S00o let’s start with this premise: there’s plenty of good, maybe great pizza in Pasadena, and there’s absolutely no need to travel outside the city limits to get anything better.
Well, maybe. But to paraphrase Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth, Pasadenans, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. He was speaking of ghosts. I am speaking of Zelo Gourmet Pizza in Arcadia.
A mini-Italian lesson: “zelo” translates to zeal, devotion, dedication and/or attention to detail. And “zelo” is what owner Mike Freeman applies to making pizza. Zelo’s been reviewed by some of the best, including Jonathan Gold back in early 2005 when the restaurant was just turning three and the LA Weekly was the hottest paper in town (RIP).
Gold wrote rapturously of Zelo’s pizza as “a different sort of pie, crust enriched with a little cornmeal, packed and crimped into a high-rimmed steel deep-dish pizza pan blackened from years in the ovens, and baked to a kind of high crunchiness — just oily enough to keep it from being compared to an overdone but particularly delicious muffin top. Crispness is generally a virtue in pizza, but Zelo’s is almost beyond crisp, a crackling, luscious, tooth-shattering crispness with the staying power of a Hendrix chord.”
The artistry of that description is exactly why Gold is good enough to have had a movie (City of Gold) made about him in 2015. And the artistry of the crust Gold was describing is exactly why Zelo is still in business more than a decade after Gold’s review was published. The crust is, indeed, almost beyond crisp, but just crisp enough.
When the late great Dan O’Heron reviewed Zelo’s for our paper in 2012, he was just as besotted with Freeman’s crust when he wrote the crust was “made of one part stone-ground, organic corn meal, four parts flour and a judicious mixture of olive oil, salt, water and yeast which 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.”
Since Danny mentioned San Francisco sourdough, let me add that Mike imported his cornmeal crust from that city when he relocated to Southern California after working for eight years at Vicolo’s’ Pizzeria which closed and morphed into a successful retailer of both cornmeal-crusted pizzas and unfilled crusts. Turns out you can buy them at Whole Foods and Bristol Farms, but that won’t get you Zelo’s toppings. And those are at least half the magic.
Gold, O’Heron and just about everyone else who’s ever written about Zelo (most of the reviews hang in the hallway leading to the rear of the restaurant) wax ecstatic about the corn pizza. Topped with freshly shucked kernels and roasted balsamic marinated red onions bedded down in a blanket of mozzarella and smoked mozzarella and sprinkled with fresh snipped chives, the pie is sweet and chewy and richly textured and like nothing to be found anywhere in our locale. It’s definitely addictive, and once you try it, you will find yourself heading over to “far-away” northeast Arcadia way more than before.
Once on site you’re likely to be beguiled by other pizzas on the seven-pie regular menu which includes veggie (featuring roasted eggplant, marinated green peppers sautéed onions, mushrooms, tomato sauce and mozzarella) with or without cheese, homemade sausage, pepperoni and mushroom spinach pesto and four-cheese. Pricing is simple; for all pies, a fat slice is $4.50, a half (three slices) is $13 and a whole is $25. They can also be bought “half-baked” for home finishing in 12-15 minutes in a 500 degree oven.
My biggest problem is the captivating menu list of 25 additional pizzas only a few of which are available on any given day. Among them: andouille, finocchiona, potato pancetta, artichoke, Greek, tapenade, wild mushroom — enough to make me want to move around the corner so we could drop in a few times a week to see what’s on offer and quaff some local draft beer (Craftsman 1903, Poppyfields and Heavenly Hefeweizen from Pasadena’s Craftsman Brewing Company) at $7 per pint, $26 per pitcher.
And it’s not just pizza and beer. The limited wine list is well-chosen and affordable. My husband adores beets and the beet salad, with roasted walnuts, blue cheese and a bed of greens with a subtle shallot balsamic vinaigrette (full $9/half $7) got his full attention on our first visit. So did the huge sack of raw beets he almost tripped over on his trip to the men’s room. I’ve yet to sample the pasta puttanesca ($13.50 with garlic bread), but if it’s got kalamata olives and as much anchovy as the excellent caesar salad ($8.50/$7), I’m there!
How many restaurants do you know with only a single dessert which isn’t ice cream? The sweet du (every) jour is homemade zuccotto. Although the word means little pumpkin in Italian, the only pumpkinesque thing about the cake is its shape — a dome fashioned from sponge cake (Zelo’s frame is constructed of fat lady fingers) and filled, in this case with a layer of whipped cream and crushed biscotti and a deeply satisfying chocolate mousse center($6).
I’d love to persuade Mike to move his operation closer. Even with The Luggage Room, Settebello, Pizza of Venice and all the other thin crust, thick crust, deep dish, Neapolitan, Italian-American, fusion, eat-in, takeout and delivery pies, there’s certainly room in Pasadena for ones with cornmeal crusts. (Suggestion: we live near PCC.) I can’t help but feel, despite a loyal clientele and rave reviews, that Zelo’s lamp is somewhat hidden under the bushel of its location.
But how would he reproduce Zelo’s quirky and extremely captivating décor, with wall art including skateboard decks and pizza-themed album covers that Gold called “worthy of the Smithsonian”? I’m in love with a sweet painting of a black and white kitty done by Mike’s wife. The Freemans have four rescues and we have eight — so, aside from his passion for making incredibly good pizza and ours for eating it, we’ve got an additional bond and will keep making that “long” 12-minute drive to Arcadia as long as Zelo stays put. I suggest you do likewise!
Zelo Gourmet Pizza
328 E. Foothill Blvd., Arcadia | (626) 358-8298 | zelogourmetcrustpizza.eat24hour.com
Beer and Wine/Major Cards