La Rocco's: A San Clemente Slice

“Thank God you're still here!” the teenage girl exclaimed to the young man behind the counter at La Rocco's in San Clemente. “We went to where you were, and you weren't there. Then someone told us you moved and told us to come here. Thank God you're still here!”

The move, which happened about six weeks ago, was no Long March for La Rocco's: It just went across El Camino Real, from one cute storefront to another. But the girl's relieved surprise just shows how quickly La Rocco's has established itself in Ole Hanson's mythical Spanish Village By the Sea. In a town where Sonny's Pizza has long ruled over the city's surprisingly vibrant pizza scene and Pizza Port is just fabulous, La Rocco's has become a treasure, a place so miraculous in its meticulous New York-style pie creations that the locals no doubt fear it'll move up the 5 one day for the big time. But I can't imagine such a place thriving anywhere else in OC, from the quick service to the employees, who appear to have been plucked from the pages of a Volcom fashion spread.

La Rocco's premise is as straightforward as the pier: a display case features premade, thin-crust pizzas. You order by the slice; the staff heats it up. No pastas, no oversauced sogginess—just custom pies, ones so perfect in their emulation of the East Coast they even please our token Jerseyite, Dave Lieberman. You can order the pizzas to taste, topping them with ingredients Southern Californians know and love such as sausage, black olives, jalapeños and anchovies. Trust the owners, though, and indulge in the house specialties. The baroque Bronx features just meatball, sausage and pepperoni on a tomato sauce as sweet as 'Nofre's breaks. Marvel at the Rhode Island, which uses serranos, avocados and a chipotle-based sauce to create the most unlikely Mexican foodstuff (what's with the shout-out to the Ocean State?) since the Choco Taco. Speaking of tacos, there's even a taco pizza, a blizzard of Cheddar on ground beef and sour cream—Cal-Mex at its most embracing.

But the best class of pizzas here is the whites. The simple Whitestone—just ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan brushed with garlic—is a pungent beauty and a base upon which La Rocco's riffs to even better heights. Artichoke adds earthiness; Pauley's Special finds basil and tomatoes added on. I love the Yonkers because it adds the sharpness of Asiago to sautéed asparagus. The whites are the pizzas invariably being cooked to replace what just got ordered, taken in to-go boxes for a beach party or an after-skateboarding snack. La Rocco's leaving San Clemente? As likely as the 241 toll road being extended.

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