"Build a better mousetrap and they will come," is my quirky paraphrase of two sayings. But it is appropriate for the most exciting new food concept I have encountered in awhile: 800 Degrees, a pizza joint in Westwood (10889 Lindbrook Ave, Westwood, (424) 239-5010, right across the street from the Hammer Museum -- where you can park -- just around the corner from the Napa Valley Grill, where you can also park) which has rethought the whole concept of making pizza into an inexpensive fast-food offering. The brainchild of a long-time Michael Mina chef, Anthony Carron, it offers a unique twist on the traditional pizza parlor, one which seemingly has enamored itself of the entire UCLA campus coterie. Chef Carron told me, "I came up with the concept and brought it to Adam in my search for partners who could realize it." He is speaking of entrepreneurial genius Adam Fleischman, he of Umami Burger fame. "He loved it, believed in it, was instrumental in finding real estate, investors, testing the menu with me and bringing success through his marketing efforts and generally making it a reality."
I have never been here, either late in the afternoon or closer to midnight after a Geffen concert, when the line didn't stretch down the street. They open at 11 a.m. and close at 2 a.m. daily. However the line does move quickly, the people around you are young and fun, and it gives you a moment to gather your thoughts as to what you will order. Make sure you get the paper menu, which offers all of the choices. Study it intensely, make your selection, knowing you will likely go crazy and add on a few items at the last minute... I had never eaten here (six times now) when I didn't load on many things. So what? That's part of the fun of it.
The high-ceilinged room was once the home of the Bratskeller, and now it reminds me in a funny way of Henry Ford's original auto factory, where the concept of fabrication-to-order came to fruition. Here you arrive at the start of the production line and across the glass-fronted counter stretching the length of the restaurant the first of a platoon of young help asks you for your choice. You can (and should) order one of the simple pizzas available, and then watch him take the round ball of dough and pound it into a circle on a wooden palate called a pizza peel. Then the next young person asks you if you want your Bianca (white) pizza (no tomato sauce) with fresh mozzarella, garlic, oregano ($5.65), or the Pizza Marina of tomato, oregano and garlic/olive oil, no cheese ($5.15), or the standard Margherita of tomato sauce, cheese and basil (my choice, for $6.45). Now the fun starts: the add-ons, most a dollar extra. A dozen proteins, a half-dozen cheese options, a dozen vegetable options. Think applewood-smoked crispy crumbled bacon, or Sicilian olive-oil packed anchovies. Ham, salami, sausage... meatballs (yes, always!). Rock shrimp and prosciutto are $3 extra. Gorgonzola (strong), fontina, goat cheese. And then there are the veggies: mushrooms (again, yes), broccolini, olives, pine nuts and the delicious caramelized onions. Extra oregano, chiles and garlic are free.
On my last visit, the remarkably able and helpful young (22) manager, Kevin (he looks like Leonard DiCaprio) suggested we try one of the specialty pies... and the Tartufo ($11.65) was a memorable success. Truffle cheese, mushrooms, roasted garlic, arugula (no tomato) -- it was so delicious that my companion, Steve Shulman, rolled his eyes in appreciation. The Napoletana ($10.15), a pie with anchovies, shrimp, capers, garlic, a hefty dose of Sicilian oregano (no cheese). A Vege, of course ($8.45). They have four Small Bites to add to the fun and confusion: a hearty dish of meatballs ($6), truffle cheese bread ($11), a huge calzone-like loaf of tartufo, mushrooms, cheese and garlic. Several fresh, excellent salad selections, in either small ($4-5) or larger ($7-8) sizes. The Burrata Salad ($5) is superb. Beer and wine is reasonable, and there are bottled sodas ($3). But no, you want to visit the remarkable shiny drink dispenser at the rear of the room. Why remarkable? It is one of the few in the United States -- a machine designed for Coke by the Italian designer, Pininfarina (he of Ferrari fame.) It offers 150 different variations of Coke products! Frankly, as I told the manager, it is a bit confusing to operate, but a nice girl behind me showed me how to mix-and-match the Coke syrups to my choice from the glowing touch screen.
Where was I? My pizza, loaded with add-ons, came to the end of the road, where I paid the now-hefty bill as it was inserted on the paddle into the intense heat of he Italian-made wood-burning oven. In a later conversation, Executive Chef Carron, a veteran of the Michael Mina fine-dining empire, told me they are using almond wood because it gives an intense heat with little ash. I asked about the flour he was using, and he said it was the fine Italian double-O high-gluten flour, mixed with a wild yeast starter he had acquired originally from a small 200-year old pizza place in Ischia outside of Naples, and a dash of sea salt. He explained that they let the pizza balls sit for 24 hours to rise the flour before carefully slapping-and-stretching it into the pie base. After sitting in the oven for about 60-90 seconds, it comes out relatively thin-crusted (not enough for New York fans), somewhat blackened on the bottom, with stuffing in the center giving it heft. A dusting of Maldon sea salt.
Someone wise told me that if I was going to take the pizza home and not eat it here, I should ask them not to swipe it into sections so it would remain fresher until I got into bed. But no one (least of all me) has the resolve not to grab a slice from the cut pizza and bolt it down before asking for a decorative box to take the remainder home. The tomato sauce is made from organic California tomatoes, salt and basil. I applauded the fact that the mozzarella and burrata come from Di Stefano, the artisanal cheese maker here using authentic Italian methods. The extra-virgin olive oil used is from California's Olive Ranch. All top-quality ingredients.
I am not abandoning my love for two other pizza parlors -- the huge pies from New Jersey-born Vito at Vito's Pizza on La Cienega, and my favorite pie in the city, the sterling ones from Jeff Mahan's Stella Rossa on Main Street. But for a quick, delicious and relatively inexpensive fast-food pizza option, Umami Burger's 35-year old honcho, Adam Fleishman, and Chef Anthony Carron have reinvented the wheel...only this time the wheel is edible!
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