Pizza Margherita at Pizzeria Mozza OC (Brad A Johnson)
One pizza. One salad. One dessert. And an almost impossible reservation. That’s pretty much all you need to know about the pizzeria jointly owned by celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton.
First, the fennel sausage pizza. It’s important to adjust your expectations about the crust. Mozza’s dough doesn’t taste like typical pizza crust. It’s not modeled after the styles of Naples or New York or Rome or even L.A. Instead, it’s got the unique snap-crackly crunch and tangy DNA of Nancy Silverton’s La Brea Bakery sourdough. It’s extremely puffy around the edges but micro-thin in the center. And it’s excellent.
My typical pizza strategy is simple: Reach, grab and pull. First person to grab the biggest piece wins. But a different tactic is required here—more of a two-handed scoop, shuffle and plop. The sauce on the fennel sausage pizza is nothing more than softly whipped cream, which melts into the already thin midsection so that it collapses the instant you try to lift a slice from the plate. The sausage will tumble right off if you employ the wrong grabbing maneuver.
Second, the caprese salad. It’s an entire branch of cherry tomatoes still attached to the vine, roasted in the wood-fired oven until blistered and shriveled, then served atop a generous fist-sized glob of milky, gooey, marshmallowy burrata cheese, the whole of which is then slathered with fresh basil pesto and supremely high-quality olive oil. For me, this is the perfect complement to the fennel sausage pizza because it delivers my much-desired tomato and cheese fix that’s missing (but not missed) on that pizza. It’s the best of both worlds in alternating bites.
Third, the butterscotch budino. It’s a pudding fit for the Medici, a cocktail glass filled with silky butterscotch pudding with a quarter inch sheen of translucent caramel on top, liberally sprinkled with flakes of Malden sea salt and crowned with a wispy cloud of aerated crème fraîche.
In a nutshell, that’s Pizzeria Mozza. Give me those three dishes and a bottle of Nebbiolo or Sagrantino, and I couldn’t be happier. But there’s more to it than that, of course. And the best things about Mozza are the ones that emerge from the wood-burning oven, heavily singed or charred around the edges, slightly smoking and smelling of ash. The duck confit (served only on Tuesdays), for example, or the lasagna (served only on Sundays). Or the marrow bones, three or four cross-sections that arrive at the table like miniature volcanoes, their gelatinous centers still boiling, ready to be spread on thick wedges of heavily oiled and griddled bread.
I have to admit that after repeated visits—three visits in Newport, one visit in Singapore and countless visits to the original in L.A.—I still haven’t yet tasted the entire roster of 17 pizzas. It’s hard to resist the lure of fennel sausage. And I love the simplicity of a good Margherita, always my second choice here. I always figured I would never get around to trying the Hawaiian-inspired pizza with pineapple, ham and jalapeños. Hawaiian pizzas, of course, have been popular in California since, what, the 70s? And I’d learned long ago that Hawaiian food rarely lives up to the hype.
But the other afternoon, I was sitting at Mozza’s pizza counter, drinking a glass of Barbera, eating my Margherita, nibbling on a caprese… and I watched in awe as the cooks assembled a nonstop stream of pizzas to be shoveled into the wood-burning hearth. I was shocked by what I was witnessing. One out of every five pizzas being assembled that day was the Hawaiin-style Pizza alla Benno (named after one of Silverton’s sons.) I knew then that my fate was sealed. When I returned for my next visit, I had to give it a try.
It’s funny what happens to a pineapple when it’s been shaved into paper-thin whispers, instead of sliced into hefty chunks, and layered atop tomato sauce on a thin pizza crust and shoved into a 1500-degree kiln. The pineapple melts like cotton candy. It completely dissolves into the sauce, giving it an ever-so-slight sweetness that tastes nothing like tropical fruit but rather extra-sweet tomatoes. Combine that slight-of-hand with the blistering sting of fresh jalapeños and a fine, salty ham, and I’ll be damned if this isn’t my new second-favorite pizza.
Third place is a densely clustered tie that includes a pizza with spicy salame and Fresno chiles (the closest thing to Mozza has to pepperoni) and one with four types of pork: bacon, spicy salame, fennel sausage and guanciale (pork jowl). Also in the running is an off-the-menu secret my waitress turned me onto one night: the pizza Bianca (fontina, mozzarella and sottocenere cheeses and fresh sage) with the addition of fennel sausage, which gives a whole new meaning to the fennel sausage pizza. The pie with squash blossoms, although extremely popular, doesn’t really do it for me. I prefer my flowers stuffed with ricotta cheese and fried as an appetizer.
And the fried blossoms are just one of several antipasti born of the deep fryer. Florets of cauliflower arrive piled in a golden mound, too hot to handle right away, but I’ll knowingly burn my tongue anyway. Extra-crispy fingerling potatoes are delivered in a tall cup along with the herbs and chickpeas with which they were fried.
I was initially worried what would happen when Mozza expanded beyond it’s original location. Typically, when restaurants are cloned and spread across the globe, they become something entirely different. Fortunately that’s not the case here. This location, and the one in Singapore, too, are shockingly faithful facsimiles. Exact same woodworking. Same lamps. Same menu. Same graphics. Same uniforms. Same loud rock-and-roll soundtrack. Similarly sized dining rooms. Shockingly identical food coming from the kitchen. Same insanely difficult reservations—and that’s what almost kept me from dining here.
I called for several days, redialing more or less nonstop for two hours at a time, to no avail. Finally, I had to call in a favor of a discreet, high-powered friend who had connections on the inside. He made a call to an unlisted number. We got in.
Determined to return, I tried calling again. Nothing but busy signals and an over-capacity voicemail box. So I just showed up unannounced, a little on the late side. And guess what? There was never a wait for a seat at the counter. That’s probably the biggest difference between this location and the one in L.A. Well, that and the fact that the Newport Beach version comes with a small patio, which helps it officially trump the original.
800 West Coast Highway
Newport Beach, CA
This review originally appeared in the November 2011 issue of Newport Beach magazine.