Based on what Ed LaDou has done in the pizza biz, you either love him or hate him.
Pizza traditionalists see him as Public Enemy Number One, a culinary scofflaw who tops pizzas with virtually anything.
To pizza experimentalists, he's an artist whose delectably edible work is both revolutionary and inspiring.
And to food historians, he's the under-heralded father of California-style pizza, typically branded as "gourmet pizza."
All the above are true of Ed LaDou, founder, owner and chef of Caioti Pizza Café, in Studio City, Calif. For the past 20 years, pizza has been his focus, his passion and his ticket to almost-fame, and he expects little will change anytime soon. The fun of running his own place at his own pace and with no one but him to curb his creative appetite is hard to top, he said.
"Owning Caioti gives me the chance to cook anything I want to," said LaDou, 47, pointing out the privileges of ownership. "I'll buy something like buffalo tongue to try in the kitchen, and my wife will say, 'You know no one's going to buy that.' But I don't care if it's fun. I can do it if I want, because I have no one else to answer to."
Thankfully, LaDou's works which make it to the menu are a bit more tame, though no less tasty. A sampling of Caioti's 13 pies include: the spicy porcini mushroom pizza; the arugula, roasted garlic and Pecorino-Romano pizza; the roasted garlic, shallot, onion confit and smoked gouda pizza; and a chipotle-spiked tomato sauce, smoked chicken, tomatoes and fresh basil pizza.
According to long-time friend and former Caioti waiter, Robert Mortimer, LaDou's pizzas are unrivaled in
Ed LaDou, owner and chef, Caioti Pizza Cafe.
"Nobody has the dough and the toppings Ed does," said Mortimer. "Nobody can even get close to what he does, and his menu is being ripped off at an amazing rate."
Portrait of the artist as a young man
In 1970, LaDou was a 17-year-old headstrong hippie high-schooler headed out of the house to live on his own. Aware he knew little about cooking, LaDou signed up for the school's home-ec class in the first year it was opened to boys.
LaDou turned class work into homework by preparing meals over a hotplate in his apartment, and recording his successes in a journal. The habit of detailing his food feats and errors, which he still does today, would prove instrumental in his later success as a chef.
"I've just been sort of a perpetual student," LaDou said. "I used to go into grocery stores, check out the magazine rack and look up recipes. I'd purchase the ingredients and then go home and cook them."
For several years more, LaDou hopped from restaurant to restaurant, flipping burgers, serving up hot dogs and learning the tricks of the trade. In 1975 he got work making pizza at Frankie, Johnnie & Luigi Too! The owners of the San Francisco pizzeria were unabashed East Coast pizza traditionalists, and taught LaDou all the basics for great pies.
But it didn't take long before LaDou began adding his own twists, rolling out unique toppings that customers liked, but the owners didn't.
"The owners didn't think they were traditional enough for inclusion on the menu," he said. "But I saw tremendous potential for them."
LaDou got a chance to experiment a little more when hired to make pizzas for Ecco, a restaurant in a high-end Hyatt hotel in Palo Alto, Calif. The cutting-edge restaurant quickly built up a good clientele, he said, but after just 10 months, LaDou got tired of "the hotel bureaucracy" and took another pizza position at Prego, an Italian restaurant in San Francisco.
The restaurant's bar-waiting area had a clear view into the kitchen, where LaDou made pizzas in a wood-fired oven. And unlike his past bosses, the chef at Prego encouraged LaDou to experiment with new creations and send them out as samples to waiting guests. On one fortuitous evening in 1980, LaDou sent out a pizza brushed with mustard, ricotta, paté and red pepper to a couple waiting for a table. The man was Wolfgang Puck; the woman was then-girlfriend (now ex-wife) Barbara Lazaroff. Impressed with the unique pizza, Puck hired LaDou in 1981 as the first pizza chef at his now-legendary restaurant, Spago, in Hollywood.
"That's where I really unfurled my sails," said LaDou. His assignment at Spago was simple: Create pizzas with a broad range of ingredients. "Wolfgang brought in the most amazing things to cook with, like scallops with roe, baby zucchini flowers ... . It was like being an artist who'd worked with 10 colors all his life and then got to use 300."
As Spago's popularity soared, so did Puck's, which LaDou said his boss largely deserved. But when an L.A.-area newspaper's food writer incorrectly credited Puck for making pizzas at a high profile charity event, LaDou was miffed.
"She wrote about the wonderful pizzas Wolfgang made that night, but he wasn't even there," said LaDou, who made all of Spago's pies at the event. "The truth is Wolfgang didn't know much about pizza at all, which is why he hired me. But all you have to do now is look in the grocery and see who still gets the credit."
Bill Olson, a friend of LaDou's for 30 years, said Ed "was bitter about (the slight) to say the least. But he's beyond that. That's not a big deal to him."
LaDou concurs. "I don't have anything against Wolfgang for that. He's a likable guy and a tremendous success. It really wasn't his fault that got written. But he didn't do anything to correct it either."
If your mother makes you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and that's what you grow up with, do you tell somebody who gives you a pastrami with mustard sandwich, that that's not a sandwich? Of course not.
-- Ed LaDou,
Eager to open his own place, LaDou left Spago in 1984 with an estimated 250 pizza recipes. The habit of recording his recipes paid off in his work as a high-end caterer and cooking class instructor.
In 1985, while working as a consultant, an acquaintance who he'd taught in a cooking class led him to help two lawyers who wanted to start a pizza concept. Well financed, but inexperienced and without the chef they'd hired to start the operation, the pair hired LaDou to develop a menu and get the kitchen running in three short weeks.
When the restaurant finally opened, it was called California Pizza Kitchen.
"California Pizza Kitchen made (gourmet toppings) available to the masses," said LaDou, who left CPK, sold his stock in the company and opened Caioti in 1987. "And the greatest proof of that is Barbecued Chicken Pizza. Putting it on a pizza told everyone that this is 'volkspizza,' pizza for the masses."
Sixteen years after opening Caioti Pizza Café (the original unit was in Laurel Canyon, Calif., but LaDou moved it to a 25-seat Studio City location five years ago), LaDou appears to be getting his due. Recent trade and consumer press articles are telling his story and crediting him with creating gourmet pizza. Seeing the record set straight is nice, LaDou said, but it's not that important.
What does matter, he said, is being able to create new dishes continually -- ones that satisfy his urge to experiment, plus ones customers will buy.
"Not everything I've ever done has been wonderful," LaDou said, laughing. "People used to ask me if there isn't anything you can't put on pizza, and my answer still is, 'Anything that doesn't taste good.' "
But what about the cheese-, pepperoni- and sausage-only crowd? How does he defend his off-the-wall creations to these purists?
"If your mother makes you a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and that's what you grow up with, do you tell somebody who gives you a pastrami with mustard sandwich, that that's not a sandwich? Of course not."
LaDou's friend, Mortimer, said the chef's creativity is his passion, and that sticking with what's comfortable for customers would never fit his style. Not only does LaDou love food, he said he's a student of wine and of classic cookbooks.
"He likes to go back to old, simple ideas and then find ways to incorporate them into new dishes," Mortimer said. "Being innovative is what he finds interesting."
The best time to be near LaDou, Mortimer added, is when he's creating new dishes.
"I've had the luxury of being there when he's experimenting with a new menu," Mortimer began. "I'll taste something and say, 'That's cool,' and he'll say, 'Yeah, but it's not quite there, I'm still playing with it.'
"And that's what he does; he loves to go and play."