Bottom is tops
Unique cornmeal crust makes Zelo’s of Arcadia a San Francisco treat
By Dan O'Heron 07/12/2012
I’ve enjoyed pizza topped by goat cheese in Pasadena and gunplay in New Jersey, but none tops the cornmeal bottom laid down at Zelo’s Cornmeal Crust Pizza in Arcadia.
Made of one part stone-ground, organic corn meal, four parts flour and a judicious mixture of olive oil, salt, water and yeast, the cornmeal crust is more manna from heaven than sourdough from San Francisco.
Not too thin or deep-dished, nor blistered with puffy raised outer edges, the texture is airily smooth, like apple pie dough, and — since we’re on the subject of miracles — it is both chewy and crispy at the same time.
My favorite cornmeal pizza is the one that is corn fed with plump, creamy kernels of fresh corn. Bright green, with snugly fitting husks and golden brown silk, the ears are brought in daily to the restaurant for shucking and scraping.
Simply delicious, it sounds like a product of rustic country life. But the most finicky modern tastes should swallow it up. Baked with both regular and smoked mozzarella — cheeses meant for pizza because of their excellent melting qualities — and developed with fresh chives and balsamic-marinated roasted red onions, it’s the bestseller.
For freshness and economy, the cornmeal all-crust fillers are cooked by the slice ($4) and only right after an order is placed. Baking time on the gas-fired oven is eight to 10 minutes. The idea that wood-fired pizza tastes better than gas-fired should be snuffed out. Wood chips help the flavor of slow-cooked barbecue ribs, but they cook pizza too fast to pick up much of anything from the smoke.
Located off a quiet stretch of Foothill Boulevard at the Arcadia and Monrovia junction, it’s best to get over to Zelo’s right now: The peak season for fresh corn is May through September.
If you are tired of all pizza ballyhoo, especially PR exertions over those made with New York City tap water, baked with wood chips from the Petrified Forest or done up with air-dried pepperoni over molten pools of cheese, Zelo’s is the ticket.
The idea for a cornmeal crust brings to light a dish which had previously been in existence in San Francisco, but was hitherto, it is believed, unknown in Southern California. It was brought here by Zelo’s owner, Mike Freeman. “By popular demand, before and between the acts, it was served at Vicolo Ivy Street restaurant to San Francisco Opera fans,” said Freeman. “In coming to Arcadia, I thought it was so good and so unique that someone should still be making it, and I picked me.”
To enjoy this tut-tutting pizza in Arcadia, you don’t have to wear a jacket and pay a valet — or go to the opera. While the cornmeal crust is essential, Zelo’s flavors are not just skin-deep. There’s a tasty array of other cornmeal-crusted toppings, including an emerald spinach pesto. It’s so pretty, you’ll want to take a picture of it before dismantling. Put together with mild and nutty fontina — a cheese that melts easily and smoothly to keep up appearances — plus minty basil and mozzarella, the spinach pesto is house-made. And, so as not to dry out, it is applied only after the pizza is cooked. Apart from $4 a slice, half pizzas sell for $11.50 and whole large for $22.
Rotating daily pizza specials, where the crust becomes a sanctuary for Freeman’s intuition, include “The Blue Room.” This mingles fresh tomatoes and marinated mushrooms with mozzarella and bluish-green veined imported Gorgonzola, one of Italy’s great cheeses. Surprisingly, cooking takes away just enough of the cheese’s sharpness so as not to dominate the other delicate flavors.
Zelo’s also features an interesting array of pasta dishes from $8 to $12. A dandy go-with for either pizza or pasta eaters is a classic beet salad. In this, sliced fresh beats, craggy with roasted walnuts, are served over a bed of greens with shallot balsamic. It comes with a blue cheese that some say is milk’s leap toward immortality.
Zelo’s remembers children with a special pizza menu. All the stuff said about chicken soup being best for everybody’s soul is too piously revered. For the soul of son and daughter, pizza is always better.
328 E. Foothill Blvd.,