Five years after Pizzeria Mozza opened on Highland Avenue and Melrose Boulevard, it's still one of the toughest reservations in town. And while the pace of new pizzeria openings, inspired by Mozza's success, has picked up, no other pizzeria so far has put it all together in such an alluring package.
Mozza has it all: terrific antipasti and salads, Nancy Silverton's idiosyncratic pizzas, captivating desserts — and an all-Italian wine list of more than 50 selections. The ambience is pretty great too, buzzing at all hours, the dining room filled with a hungry urban bohemian crowd.
Silverton helped run Campanile for years without a spinoff other than La Brea Bakery. But once she hooked up with Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich, who together own easily more than a dozen restaurants, a second Pizzeria Mozza had to be in the cards. It opened last year, not in Studio City or Santa Monica or Santa Barbara, but 8,782 miles away, in Singapore.
Now Mozza and company have spun out a third restaurant, this one on a lonely stretch of West Coast Highway in Newport Beach. It's been a while since a successful L.A. restaurateur has crossed the Orange County line. But here it is, the familiar Mozza sign looming just after Rusty Pelican, Joe's Crab Shack and Garlic Jo's.
Not just the logo, everything else looks familiar too. The Roman red walls. The milky glass light fixtures. The bare wood tables. The pounding rock music track. And the brown paper place mats printed with Italian cartoons or diagrams of office products in Italian. The menu itself is virtually identical to that of the original locale, which is what we all were hoping, isn't it?
Everything on the menu is uncannily similar in taste. Close your eyes and you'd be hard-pressed to identify a dish as coming from this locale as opposed to Los Angeles. That's due to Silverton's fanatical attention to detail. But you can't bottle an ambience or feeling, and that's where the new restaurant differs from the first one.
Tricolore salad: check. Radicchio, endive and greens are tossed in a punchy anchovy dressing (think Caesar with more oomph) with a dusting of Parmigiano-Reggiano, and piled high on the plate. Ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms are cloaked in a shatteringly crisp batter, so each bite is crunchy, soft and milky rich at the same time. Marinated scarlet roasted peppers come with a dab of tinned tuna on top, a classic Piedmontese antipasto that I've always loved.
If I could have just one of the dozen antipasti on offer, it might be the mussels al forno (from the wood-burning oven) in a fiery salsa Calabrese with a pile of thick grilled toast to soak up the sauce. That almond wood-burning oven turns out fluffy meatballs or roasted bone marrow too, both worth ordering. Chef de cuisine Emily Corliss has gotten down these and every other dish on the menu. All of the antipasti are priced at $12, which makes for easy accounting, but some seem overpriced, others underpriced. I guess it averages out, but it's difficult to tough out that price for a mere bowl of olives (from the wood-burning oven, of course).
Take a bite of the Napoletana pizza, topped sparingly with dark olives, good-quality anchovies, hot pepper and fried capers. It seems impossible. How do they do it? The crust tastes exactly — and I do mean exactly — like the one at the original, blistered and puffed at the edges with a shiny chestnut gloss to it. This is the only pizza I know where you actually want to eat every bit of the crust.
Mozza's most popular pizza, the one topped with big chunks of house-made fennel sausage, fennel, red onions and scallions with a smear of cream, is here. More compelling, though, the pie topped with thin slices of finocchiona salame, wild spinach and pugnacious cacio di Roma cheese. Another with sliced Yukon gold potato, bacon, sweet Bermuda onions and a fried egg in the middle (break the yolk and spread it around before eating) is eccentric, but awfully good.
My all-time favorite, though, is the burricotta pizza with buttery soft mozzarella from Puglia, peperonata, taggiasche olives from Liguria and a sprinkling of Sicilian dried oregano.
Of course, there are piatti del giorno (plates of the day), but whenever I go, they never sound as enticing as a pizza, though I would like to try the ribs al forno with apple cider vinegar, fennel and honey one Thursday.
The menu cautions "save room for dessert." I'd second that for Silverton's signature butterscotch budino (pudding), which plays Maldon sea salt against the sweet. Or for a bite of her fragile rosemary pine nut cookies that come with it. I'm a big fan of the moist olive oil cake studded with sultana raisins and served with a scoop of creamy fior di latte gelato, orange-honey sauce and candied pine nuts. She gets the details right. And so does pastry chef Sarah Asch. The espresso granita is just about the most perfect dessert to share after a pizza frenzy. You get the ice, a little espresso gelato and chocolate-dipped honeycomb. And at $10, real bargains.
And yet, for all that, the Newport restaurant is not a perfect replica. The setting feels wrong. The room is overscaled and feels more corporate than personal. The layout isn't as cozy. The lighting is bleary. And the big pizza oven with copper surrounding it has that overblown, chain restaurant look.
The servers are all terrific, engaged and very present. The crowd tends to very local, i.e., suburban Newport Beach, so it has a completely different vibe than the Highland Avenue restaurant. There are more big tables, fewer couples. It's not dark enough to be romantic. The bar seating isn't as intimate either, and doesn't seem particularly inviting. At the L.A. restaurant, a seat at the bar is coveted.
It doesn't often happen that the spinoff is as compelling as the original. It just goes to show you can replicate all the elements and yet the magic, that unknown element that animates the restaurant, can be missing in action. And that's what makes Pizzeria Mozza more than just a place to get a great pizza. Maybe the Newport Beach branch needs more time to develop its own mojo.
Maybe we're expecting too much. It's a fascinating conundrum, actually, how to replicate the soul of a beloved restaurant. Does there exist a second or third or 10th restaurant as spirited in every way as the original?
Yet, hands down, this is still the best pizzeria in Orange County, measured on every level — crust, toppings, the other dishes on the menu, wine list, service. I also suspect this is just the first of many to come.
Pizzeria Mozza Newport Beach
Rating: two-and-a-half stars
Rating is based on food, service and ambience, with price taken into account in relation to quality.
****: Outstanding on every level.
**: Very good.
No star: Poor to satisfactory.
Location: 800 West Coast Highway, Newport Beach, (949) 945-1126, http://www.pizzeriamozza.com/NewportBeachwww.pizzeriamozza.com/NewportBeach/home.cfm.
Price: Antipasti, $12; salads, $8 to $15; pizza, $17 to $24; panini, $14 to $15; piatti del giorno, $19 to $29; desserts, $10. Corkage fee, $30 per bottle, maximum two bottles not on wine list.
Details: Open 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. daily.