Hunting for great pizza in L.A.
For nearly two decades, Ed LaDou has owned and operated Caioti Pizza Café in Studio City, Calif. Recently, I spent the day with him tasting multiple pizzas at multiple restaurants in and around Los Angeles. His point was to prove some of the city's best pizzas don't come from pizzerias. Following is an account of my guided tour. (Read also, Who's who: Ed LaDou.)
 
LOS ANGELES — Ed LaDou has never been to Il Grano, a small, subtly elegant Italian restaurant near Santa Monica. But since reading about its white truffle pizza, he's itched to try it. Scanning the menu, he finds it and orders without hesitation — despite the $50 price tag.
 
When the pizza arrives, its mozzarella-and-Fontina covering is visually unimpressive. But soon the maitre'd appears bearing a golf-ball-sized white truffle that he shaves atop the pizza. The paper-thin slices hit the hot cheese and the truffle's prized earthiness impregnates the air.
 
When he asks, "Do you like?" My reply is a moan of pleasure;
Pasquale Morra makes a Capricosa pizza at his Los Angeles trattoria, Da Pasquale.
    All photos by Steve Coomes
thankfully, LaDou is composed enough to call it "fantastic."
 
As LaDou explains our day's mission, to sample several of L.A.'s finest pizzas, the maitre'd insists we meet Il Grano's chef, Salvatore Marino, who comes to our table. The young Italian talks animatedly about the truffles — which cost him $1,600 per pound. He also shares a few secrets about what lies below our pizza's cheese: finely ground white truffles sautéed with shallots "and a white vegetable" he won't reveal.
 
As LaDou pays for the pricey pie, he grins and shrugs his shoulders as if to say, "You only go around once."
 
"Every now and then you've got to step out of your range," LaDou said, referring to the price he normally pays for food. "This time we stepped above our range."
 
Part of LaDou's quest is to find great pizzas outside of pizzerias. So we head to Simon: LA, one of Beverly Hills' trendiest restaurants and the workplace of culinary super-star Chef Kerry Simon.
 
Of the menu's two pizza choices, we choose the carpaccio pizza, an assemblage of sun-dried tomatoes, bleu cheese, sautéed baby arugula, paper-thin coins of flash-seared beef and a drizzle of truffle oil.
 
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When the pizza arrives, LaDou looks more puzzled than pleased. Its oval shape too perfectly fits the oval platter below it, a sign, he says, that the dough was rolled flat and then cut to fit the platter. "See this line around the edge," he says, pointing to a clear crimp circumnavigating the crust. "That's how you can tell they cut it."
 
The blend of ingredients is good, but not great, he says, pointing out what he most dislikes: the parbaked crust. "They bake the crust first, then they put the ingredients on it, and then they put it back in the oven briefly. Lots of it tastes good, but nothing is really blended together. This pizza is only 80 percent there. It needs work."
 
Leaving half the pie behind, we set off toward Beverly Hills and Da Pasquale, a legendary Italian trattoria owned by LaDou's longtime friends, Pasquale and Anna Morra. "This will be some of the best crust you've ever tasted," he predicts.
 
When we arrive, Pasquale and his brother, Tony Morra, hug LaDou heartily. The three became friends about 20 years go, shortly after the brothers came to America.
 
Torn between ordering the Capricosa or the Putanesca, we order both. The red sauce on both is thin, but strong on sweet tomato flavor. The Putanesca, which is cheese-less, is spiced with red pepper, capers, anchovies and the fruitiest olives I've ever tasted. The Capricosa gets a mild coverage of mozzarella, the same olives and artichoke hearts.
 
LaDou is right, the crust is inexplicably good,

Though they don't always agree on what qualifies as true pizza, pizzaiolo Ed LaDou and Tony Morra enjoy each other's work and are long-time friends.

razor thin and impossibly light. With every bite, it cracks as delicately as puff pastry but without flakes or crumbs. In my mouth, the bite changes from crisp to chewy in seconds. Despite the wet ingredients on top, the crust never goes limp.
 
LaDou recalls how Tony used to call Caioti's groundbreaking pizzas "really good, but not pizza." LaDou's legendary barbecue chicken, in particular, bothered the Italian-born traditionalist, but he still ate it and other unique LaDou creations. Now, after years in the States tasting similar pizzas, he's softened his views on California-style pies.
 
"Little by little, I come to like-a the pizza," he says, grinning. Between bites from a huge bowl of a pasta e fagioli, he adds, "There is a lot of good pizza here. It's just different."
 
As we leave, LaDou tries to pay, but the men won't allow him. He tries to pay the waiter, also an Italian, who replies, "I'm sorry, I can't take money. You see, I have a hole in my apron. The money just falls out." Humbled by their refusal, LaDou accepts the meal and hugs the men goodbye.
 
