- Photo by Michael A. Gardiner
Why are we so suspicious of super-groups? Sure, for every Cream, there's a Chickenfoot. For every Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, a Yoso. But it certainly seems that the first thing that comes to mind when musical luminaries join forces is not how good it might be, but how bad it will be (and sometimes is).
It may be even worse in the culinary world. When Pizzeria Mozza—the Los Angeles-based super-mini-chain combining the talents of Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich—announced that it would open at San Diego's old police headquarters near the waterfront (789 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown), critics, Yelpers and Chowhounders began sharpening their knives.
As Ian Pike wrote in the Reader, the hype was so high it would be "easy to bear Pizzeria Mozza all the ill will in the world." Words like "disappointing," "hype" and "mediocre" vie with the star-struck references on Yelp. One Chowhounder wrote, "... was OK, but did not have my toes curling nor me lighting up a cigarette afterward."
Some of the rough reviews might've been the result of opening jitters. By the time I went there, though, the kinks were gone.
An excellent place to start at Mozza is the roasted carrots with ceci and cumin-vinaigrette appetizer. I am an unabashed lover of roasted vegetables, but pairing them with garbanzo beans (ceci in Italian) and the earthy / ethereal cumin vinaigrette gave the whole affair an exotic, beguiling Southern Indian feel.
The pizza at Mozza definitely lived up to the hype. The crust—what a pizza is about, really—was perfect: thin, charred underneath with spotting on the rim and featuring a puffy lip. The margherita—the Neopolitan classic against which all pizzas ought to be measured—was excellent. Tomato, mozzarella, basil and extra-virgin olive oil make for a pie that can hardly be exceeded. And Mozza's version was beautiful: in crust, in the balance of flavors, in everything.
Better yet was the pie with fennel sausage, panna, scallions and red onion. The fennel sausage alone was worth the price of admission. Italian sausage contains fennel as a matter of definition. But where that anise flavor is a hint, perhaps a note, albeit a defining one, it is not generally the star player. That would be the pork. At Mozza, though, fennel (both fennel seed and pollen) takes a star turn. Offered in cro magno proportions on a crust barely able to contain its heft—much less its flavoróth's sausage is as exuberant as Batali himself.
But the real stroke of brilliance may be the white anchovy, tomato and Fresno chile pizza. This pie may best be understood as the margherita's evil twin. It's nearly as simple, but the ingredients are amped up in acid, funk and heat and yet the perfect balance is nonetheless maintained. It's a work of art.
The best super-groups transcend that label. Does everyone remember that Cream, Emerson Lake and Palmer and Asia were super-groups? No. They chartered their own courses, literally and figuratively. And that's why people will and should go to Mozza repeatedly. The food that Silverton and Co. put on the plate transcends any labels.