Manhattan transfer

Baking New York-style pizza pie in

By Dan O'Heron 04/05/2007

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For me, the term "New York-style pizza" conjures an image of a splattered bib on a $700 sharkskin suit, following an incident at a restaurant in Queens. It's an uncharitable vision, perhaps, but one that was reinforced by a scene on the archway of Mamma's Brick Oven Pizza: a composite photo of "The Godfather" Marlon Brando and all his children.

To keep my appetite from sliding under the table, I visited Mamma's recently to see if there was anything good or special to add about the so-called "New York–style" pizza it dishes out; thin crust is a given. Barely seated, I turned my head when I heard a woman exclaim, "This is really good. You just can't do pizza in LA like this. I'm amazed."

"So am I, " said Mamma's partner Jamie Inzunza, in a whispered aside as she joined me at a table. "It hasn't been easy."

Mamma's Brick Oven Pizza
710 S. Fair Oaks Ave.
South Pasadena
(626) 799-1344

Inzunza, who runs the restaurant with her husband Steve, a financial executive by day, said they bought Mamma's three months ago in a deal they might have refused. "The owner was supposed to give us the recipes for his popular pizza, but instead gave us something that didn't turn out quite right."

It took weeks, she said, to get the owner's “silent partner” to “break cover” and give them the originals. By that time, they had already hired a pizza consultant from New York as well as Alfredo Cinzin, a veteran pizza chef from Fratelli's in Montrose. "And now," Inzunza said, "people tell us our pizza tastes even better than the original."

Fortunately, a gas-fired brick oven — the cornerstone of the business — was included in the sale. Inzunza snuffs out the idea that California's much-ballyhooed wood-fired pizza tastes better than New York's gas-fired counterpart. Wood chips do a lot for slow-cooked barbecued ribs, she explained, but pizza cooks too fast to pick up anything good from the smoke.

Speaking of goodness, I figured that Mamma's must use legendary New York City tap water to mix pizza flour, since Pasadena water is good for making beer but too hard for good pizza crust. "Neither place," she said, "but our water is special." She wouldn't reveal the source but "special" often means expensive trickles from deep, underground aquifers.

I was beginning to be sold on Mamma's pizza. But with all due respect for water, oven, chef and consultant, after sampling a large-enough-for-lunch slice of classic Margherita pizza ($2.95), I have to give a big hunk of credit for the New York–style flavor to Italian cheese: Mamma's mozzarella and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheeses were gooey enough to hold gourmet toppings together, without any stringy annoyances to make me fall apart.

"We grate our Parmigiano freshly from the wheel; it's the real thing," said Inzunza. "Real" means that it is imported from strictly defined regions of northern

Italy, with “R-E-G-G-I-A-N-O” pinpricked on the rind. On my thinly shelled pizza, with no thick, doughy crust to camouflage flavor, its rich, sharp taste was a golden delight. Pre-grated Parmesan, used in many pizza places, just doesn't compare with freshly grated.

Later, I got another taste of the difference between fresh and pre-grated from two knife-and-fork pasta entrees ($6.95 and $7.95, including house salad and garlic knots) that thankfully required no messy twirling.

Another addictive pull came from a to-go full-meal salad. Unlike many California-style salads, in which meat is chopped so finely you can't find — or taste — it, the Italian prosciutto here came in big, New York–ish coils.

With newfound respect for Manhattan style, I can appreciate Inzunza's dreamy remodeling plan: "I want our building to look like a brick pizza oven with an awning on top that says, 'New York, New York!'"

MULTI-TASKING:  Being fusion phobic, I worry about how easy it is for one kitchen to turn the cuisines of three countries into a wasteland. Just the thought of a restaurant defending cross-cultural identities with olive oil, lime juice and soy sauce splashed in a single dish gives me the willies. But there's hope that the new Celadon (7910 W. Third St., Los Angeles; (323) 658-8028; inspired and informed by the ancestry and travels of its chef, will rectify the condition.

Chef Danny Elmaleh was born in Haifa, Israel, to a Moroccan father and Japanese mother. He trained in New York and draws from experiences as a chef in Japan, Milan and Santa Monica. Guests tell me he brings delicious integrity to diverse culinary traditions and eccentric flavor combinations. Three fusions have earned particularly high praise: Vietnamese sesame shrimp toast served with sweet chili sauce, saffron-braised monkfish and clams with cumin-spiced couscous, and grilled rib-eye steak with poached egg and Parmigiano-Reggiano dressing.


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