Saturday, May 16, 2009

Pizzeria Mozza Sets New Standard

Pizzeria Mozza
641 N. Highland Avenue
Los Angeles, CA

It started with a short wait outside on Highland Ave in Hollywood. We had made reservations for 9 p.m. and we only had to wait about 15 minutes. Little did we know what awaited us. Yes, it could really be...tonight we might have discovered the truth about what pizza is all about. Does this mean that the search for the best pizza is over? Nah -- do not worry! The search for delicious, mouth-watering pizza pie is never finished. The quest for better and better will always be alive.
As any pizza afficionado knows, all good pizza is different and valuable on the basis of its own special characteristics and distinguishing factors (i.e. crust, sauce). But, the pizza at Pizzeria Mozza is just about everything I want in a pizza pie: tasty sauce, thin crust, the right amount of cheese (if called for) and delectable toppings. Jay and I finally made it to Pizzeria Mozza last Friday. We had been given a gift certificate at Christmas. A very generous gift from my brother and sister-in-law.

We had $75 to blow, so we started with appetizers. Radiohead was playing in the background -- 15th Step from In Rainbows. The vibe was definitely hip in Mozza. Young and stylish were out in droves. The Arrancine alla Bolognese -- otherwise known as rice balls -- arrived in a cute little white dish. They were smallish -- not those baseball sized ones that you find in corner pizza shops in New York City -- and they were lightly dusted with parmesan cheese. The red sauce was on the bottom of the dish and a little on top. Traditionally, you don't put red sauce on rice balls -- but, it was light and it worked. When the appetizer arrived, I had to stop myself from rudely grabbing one (I was ravenous and breadsticks didn't cut it). But, I hampered my wild urge and politely took one and put it on my plate. There's nothing wrong with these rice balls. The outside was lightly fried and crispy. The inside was creamy and the contrast of creamy rice and cheese with the crispy outer covering worked well.

By the time we got our salad, Nude was playing. Yes, Pizzeria Mozza had the decency to play the entire Radiohead album. It was noisy in there, but I could still enjoy the music.

I had to twist Jay's arm to order a salad, but he agreed. The salad we ordered was little gem lettuces, dates, gorgonzola and red onion. Lately, I've become a huge fan of fancy salads in over-priced restaurants. The combination of flavors worked well. The spice of the red onion worked against the sweetness of the date. And, everything worked in concert with the fresh gorgonzola--which tasted as sweet as cream cheese. I could have eaten it by the spoonful.

Then, House of Cards came on the overhead sound system. I slipped into a reverie where I dreamt of our oncoming pizza. What would it be like? Had we chosen correctly? We had each chosen a pizza. I picked the meaty one: bacon, salumi, fennel sausage, guanciale--pig neck bacon, tomato and mozzarella. (Yes, I did want to choose the standard against which all pizzas should be judged, margherita, but just couldn't pass this one up. God knows when I'll be back.)
Jigsaw Falling Into Place came on the overhead sound system. We were having a hard time sitting still. Not only is this a kick-ass danceable song, but we really wanted our pizzas. They were presented to us mid-song. First bite -- love. How can you describe a situation such as this? The waitress at the next table was describing how they make the pizzas, "some have no sauce...put into an oven..." The sounds became blurred as we zeroed in on the pizza in front of us.
Again, I had to refrain myself from grabbing a slice -- and now, I wasn't even hungry anymore. Upon biting into a smoky piece of bacon, we had answered our own questions: Yes, we had chosen the perfect pizza. The fennel sausage was intriguing and sweet -- the other meats were more spicy and smoke flavored. Again, it is the combination that I think set this pizza apart from all the rest. The combination of greatness defines Pizzeria Mozza. In particular, I loved the thin-ness of the crust. This is a special thing for me... the thinner, the better. The edges were thicker and that is where one could treasure the magnificent dough undoubtedly prepared by the geniuses who work for Nancy Silverton. Question to self: why is the guy next to us dipping his crust in honey?

Jay chose a strange one: stracchino with artichokes, lemon and olives. Jay doesn't even like artichokes. The pizza was truly lemony. Alot of times when food dishes say they include lemon, you can't taste the lemon flavor. This pie had a unique combination of flavors and met my standards even sans red sauce. For some reason, the shaved artichokes were agreeable to my partner who refrains from eating them. I happen to love artichokes in all of their many forms. Whatever works for you.

