I admit to prejudgment upon walking into Masa. My thoughts: "Oh, no. This decor. Saffron walls and flowers and oak chairs and peeling-paint rustic furniture and wine list and loud tablecloths. This means it's another gentrified bistro wishing it was French, 'rated' by 'Zagat' and 'blithely' 'ignoring' its own 'neighborhood' until nicer people move in."
I am wholly, utterly, shamefully wrong.
The people are wonderful. Masa is aware of its history and its locale, even the businesses that existed in this spot back to the '20s. It knows and loves Echo Park without a sense of exclusion.
The seating is casual, as if a restaurant quietly grew around a bakery counter and coffee bar. They make their own dough here, use organic local produce, and import what they need to make the Chicago-centric part of their menu. You may be seated near Echo Park local personage Miss Judy.
The Parmesana Panini is bigger than expected, layered under neutral but harmonious butter-slicked bread. If this was by itself with some pasta, it would already be a paragon of Chicken Parmesania. The chicken is superbly done, thoughtfully seasoned, lush and just crunchy enough. The marinara is a deep Sicilian red, and shouts of tomato freshness.
The salad is tangy, and of greater interest than I can think to write about it. The dressing is low-key, suggestive of shallots, lemon and a trace of balsamic vinegar.
There are Spinach & Mushroom Crêpes, to which you can add rosemary chicken or grilled veggie chicken. The thin, elastic sheets of crêpe taste of peppercorns, hiding the spinach, sliced mushrooms and swiss cheese; the effect is almost stroganoffian in robustness.
They make thin crust "bistro" pizzas here, without making claims to being authentically New York, which is fine with me. It is a successful rendition.
If I'm still on a chicken parmesan kick, I get the Lucretia (baked chicken parmesan, pomodoro sauce, mozzarella and bay leaves). Otherwise I like the Douglas: homemade sweet Italian sausage, studded with fennel and falling apart, shreds of green pepper, purple rings of onion, mozzarella melted just so, and more of that impressive marinara, sweet and tomato-strong. I normally do not write sentences that long, by the way, but that's how fast I go through their pizzas: with barely a pause. They are Masa's own interpretation, and fabulous. The crust is thin as a pair of half dollars.
Masa's Chicago Pizzas, however, do make this claim of familiarity; Co-owner Ron was born and raised in Chicago. With a lot of love and the eighty-year-old revolving oven, it takes forty minutes to bake each pie.
Although fully aware that a Chicago pizza out here in California means needlessly puffy, tasteless dough and extra poundage to work off, I normally do not care for Chicago deep dish pizza. If Masa's pies are any indication of what a good pizza might be like in Chicago, I now understand the controversy.
I like the Traditional, with mushrooms and sausage. The homemade sweet Italian sausage appears again, but in sheets instead of crumbled spheres, hence why it looks a little alarming in the photo, but please trust me when I say it's delicious. Garlic is present, and the cheese melts like an underground glacier under the red, red sauce. It is complex, and amazing. The crust is like nothing I've ever tasted, prominent with cornmeal, with a trace of biscuity sweetness. I forget to shake parmesan cheese over my pizza, and I always shake parmesan over things.
Perhaps there is a way to pick this up, but I understand why they call it a pizza pie. I prefer a fork.
Parking for Masa is going to be metered, whether along the street (with fairly forgiving signage if they're not filming something) or in one of the blue-signed public lots.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Italian, French, Bakery/Patisserie, Healthy/Organic, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park, American, Pizza )
You have to hunt for it, nestled among hilly avenues where the 101 and the 110 meet. Dip under the awning; a darkened counter, slowly turning ceiling fans, and the hum of refrigeration units greet you.
It's not like my family, but it is familial, and these men are serious about what they do. Sandwiches are rapidly assembled and rung up; your drinks are (pointing to the left) over there, dispensed or bottled. There may be a brief sense of "am I doing this right? Where am I supposed to stand? Is it supposed to be this dark?" before you get into the rhythm of it.
So. You know how some places quaintly offer "meat lovers" items? This Eastside specialty chases them down, takes their lunch money, and leaves them with a painful wedgie.
Vegetarians look away! Carnage ahead!
... Okay. Proceeding.
This predatorial paradise is the D.A. Special. Layers of roast beef. Pastrami. And one Italian sausage. And a meatball. Each of these is high quality content and makes a superb sandwich on its own, but combined they become certifiable and knuckle-crackingly dangerous.
All that "is he gonna live, Doctor?" red stuff you see is a sauce of cooked peppers and flattened tomatoes that binds everything together and adds sweetness. Strong, soulful sheets of melted mozzarella lie underneath, maxing out my alliteration allowance for the day. The roast beef is dark and supple, the pastrami pink and fatty, both moist and covering the pale, snappy link of Italian sausage like a winter blanket.
