Friends started asking me questions about the opening of Pizzeria Mozza more than a year ago. Last summer, the queries became nonstop. So when the long-awaited restaurant finally opened in September, I was the happiest—and most relieved—diner in Orange County.
Clearly, this new arrival, on Coast Highway where Dolce once stood, is a wanted baby. Reservations are impossible at peak times. Walk in on a Friday night and prepare to wait at least an hour, unless you can find a seat at the bar—and you probably won’t. I shudder to think of the crowds once the full-bar license kicks in; as of this writing, only beer and wine are available.
But that’s beverage enough in my book—and utterly suited to the rustic, reverent Italian cuisine that industry luminaries Mario Batali, Nancy Silverton, and Joe Bastianich brought to life so smashingly in Los Angeles with the first Pizzeria Mozza in 2006. The fare here is the same: picture-perfect pizzas with heady toppings, delightful antipasti, high-comfort al forno dishes—how could a cocktail flatter these any better than a bottle of Piemonte Barbera or a local IPA? Despite some rough edges on service and setting typical in a shop open less than 90 days, the kitchen swings for the fence with each dish. Nearly every item is more thoughtful and nuanced than its spare description. Olives al forno is a generous crock heaped with sundry olives, oven-hot and dripping with their fruity olio. Naked fat garlic cloves and wide curls of citrus skin, all bronzed from the heat, peek out of the olives and infuse the limpid golden oil. Twin ovals of grilled pane bianco—Silverton’s masterful white bread sliced three fingers thick—are simpatico. Fried cauliflower boasts the sweet flavors and creamy textures of caramelization from roasting the florets before cloaking them in a rice flour batter that frizzles to a fragile, nongreasy crunch. Dipped into its pot of snappy aioli, it’s a canny nosh that could pass for a deconstructed gratin.
For the same price, four fried squash blossoms bursting with fresh ricotta seem chintzy by comparison. At least the tender blooms retain the subtle flavor that usually disappears when topping a seared pizza. Heat, or lack of it here, also is the downfall of an order of arancini, gummy fried rice balls that surely would taste better hot. Salumi fiends, prepare to swoon. Submit to the mixed platter, affetati misti, and be spoiled by these slices of rosy salamis, speck, and prosciutto of the highest rank. Only Canaletto, Lucca Café, and Cucina Alessá can challenge Mozza on this order.
Caprese salad again illustrates the affection for ingredients here. Cherry tomatoes on the vine, fresh mozzarella, and pesto are a spectacular trio when curated so tenderly: a cluster of tomatoes, dimpled by a light roasting, spill over a cool, creamy mound of newborn burrata with perfumy drizzles of neon-bright pesto. Boom, boom, pow.
On to the fabled pizza, with a brief caveat: The pies taste their best when not preceded by rich starters that admittedly are tough to resist. That said, there are about 20 to choose from and it doesn’t take long to fall hard for at least a couple. Egg, bacon, Yukon Gold potatoes, and ruby crescents of Bermuda onion make a hearty late-breakfast pizza one lazy Sunday, the earthy potatoes thin and soft for soaking up wood smoke, bacon vapor, and rivulets of golden yolk from a perfectly done egg. It’s comforting and goes down fast. A pizza with coarsely ground fennel sausage is less smoky but just as rich with its heavy swirl of thickened cream. Velvety soft and demure, the mild cream plays to the sausage’s brash notes for an edible beauty-and-the-beast tale. Another night, mild Gorgonzola and bitter radicchio battle for supremacy over pungent charred rosemary. It’s a delicious tie, thanks to perfect proportions. Sweet and salty are winning partners on a pizza topped with Brussels sprouts, onions, pecorino, and meaty pancetta.
What about the crust? I openly adore its wide wreath of crusty bubbles and chewy, floppy center. The scorching wood fire transforms the elastic dough into a deeply flavored base so versatile it’s almost a course of its own. Who needs breadsticks when you can snag the bare edges foolishly left behind by your tablemates? But when I offer my endorsement, a host of dissenters chimes in. That’s the way it works with beloved foods such as pizza, sushi, tacos, and burgers.
Venture from the pizza roster with baked day-of-the-week dishes such as a many-layered, ultrarich lasagna, or lusty duck leg with crisp skin and a side of stout, nutty lentils. If you can eat light enough, be sure to order pastry chef Sarah Asch’s fluffy olive oil cake or one of the seasonal gelato confections. Of course, there’s always the famed butterscotch budino fans rave about. I think it’s super, but tastes much like the one served at Pizzeria Ortica, though Mozza’s does come with some fabulous, coin-size, rosemary-pinenut cookies.
Mozza is atrociously loud, abetted by high-energy, high-volume vintage rock. The unfussy, high-ceilinged room doesn’t spare an inch. And unless you go at off-peak times, expect it to be packed. Some diners come just to say they did, some come to knock the new kid, and some, like me, come to feast on charming cuisine that’s not nearly as simple as it looks.
Olives al forno; fried squash blossoms; cauliflower fritti; caprese salad; cured meats; pane bianco; Gorgonzola dolce-and-potato pizza; fennel sausage with thickened cream pizza; Brussels sprouts, pecorino, and pancetta pizza; egg-and-bacon pizza; lasagna; crispy duck with lentils (a weekly special); olive oil cake; espresso granita, butterscotch budino.
Starters, $8 to $15; 12-inch pizzas, $11 to $24; weekly specials, $19 to $29; desserts, $10.
Along the counter facing the oven is ideal for watching the pizzaiolo ballet; try the anteroom off the patio for some semblance of peace.
Call weeks ahead for dinner reservations, several days ahead for lunch bookings. Or, snag a walk-in spot between 2:30 and 4:30 p.m. daily, or after 10 weeknights.
800 W. Coast Highway
Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
This article originally appeared in the February 2012 issue.