One really does lose contact with the real world at Mozza. I mean, yes, you are surrounded by the young, hip and mercilessly beautiful and yes, it is expensive and yes, it is hard to get a reservation. But, the food overtakes you and promises a world where anything is possible.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Vegan for a Day

Thai Vegetarian Kitchen
4114 Santa Monica Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90029

Geez, Louise, it's true...I've been meat-free for over one week now. I have also taken a break from sugar, caffeine, dairy and wheat. This is part of Dr. Hyman's detox diet. I started his rigorously un-fun program in order to boost my metabolism and shed a few pounds. It is a tough order and considering my list of "can't haves," you may be asking yourself, what's left for the Lady in Red Sauce? Believe me, this is the dilemma I face every waking moment. On a Saturday afternoon with nothing to do and a growing stomach, I decided to try vegetarian Thai--and, I dragged Jay with me.

We discovered Bulan through an L.A. focused website for vegetarians that lists veggie options by neighborhood. Bulan is located on Santa Monica Blvd in Silver Lake -- a super hip, trendy part of town. Luckily, Bulan is a little off the beaten track so you don't have to deal with too many hipsters fighting for their unchicken.

We ordered an interesting appetizer--Crispy Rice Salad--which was crispy brown rice mixed with fried tofu, ginger, garlic, chili, cilantro and peanuts. It was dressed in a chili lime sauce that was very tasty. Right off the bat, a word of caution to those trying to be healthy: Even though you are in a vegetarian/vegan restaurant... scour the menu for the word "fried." To be honest, I didn't even see that this salad included fried rice and fried tofu -- not good for calories but excellent for taste! Scrumptious.

Secondly, we decided on the Kang Kiew Wan (Green Curry) with tofu (not fried). This curry was on the sweet side (Dr. Hyman says to stay away from spicy things during your first week). The dish featured the standards of bamboo, green beans, bell peppers and Thai basil. It was a solid curry but nothing special and a little on the bland side. I can't help it, I like things with some flare. So, we also splurged and ordered the interesting sounding Dried Chili with Cashews which included cashew nuts, carrots, onions and dried chili with veggie chicken (gluten-free? I forgot to ask). This was something new and I enjoyed it -- especially the whole pieces of dried chilis that were mixed in with the rest of the dish. And, of course, all the sauces went well over the brown rice.

The food was great and the waitress was competent and friendly. Unfortunately, I felt tired and groggy afterwards -- Dr. Hyman's words coming true. The gluten in the veggie chicken? If there was gluten? The fried tofu? Maybe I am allergic to wheat and that veggie chicken really did a number on me? Maybe that's why I can't lose weight? I also felt puffy and fat. Hmmm...what will the Lady in Red Sauce do if she cannot eat noodles? Stay tuned on this topic...

Sunday, August 10, 2008

San Jose Red Sauce Joint

Tony DiMaggio's
3852 Monterey Highway
San Jose, CA

Visiting my mom in San Jose, I spent 20 minutes watching Dr. Oz and his partner on the Discovery Channel. I learned about grams of sugar, not to buy ice cream, and an appropriate exercise regimen that doesn't require a gym. I was tired of watching "Law & Order," so the "You on a Diet" show fascinated me. But, mid-way through, I had to switch it off. First of all, I am not using a tape measure to see how many inches over the "norm" I am, and secondly, I knew that in less than an hour I would be ordering pizza and stromboli for dinner. A little voice inside of me said: "These two jokers would not approve."