Can it actually be picked up and eaten? Not yet. Eventually. Go at it with a fork for a while. In any case, the soft, toasty Italian bread will become worn and sodden and unable to perform its duties as a meat delivery device. Once you get through half, the strata of meat looks like an intense cross-section of something out of a textbook, and you will probably give up and wrap it to go.
A little more recognizable is the Combination Cold Cuts sandwich. A nice three-quarter-inch layer of ham, turkey, salami and mortadella is stacked with mozzarella, tomato and shredded lettuce. The soft Italian roll is not so overpowered here. A very light basting of mayo and mustard can be savored.
Their potato salad is very slightly sour, and I'm not wild about it, but the macaroni salad is well-mixed, and properly cool and creamy.
Eastside is open until four during the week and two on Saturday. On Sundays they take a break. Street parking can be found easily.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Italian, East Side/Downtown, Deli, American, Sandwiches/Burgers/Hot Dogs )
The main strip along Old Town Pasadena hasn't many old-style Italian joints. Mi Piace has a glassy, designy interior that isn't inspired so much as brisk and effective. However, the black-clad, willowy waitstaff is friendly and attentive, Sinatra's playing, and the menu is legit. A lounge area and bar peeks from a dark corner.
Bianca and I are waiting on a good friend, so we pile on the appetizers. The Calamari Fritti is an most excellent example of squid done well, a gentle fried crunch with tones of lime and cilantro; it's given zest and authority by the jalapeño dipping sauce.
The Patate Fritte--I know. French fries? At an Italian place? Why, Dave? Look, we're hungry and don't feel like caprese at the moment--are thin columns of spiced gold, tossed with cayenne, rosemary and oregano. The spicy ketchup and honey mustard are fun but add mostly color.
Bianca is enamored of butternut squash and all its autumnal glory, and therefore the Butternut Squash Soup suits well, thick with cream and silky with a slight vegetal sniff of disdain.
They do pastas here lightly, with a subtle yet confident hand. The Rigatoni con Salsiccia has mild but juicy crumbled Italian sausage, rapini wilted just so (spinach would assert itself too heavily here), sun-dried tomatoes and intimidating slices of garlic, every item singing clearly and defined. The white wine and pecorino cheese sauce bring them together vibrantly on the tongue.
Parking is wishful thinking along the street, but this stretch of Colorado has a number of public lots nearby.
Thanks to Marcia for letting us tag along with her.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Italian, Pasadena/San Gabriel/Alhambra )
As you drive by on Cahuenga, the building is painted like a row of storefronts, the air permanently sharpened by the scent of Italian dressing. In Hollywood, Miceli's juts out onto the slim Las Palmas street, ignoring the honks of trucks.
Miceli's wins for atmosphere. I'm a sucker for immersive, Pirates of the Caribbeanesque interiors, like I'm walking through an alley in some European hamlet and a sidewalk kitchen suddenly appears under the awnings. On Cahuenga diners are inundated with brick, arches, and wrought iron; hundreds of empty Bell'agio chianti bottles dangle from every edge, decorated by the patrons. The L.A. location has an even thicker grove of chianti bottles dangling over your head like ripe coconuts, and its furniture is deliciously dark and heavy wood. Piano jazz and cocktail tunes a la the Ultra-Lounge CDs you bought back in the nineties can be heard.
There is an iron trivet on your table where a pizza would go, holding the stubby shakers of red pepper flakes and parmesan. A basket of puffy rolls will be placed on it; they're quite good warmed over the candle.
This is Rigatoni Della Casa, a mess of buttery pasta overdone in the '50s-era Italian-American style. The meat sauce, not too chunky, is thinned by olive oil and made grainy by Romano cheese. It's almost too smooth, like the cheesy, crumbly interior of lasagne. It's satisfying, though, with an old-fashioned smack of salt.
They have a classic "Angie's Original" lasagne, but this is Miceli's vision of Chicken Lasagne. The pink sauce is more orange, earthy and velvety with tomato. The chicken has been chopped into gentle shreds and chunks, and is wrapped in disintigrated bits of spinach leaf. The three cheeses are unobtrusive. Even more so than the rigatoni, each flat sheet of pasta is done to the point of melting on the tongue.
The pizza here is, in my opinion, a "dinner pizza" rather than a primary choice for delivery. Mozzarella is laid thick and stringy over a thick and bready dough that lacks any hint of sweetness. The pepperoni is standard fare, but the sausage is a handful of spicy spheres you remember from youth. Mushrooms seem fresh, darkened and snappy. They're generous with the toppings.
They actually cut the slices here, not merely indent them with the pizza cutter, and will serve you the first slice. Miceli's is kinda classy that way.