After four pizzas, LaDou proposes a break in the form of a short hike up a hill overlooking Hollywood. The breathtaking vista provides the city's full east-to-west stretch. On this rare clear day, when the Santa Anna winds have pushed L.A.'s smog out to sea, Long Beach and Catalina Island are visible in the distance.
 
"When I used to live nearby, I'd bring my dogs, a pack of Camel straights, a bottle of Jack Daniels and a Louie Lamour book up here," LaDou says. "It was a great place to escape the pressure of the restaurant."
 
LaDou says such mini-vacations

Tour guide LaDou shows off the view overlooking Beverly Hills.

help give birth to new ideas for Caioti. Away from the nuts and bolts of the business, his mind is freed to think creatively.
 
As we begin our descent, I ask if he regrets not building a bigger restaurant business like Puck or the owners of California Pizza Kitchen (LaDou created the chain's first menu, including the famous Barbecue Chicken Pizza). He quickly says no, turns to me and spreads his arms as if to wrap his arms around the city below him.
 
"Look at this! Who would trade this for sitting in a board room and talking about stock options?" he says with a laugh. "When you have your own business, you can make all your own choices. You can work in the morning, come to a place like this without anyone saying anything about it, and then go back to work if you want to."
 
We're now on our way to Caioti, a visit he hadn't planned, but one I insist on. I tell him I'm not coming cross country without visiting his own playground. The route takes us down Mulholland Drive, a dizzying, serpentine stretch leading to the traffic-choked Highway 101. It's election day evening, which appears to be keeping some folks off the road.
 
Caioti rests beside Tujunga Blvd., a modest, largely quiet road lined with small restaurants and boutiques. (Across the street is Vitello's Italian Restaurant, where Robert Blake's wife, Bonny Lee Bakely, took her last repast before she was murdered about a block away in 2001.) Café accurately describes the informal Caioti. The works of local photographers hang on the light yellow walls, the floor is polished concrete and seating for about 30 comes from wooden chairs and tables. Contemporary music seeps from the stereo while customers — though they don't seem to know each other — chat politely.
 
At a sidewalk table looking in, LaDou is an uneasy spectator. "It's hard to just sit here. I want to get up and do something, fix something," he says.
 
Almost immediately, LaDou heads to the kitchen to make a tripe pizza. I told him earlier my only encounter with tripe (the stomach lining of beef cattle) was in a scary bowl of menudo, the classic Mexican soup. He assures me I'll like it this time, but I'm not convinced. He returns with what essentially is a red-sauce-and-cheese combo topped with several tan, pinkie-long pieces of tripe. I take a bite and a barnyard aroma fills my nose and mouth. I'm neither grossed out nor elated, but I'm not eager to keep eating it.
 
"You don't have to like it," LaDou says between bites. "I just want you to try it, to experience it. ... I love the stuff."
 
About 30 minutes later, LaDou brings more two pizzas, our seventh and eighth of the day. One is topped with lamb sausage, shiitakes and roasted garlic, the other with beef marrow, goat's cheese and flax seeds. The lamb sausage is wonderfully complex — savory, pleasantly gamy and mildly spicy — and the mushrooms and garlic richen the pizza. The marrow, which LaDou cooks into the crust, is a rare treat, a flavor I've never tasted. It's beefy, but mellow, and the goat's cheese provides a pleasant saltiness.
 
Like the crusts at Il Grano and Da Pasquale,

Caioti Pizza Cafe at night.

Caioti's crust is fabulously crisp and light. Its bottom is freckled brown and black by the deck baking, adding a subtle, pleasant bitterness.
 
We can't finish either pizza, so as regulars stop at our table to talk to LaDou, he offers them slices. None refuse.
 
Stu, a retired furrier, accepts a slice of the lamb sausage pie and gobbles it down. As LaDou leaves the table to tend to something inside, Stu says, "Ed's pizza is the best. He really knows what he's doing."
 
A bit later, Tom, who works in the music industry, accepts a slice of the marrow and feta pie. "Oh!" is all he can muster between zealous bites. He swallows and asks what he's eating, and LaDou tells him. "Man, this is good," he adds before heading off to the studio to finish some work.
 
Later, when I ask LaDou if the many customers he's turned into friends are the real bonus of his work, he smiles broadly. "Oh, yeah," he says, reflecting on the many Stus and Toms visiting his table tonight. "I'm really fortunate to get to do this. Serving people like them is fulfilling."
 
Reflecting further on nearly four decades in the restaurant business, he adds, "After all this time, I'm just happy I'm still making pizza."

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