Off to Tony DiMaggio's, "Home of the Original Stromboli," located on the east side of San Jose --directly behind an old drive-in theater that amazingly still shows movies. Across the street sits the El Rancho Steak House --another dive for another time. I read somewhere that "Tony" had gone back to Sicily and now the shop is being run by his son. I did see a very old Italian-looking woman making the pizza. Other than that, I don't know much about how DiMaggio's is run.
The stromboli is what interested me about this pizza shop. As Jay commented, "I forgot about stromboli! You dont see alot of that out here..."
What Jay meant is that whereas in New York, stromboli is commonly seen in pizzerias--often it looks like it's been there for ages--it is not readily available in California. I sampled a NYC stromboli once and thought it was pretty good -- intense and filled to an exaggerated level with calories/fat/etc. (again, remember Dr. Oz). Truth be told, it is the caloric content of a stromboli that keeps me from enjoying it. The guilt is overwhelming.
Stromboli ingredients vary depending on the chef's predilections. Basically, it is a sandwich made out of pizza dough and filled with salami, ham, pieces of sausage and mozzarella cheese. DiMaggio's makes their stromboli with a little yellow mustard, salami, ham, sweet sausage, mozzarella and american cheese. The sandwich--like a Hot Pocket--is then baked in the oven and brushed with butter and oregano. This magnificent treat is then served with a side of marinara sauce for dipping purposes.

DiMaggio's serves a mean stromboli. It is cheesy and the combination of american and mozzarella cheeses actually works well. The crust is chewy, thick and warm. The meats are an artful presentation -- perfectly chosen in variety and quantity. The marinara sauce was tasty. Note of caution: it's not as good when it cools down, so eat it hot!

The pie was ... solid. My mother made me order half with sausage and mushroom and the other half (my standard) was pepperoni. Surprisingly, the sausage side was superior. DiMaggio's offers some good tasting sweet sausage! The crust was thick, hand-thrown, not pressed and not over-cooked. My mother said she enjoyed the sauce. But, stromboli is the thing to get at Tony DiMaggio's -- it comes in medium and large -- calorie count and Weight Watchers' points not available.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Cuban at Universal CityWalk

Universal City, CA

Versailles is a Cuban restaurant known for its amazingly delicious chicken in garlic sauce. It's true, the bird is perfectly cooked, the skin crispy, and the garlice sauce provides the intense finishing touch. Served with rice, beans and is a hearty and wonderful meal for not too much money. Versailles has many locations to choose from -- Culver City, Encino, and Universal CityWalk. Some of these locations are more interesting than others. The Encino one is bland and unintersting; the La Cienega spot is my favorite and has the most flavorful decor. The Universal CityWalk restaurant, where we ended up last night, is simply a counter where you order to-go food.

You may be asking yourself: Why would the Lady in Red Sauce go to a counter to eat cuban food at the hellish place knows as Universal CityWalk? If you are asking this question, I commend you for your inquisitive and astute mind. This was an aberration that will probably (hopefully) never happen again.

We were at Universal CityWalk to see Dark Knight in the IMAX theater (an amazing and exciting spectacle!). Afterwards, hungry, we decided to go to Versailles. We split a "cubano" otherwise known as a cuban sandwich or sandwich mixto. We also ordered a side of black beans and rice. Some people have varying opinions about the food at Versailles, but most people love the chicken. I dont know why we didnt order the garlicky chicken--well, probably because we had seen someone in line before the movie eating a cubano and it looked good.

I discovered cuban sandwiches during my second year in Manhattan. The best places in New York City make a good cuban sandwich that is simply ham, sliced pork, Swiss cheese and pickle slices. Although there is debate about the contents of the sandwich, you must have Cuban bread for the complete and successful interplay of all of the sandwich elements. The bread will usually have a little butter on it and then the entire sandwich is pressed in a sandwich presser (kind of like they use now for paninis) called a plancha. Again, the recipe for a good cubano is debatable -- some people claim that you should put Genoa Salami in it, some want mustard, garlic or "ajo" sauce, tomatoes even, mayonnaise, etc. The one that we ordered last night had mustard and mayonnaise. Not right.
Maybe it was the setting. Maybe sitting in an outdoor mall pretending to be an urban center is what made the cubano taste wrong. Maybe it's true that cubanos are best in small dives, in tight restaurants with a counter and a few tables, in Miami and Tampa--not Universal City. Apparently, there are some other places in Southern California that make a "pretty good" cuban sandwich. I have not yet tried these establishments. One of the other major errors of last night's sandwich was that it wasn't pressed very well. In fact, I'm not sure if they pressed it at all. The pressing part really catapults the cubano into its own category.

I think Jay said it best about the Versailles version, "This is a lousy cubano. But, it's a good sandwich."