There is valet for the Cahuenga location at night, but otherwise street parking is your best bet. Hollywood has a public lot nearby for an annoying-but-perfectly-normal ten bucks, which a validation from Miceli's will reduce to four. Metered street parking is available for both.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Italian, Hollywood, Burbank/North Hollywood )
Some Silver Lake locals say that this was what Hard Times Pizza used to be, but there's been a Tomato Pie on Melrose near Fairfax longer than there's been one tucked away along Hyperion, so a comparison isn't exactly fair. However, I am still absurdly pleased with it. They're doing something right, in attitude, in vibe, in taste.
Brown-shirted, youthfully professional people behind the counter will wait patiently while you ogle the red and yellow delights glowing under the glass. They do delivery and entire pies, naturally, but part of the joy of the local pizza house is choosing a slice or two, to carry steaming over to a table, to blow on and pull apart and consume whilst lessening the total of dispensed napkins in the world.
The back lot of the Hyperion location has bright retro patio furniture and a vintage stove sitting and waiting like an arranged playroom, and you will eat here. Before you get to the pizza, dissect and devour one of the Garlic Knots. They're just dough scattered with bits of cheese and butter, but they're puffs of fingertip-moistening bliss, better than any breadstick-with-marinara afterthought available at other pizza places.
On to pizza. These are slices to which you devote attention and careful balancing, the crust very slightly, almost infinitesimally, sweet. The Tomato Pie itself is a crisp rectangle of tomato sauce and fresh parsley, sans mozzarella, with a crusty snap like you remember Shakey's having while growing up out here in Southern California.
Bianca: "Look what Bunny's doing--Bunny's eating the crust*."
The other pizzas are conventional wedges; the Meat Lover is usually my first target when trying out a pizza joint, and is now my new favorite. Limp with weight, its rigidity is compromised by the crumbled sausage in a chaotic marriage with the cheese. The pepperoni is forceful but not crisped, and the ham and bacon are quietly arranged beneath everything, giving their opinion but not dominating the conversation.
The BBQ Chicken & Onion has more structural integrity, the red onions adding clout to the sparse cubes of chicken. The barbecue sauce is constrained to a light drawl, bolstering the sides of the mouth rather than drenching the tongue with cloying sweetness.
Compared with other Silver Lake haunts, I'd say Nicky D's on Rowena is more old-Brooklyn Italy in its approach, while Tomato Pie has captured a little more stylish New York... at least how L.A. thinks New York might be.
* Bianca normally never eats the crust.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Italian, Hollywood, Los Feliz/Silver Lake/Echo Park, American, Pizza )
(Strumming a few notes on a chitarra severino)
I will tell you a story of a trattoria that was, and our sadness. Once upon a time Caffe Capri sat humbly on Hyperion, and we ate there often, making friends with Nunzia (the owners' daughter) and generally loving everything Maria Ulloa-Severino decided to make.
They then moved. The Hyperion location has since become a still-hot Silverlake joint*. Despite the words "Caffe Capri" still scripted on one wall, there is an abundance of the beret-and-sport-coat foodie crowd. The basic pastas are well-wrought, but we found the squid ink pasta intensely squidy, with the unfortunate subtlety of paint. The young staff is friendly, but not family.
We resolved to track down our long-lost sister. Having traded ghostly brick for small-town quaintness, she now stands in Monrovia as Bella Sera, still hosted by the charming Rosario. It is bigger, more established and formal, but still homelike, and we hope the affluent-looking customers who gather there appreciate its presence.
Before your meal appears there is hot bread with olive oil, and an astoundingly fresh pile of chopped tomato, garlic and basil on toasted bruschetta slices. The caprese salad is brisk and honest, with strips of aromatic basil.
The courses are as gratifying as we remember, and we recommend getting whatever specialty they are offering that evening. The Gnocchi alla Sorentina is soft and pillowy, with a glowing tomato sauce and sheets of mozzarella melting atop. The Fettuccine Bolognese is a mountain of pasta thoroughly mixed with a brilliant meat sauce, authoritative with tomato. The Pollo Marsala is still a favorite of ours.
The wine list is fairly extensive; we like to get a chianti classico or a Sicilian nero d'avila.
We are always nearly uncomfortable with fullness when finished, but the desserts are alluring. I don't usually go with the tiramisu since it's a little too sneeze-inducing with the cocoa powder, but the Zuccotto is a dense cakelike wedge of chocolate, vanilla and espresso bean with roasted almonds that makes you close your eyes and nod after each bite. The Limoncello Parfait Flute is lemon gelato swirled with limoncello, fairly ablaze on the tongue.
It takes a little while for us to get there, but we're happy we found them again.
* On 7:30 on a Wednesday night we were asked if we had a reservation; we said no, and much hemming and hawing ensued despite there being open tables that never filled. We were tucked behind a tree by the wall. To their credit, they checked on us often and were very pleasant, but had to wade through a fairly blustery cloud of trim beards and scarves and hold-on-that's-me, hello? vibe that is not Silverlake-specific.
( Categories: Cuisines (by Region), Italian, Northeast/Arcadia/Monrovia )