began picking out her excess salami. The plate of the day was the Crisp Duck Leg with Lentils. I was a bit reluctant to get this, thinking we should focus on pizza at a pizzeria, but I am mighty glad we did. The duck’s skin was the crispiest this side of Chinatown, with the meat’s being rich and buttery, and the lentils had soaked in all the bird’s meaty flavor. Dressed with rosemary and sage leaves, the dish had a flavor that seemed more suited to cooler fall weather – this would be the perfect dish for a rainy January day, if L.A. ever gets any more of those again.
When there is a pizza on the menu featuring lardo, how could we not order it? So the Lardo with Rosemary was our choice. It arrived, and, at first, we mistook the lardo for shavings of some kind of cheese. It was a unique pizza to say the least: One really has to have a love of nuanced, rich foods. The Healthy Eater was picking off the lardo and declaring the pizza “tasteless.” “It has a taste. It tastes like fat,” I replied. I myself enjoyed it, though I am not sure it deserves the high praise it received on the favorite pizza thread here in the past. The lardo pizza is a tribute to simplicity, striking me as what pizza might be like had the French invented it. If you are a pizza eater who automatically discards any piece of crust lacking topping, do not think of ordering this. (While we ate this one, the Healthy Eater was greedily eyeballing the goat cheese pizza at the next table.) The crust of the pizza was much-discussed: I think it is remarkably good, neither too thin nor chewy and pasty. Others used to a lot of take-out pizza thought it a bit too thin and flavorless, wishing it had been flavored on the edges.
Not entirely sated – not because we were still hungry, but because we were seeing all these other beautiful pies coming out – we tacked on the Sausage, Panna, and Onion Pizza (another recommendation taken from this board) to our order. This one was stellar. The sausage was rich with fennel, and the fresh spring onions gave it a nice light character, keeping it from being too strong. But that delicious crème fraîche base was the best surprise, a great change from the normal cheese underpinning. It was rich, but not too rich, familiar, but not too familiar. (The Healthy Eater took the a piece ostensibly because it was the smallest, but it also happened to have the most pieces of sausage, prompting the other diner with us to exclaim loudly, to my surprise, “[Expletive] took the piece with the most sausage!” Clearly, Mozza inspires passion.)
For dessert to live up to everything the preceded it would be a mighty feat, but it did. The Butterscotch Budino is pretty much all is has been cracked up to be: sweet and rich and yes, touched with that wonderful flavor of sea salt. Without that salty tang, I would run for the hills, but what a difference a little salt makes. The Strawberry Gelato Pie shows wonderful restraint with the sugar, and the cookie crust has a nice dose of cinnamon. But the real hit of the show were the pine nut and rosemary biscotti that came with the budino and in the biscotti assortment. Thankfully we had enough biscotti – and were too full (and a little too tipsy) – that we did not come to blows over them. They are definitely worthy of a full plate’s order.
There are no cheap, cheap bottles of wine on the wine list, but there is nothing to make you faint dead away, either. We had a Trebbiano at $32, followed by a Dolcetto at $30. From the prices posted on the website, it appeared they raised prices in the restaurant some recently. Still, the wine steward – a disarmingly young, hip guy wearing Dior, not like the usual graying-at-the-temples type; I felt like carding him – was actually kind enough to recommend a wine that he said was “not only better, but cheaper.” I like that kind of service.
The room is tiny and crowded. It is noisy. The service can be stretched, so it can take a long time to get through a meal. And no, this is not discount pizza. But these are wonderful pizzas, made one by one, with fresh ingredients – no California Pizza Kitchen-style freezer pizza here, and the prices actually are CPK-comparable – in a convivial atmosphere. Mozza is more than just good food. That small, buzzing room; leaning in that get close; ordering that second bottle while you wait and getting a little more tipsy: Mozza is just a good time.
Who cares if the Osteria ever opens? Just expand the pizzeria already…