The beans and rice were the highlight. Along with their chicken, the folks at Versailles know how to make excellent black beans. I am busy searching for a recipe right now...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Corn Dog Cart at Disneyland

Corn Dog Cart
Anaheim, CA
When Jonathan Gold, LA Weekly, says that he's never tasted a better corn dog--you gotta throw your obsessive calorie-fat-fiber counting out the window, forget about the check you just wrote to Weight Watchers for your weekly "weigh-in," remove your personal trainer's phone number from your phonebook...and find that dog.

So goes my discovery of the corn dogs of Disneyland. I had read about them in Gold's column, "Counter Intelligence," and based on his high praise, I became very interested in sampling a Disney-style corn dog.

I've visited Disneyland hundreds of times in my life and never even noticed the little red cart parked slightly to the right off Main Street. When walking down Main Street from the entrance, you will find the cart right before you hit Tomorrowland.

My first dough-dipped-Disney-dog was in 2006 and it was certainly memorable. But, memory is fleeting and I was ready for another one in July 2008.

The Disney corn dogs are like no others. First impression: Massive! The cornmeal coating is thick and subtly spices. Second impression: Super-greasy -- I mean, like extra- strength-trans-fat-leaks-into-the-foil-wrapper grease. Don't even try to calculate calories, grams of fat, or God forbid, Weight Watchers points (I couldn't stop myself...a Wienerschnitzel corn dog is listed as 6 points in the WW directory--I would estimate that the Disney dog is twice the Weinerschnitzel dog -- so, you're looking at 12 points for one of these. You usually get around 20-26 points in a day.)

The first bite is superb. It's just what you dream about when you wish on a star for a freshly deep-fried corn dog--crispy on the outside, corn-y on the inside and salty, salty when you hit the hot dog. Delicious and pretty cheap by amusement park standards ($5.50 and you get your choice of potato chips or apple slices). Lots of yellow mustard is a must--it provides needed contrast.

My only complaint is that as you move along through the fourth, fifth and sixth bites, the corn dog starts to play with your mind. Questions enter your psyche... "Why am I eating this?" or, "How is my body going to process all of that grease and salt?" or, even, "Good God, I could have ordered the apple slices instead of the chips!" It really does get to be too much of a good thing. But, maybe this is in the spirit of Disneyland--excessive and over-the-top enjoyment until you are sick or dog-tired. The father at the next table said sadly to his family: "This is starting to gross me out." His children were confused; but I could relate.

Jay and I powered through our dogs. He finished his...but, I had to leave some of mine. It kept us full until our next meal at the park--ice cream!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Guest Blog -- Guy LaFarge Hits New Orleans

Originally uploaded by katedunl

Simon Hubig Company, 2417 Dauphine Street, New Orleans, LA, 504/945-2181

Here is Guy (pronounced Gee with a hard "g") LaFarge. Guy has just returned to Los Angeles from a quick trip to New Orleans. In his hand is a Hubig's lemon pie. What is that expression on his face? Poor Guy is sadly disappointed.

Guy labored long roads on a hot sweltering day in order to find this little lemon pie (367 calories; 15 grams of fat; 9 points on WeightWatchers)--his only sustenance, a warm diet Dr. Pepper. The humidity of the Deep South nearly breaking his spirit, Guy walked through graffiti-filled neighborhoods, boarded crowded buses and trains -- all to find Hubig's (which is located in the Bywater neighborhood, outside of the French Quarter).

And what did this yield him? A broken heart and an empty stomach.

I feel a trifle guilty about Guy's dilemma. You see, feeling bitter over the fact that I was not with Guy on his trip to the Big Easy, I was partly responsible for his ensuing misery. I was the one who directed him on this hot, sweat-filled trek to find the Simon Hubig Company (as read about by me in Saveur). Hubig's was described as a place that bakes a classic Southern treat...the fried "hand pie." Their pies--only 99cents--come in sweet potato, lemon and apple versions and are "deep-fried, slathered in a sugary glaze while still hot, and individually wrapped in waxed paper." Hubig's was shut down after Hurrican Katrina and has been rebuilt and back in business for only a few months. So, what could be wrong with this? Buy a local pie, support regional business and help rebuild New Orleans. Guy quickly agreed with my idea and was on his way!

