There hasn't been anything more hotly anticipated around these parts than Mozza, Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton's Newport Beach outpost of their blockbuster Hollywood pizzeria. Since the pair hinted at expanding into our borders two years ago, we chickens over at the Stick a Fork In It blog have stumbled over one another to report the tiniest development on where it was going to land and when it was going to open.
It's not as if OC were particularly pizza-starved. Ever since the Dame of Dough and America's preeminent Italian celebrity chef teamed up to open Mozza in Los Angeles in 2006, more than a few restaurants have aspired to fill OC's Mozza void. Pizzeria Ortica, Il Dolce and Ecco all boasted artisanal pies created in the mold of the Neapolitan ideal—pizzas stretched as thin as membranes and blistered in wood-burning ovens to puffy crusts. But it was all foreplay, just substitutes to keep our palates primed until Mozza came.
And now that it's here? It delivers—mostly.
Pizzeria Mozza, www.pizzeriamozza.com. Open daily, noon-11 p.m. Dinner for two, $24-$60. Beer and wine.
Newport Beach's Mozza has a menu as simple and spare as the original. Pizzas are at the literal center of the list—and the restaurant itself. A glowing oven with a half-moon slit anchors a casual room more colorful and airy than Batali's signature Crocs. Orbiting it is a cadre of cooks whose main purpose is to feed this beast. They coax balls of dough into pliant discs, layer on toppings and pull finished pies out of the gaping maw with a long-handled paddle. The best seat for a view of the action is at the counter. But anywhere you are, you smell the sweet, yeasty aroma of baking bread. Despite all the hype, Mozza's kitchen is methodical, precise and exacting, even if the service can occasionally lag.
The pizza is crisp, asymmetric, gnarled and pockmarked with char, the key signatures of a handmade pie. Handling a slice means soot and flour dust on your fingers. Each 10-inch disc feeds exactly one person and is encircled by a ballooning crust that constitutes nearly half its acreage; the middle, though, is as flat as a valley. A few toppings—such as fresh mozzarella—may make the pizza too wet to handle. If you have to resort to a knife and fork, know that that's the way it's eaten in Naples.
A pie with Fresno chiles is potently spicy, and the Ipswich clams pie is redolent of garlic even if the bivalves can be a bit rubbery. But whatever the topping—whether as domestic as Yukon gold potatoes with bacon, egg and onions or something exotic such as the guanciale—you eventually nibble your way to that crust. It's here that pizza sophisticates will note that at the Newport Beach Mozza, Batali and Silverton are still calibrating. At the Hollywood Mozza, the crust is somehow simultaneously rigid and ductile, requiring only a gentle tug to tear like tissue paper. Newport's dough is, by comparison, slightly overworked and thus chewier.
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It's with the salads that both Mozzas are in lockstep, and that makes sense. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, Silverton revealed she's a salad purist and maven. The cover of her just-released Mozza cookbook features not a pizza, but a caprese, on which cherry-sized tomatoes still dangling on their vines are roasted to crinkle the skins and soften the flesh to near-liquefaction. Perched atop a blubbery base of burrata and a slobber of hand-pounded pesto, Mozza's caprese is as perfect on the palate as it is in the photos. In Silverton's tricolore salad with parmigiano reggiano, an anchovy dressing coats a mountain of arugula, frisée and Belgian endive with such balance that not one leaf loses its snap or is left without flavor. That it deftly manages to shame all caesar salads you've had before is even more amazing when you realize Silverton does it without the use of a single crouton.
So far, the Newport branch does not have the full roster of antipasti that the Hollywood Mozza offers. Absent are the wonderful al forno squid with beans and shrimp with melon, chiles and mint. There's also one less panini and bruschette here. The fried squash blossoms stuffed with ricotta are present, though, two-bite wonders cocooned in a sturdy batter that recalls the one English chip shops use to encase cod. And there's also the same daily rotation of plated entrées that the mothership offers called piatti del giorno; Thursdays are notable for a rack of baby backs cut crosswise and slow-roasted with a sticky glaze that carries flavors of apple-cider vinegar, honey, fennel and coriander. It's wondrous and might just be the dish that will keep us sated until Silverton and Batali decide to import Osteria Mozza, the fine-dining sequel to their pizzeria, to OC. When will that be? We chickens will keep a lookout.
This review appeared in print as "Pizza By Batali: Mario Batali and Nancy Silverton's long-awaited Newport Beach outpost of Mozza finally opens."