After reaching the pie factory on Dauphine Street, Guy was "angry" to find a closed shop. Bordering on delirium from the heat, Guy feebly tried to peak through the windows...but he saw hands folding boiling vats of grease...just a shady looking office. His only ray of hope was a pair of delivery trucks outside. Unfortunately, the address that Saveur provided was for the main bakery which does not sell individual pies to customers. Main feedback from Guy about the Hubig's trip: "sweat-filled."

Discouraged but not yet defeated, Guy went on a quest to find and buy the pies at a local convenience store. Hubig's pies are sold everywhere in New Orleans -- gas stations, delis, etc. However, it's not easy to find them because they are very popular. Several stores were sold out. Guy finally found a store that had some. He quickly packed them in his suitcase and brought home 2 lemon and 1 apple.

Sugary, fat-filled, slightly chemically tasting...these little gems will fill you up for 99 cents. Forget about trying to dine for under $2 , eat a Hubig's pie, and you'll be set for the day. You will feel full and sick and satiated at the same time. You will be mad at yourself for going off of your diet for such a lousy snack...did I say lousy? When you finish, you will want another and another. What does the sweet potato taste like, I wonder. Maybe I should have the lemon slightly heated in a microwave --that's what the locals do. Then, it will taste better!

Thanks Guy! Your hard work was worth it, I gained 5 pounds, and I have something to look forward to when I next travel to New Orleans.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Eating BBQ in Thai Town

Originally uploaded by katedunl

I first tasted larb in upstate New York. Jay and I were returning from a Bob Dylan/Willie Nelson concert in the Catskills. On our way back to Manhattan, there was not too much to choose from -- save the usual chains. Starving, we pulled into the empty parking lot of an old-fashioned diner that boasted a Thai menu. We tentatively headed into the dive-y looking restaurant (no other patrons were visible and one of the workers was vacuuming). Jay insisted that we order the strange and not-so-appealing sounding, larb--at this time in my life, I had not heard of larb. I agreed to try it. Still, I couldn't shake the nagging lard/larb connection running around in my head. The larb I found on my plate was pretty disgusting -- there was more fat and gristle in that dish than even I could stomach.
Not really thinking about larb, I attended the Trekking LA BBQ adventure in Thai Town. This walking/dining/shopping tour was the second in a series coordinated by one of my favorite non-profits, LA Commons. Karen Mack, president of LA Commons, kicked the day off with a short and informative talk about the origins of Thai BBQ and gave us some history on the Northeast "Isan" region of Thailand -- home of our soon-to-be-consumed dinner.

The larb -- expertly prepared by Chef Jet Tila --was a completely different experience than my Catskills pit-stop. While cooking for a group of about 30 hungry tour participants, Tila explained that, to my excitement, you never seed Thai chiles. He sauteed the chicken so that it was still juicy, added shallots (or maybe it was red onion...he told us they were interchangeable in Thai cooking). Tila explained to us Westerners the importance of using the right kind of fish and soy sauce -- Chinese soy sauce is different from the popular Japanese version, Kikkoman. Duh! Why didn't I ever think of that? Also, Tila pointed out that cool vegetables like cucumber go well with spicy larb. Upon finishing the larb, Tila sprinkled roasted rice powder on top and started making his BBQ marinade for the chicken.

The rest of our lunch was prepared by the team at Red Corner Asia . We had green papaya salad, chicken larb, BBQ chicken, pork neck and my personal favorite, sticky rice! The papaya salad was especially delicious with just the right amount of dried salted shrimp and peanuts. The pork neck, although difficult for me to swallow due to the mention of "neck," was deliciously cooked and prepared. The larb was excellent and very spicy. My friend Ken insisted that it wasn't too spicy and he tried to argue that certain types of spiciness affect different people differently and he and I were simply having different reactions to the type of spice and not the level. Got that?

The BBQ chicken was marinated in a sauce that Chef Tila told us we could keep in the fridge for weeks. The recipe was a basic sate recipe that can be used for chicken or pork and consists of coconut milk, kaffir lime leaves, curry and much more.

And, after all that, after the Catskills' gristle, after being afraid of the name larb, after thinking that I would vomit if I ever ate larb again, after attending the LA Commons "Trekking LA" event, after discussing ketchup and umami at greath length...I went back for seconds at Red Corner Asia. That larb that Chef Jet Ti La made and all the other accompanying dishes were delicious.