You know you want it. Here’s where to get the best in Orange County.
by Gretchen Kurz & Benjamin Epstein
1. PIZZA E VINO
The self-described “Antica Pizzeria Napoletana,” just steps from the lake in Rancho Santa Margarita, lives up to its billing and then some, with old-school technique, charm-your-socks-off Italian ambience, and a new-school mindset. The restaurant is O.C.’s first—and the country’s 39th—to be Verace Pizza Napoletana-certified as serving authentic Naples-style artisan pizza. Direct from Napoli come the wood-fired oven, Italy’s favored Caputo 00 pizza flour, and San Marzano tomatoes. Options include mozzarella di bufala, the Maserati of mozzarellas. The misto salumi pizza ($16), with mozzarella, sopressata, capocollo, and fennel sausage, is a flavor explosion that would do Mount Vesuvius proud. But with a crust like this, who needs toppings?
While there try the carpaccio of thin-sliced beef tenderloin served with arugula and pancetta vinaigrette, quail egg, Parmesan cheese, and crostini.
31441 Santa Margarita Parkway #M, Rancho Santa Margarita, 949-713-1500, pizzaevino.net.
2. NELLO CUCINA
Chef Pino Domicolo and owner Antonio Cagnolo share a zeal for pizza purity—first detectable in fragrant wood smoke escaping from the hand-crafted oven looming like a shrine over the restaurant. From its 800-degrees-plus depths emerge blistered disks of deceptively simple ingredients. Crunchy, thin, and chewy, the crust relies on delicate Caputo 00 flour and a yeasty starter that’s fed nightly. For the Margherita ($13), Italian tomatoes are de-seeded to avoid bitterness in a lilting, fresh sauce. Ovals of fresh mozzarella are a creamy foil for the tomatoes’ bright acidity and the fresh basil leaves. Sauce-free, but olive oil-rich options are terrific, too; the Siciliana ($14), with ricotta, mozzarella, and ultra-thin slices of eggplant, is exceptional.
Foodie aside: Nello makes reliably wonderful spaghetti alla carbonara ($15).
South Coast Plaza, 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa, 714-540-3365, nellocucina.com.
3. IL DOLCE
Verace Pizza Napoletana-trained Roberto Bignes makes superb wood-fired pizza using Caputo 00 flour in a modest storefront opposite Triangle Square. The edges of these delectable pies puff up nearly 2 inches. A simple pepperoni pizza ($13), its center swampy with spicy-tangy sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, may be the county’s finest of its kind. The salsiccia, with garlic sauce, pancetta, fresh mozzarella, Italian sausage, caramelized onions, and rapini, offers a fabulous pastiche of Italian flavors. A pistachio pizza ($15), with Parmesan and Gruyère cheeses, red onions, chopped pistachios, and vibrant rosemary, arrives on a plate napped with olive oil.
Don’t forget the desserts by Bignes’ wife, Fernanda, notably crème brûlée cheesecake with strawberries and mint sprig ($7).
1902 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, 949-200-9107, ildolceoc.com.
4. CUCINA ALESSÁ
Alessandro Pirozzi’s cooking tends to be bold, but his delicate pizzas have an elegant touch. Thin of crust and carefully constructed, Pizza di Parma ($15) won by a whisper when challenged by the Margherita version ($13). Since the first-rate prosciutto is placed after the pizza is baked (Italians call it prosciutto crudo, for uncooked), the cured pork’s sweet-salty intensity and delicate texture thrills at room temperature instead of being sizzled into oblivion. Fresh bufala mozzarella complements the fine meat along with a topknot of peppery arugula, shiny with olive oil. All this artistry is framed by a pillowy crust with a soft core and slightly crisp rim. An unsoggy center earns extra points.
You’ve gotta try the side dish of Brussels sprouts, roasted with garlic, pancetta, and sage butter ($6).
520 Main St., Huntington Beach, 714-969-2148; 6700 W. Coast Highway, Newport Beach, 949-645-2148; 234 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, 949-497-8222; cucinaalessa.com.
Can a pizza be chic? Urbane Fashion Island digs add a whiff of style, but there’s no denying the appeal of these impossibly thin, crunchy-rimmed wheels of delicate dough baked in a wood-fired oven. Like at the best fashion houses, the four choices are few but elite. Top-drawer toppings—superfresh mozzarella, porcini mushrooms, just-sliced Prosciutto di San Daniele, and a trace of truffle oil elevate the Prosciutto e Ruchetta ($16) to diva status. Spicy Salsiccia Piccante ($15) seduces too, with sausage, caramelized onions, tomato, and bold peperoncino sauce.
Don’t miss happy hour in the bar from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Pizzas are a steal at $5.
545 Newport Center Drive, Newport Beach, 949-640-0900, ilfornaio.com.
This rookie has a way with flat things—check out those collapsed chairs serving as art on the walls. And the Naples-style, wood-fired, Caputo 00 flour pizzas offer a pillowy periphery with a gently yielding crunch and a microthin middle that sops up lovely juices. The Ecco ($14) includes squash, delicate squash blossoms, crushed San Marzano tomatoes, and burrata; a whisper of Sicilian sea salt plays off the sweet heat of red onions. A lively arugula-onion salad tops the Prosciutto di Parma pie ($16). An egg is an optional add-on.
Sideshow: the piquant salsa verde of parsley, anchovies, garlic, olive oil, and serrano chilies that comes with bread to kick-start meals.
The Camp, 2937 Bristol St. #A103, Costa Mesa, 714-444-3226, eccocm.com.
7. IL BARONE
Every bite of gently crisped crust at this smart yearling from Sicilian-born Franco Barone brings pleasure: the billowy rim, deft charring, and delicate dusting of flour—the pizzas sing Puccini arias, complete with subtexts. In the Sopressata Calabrese Piccante ($12), spicy Calabrian salami earns rapt attention; mozzarella drapes over tomato sauce in perfect harmony; fresh basil provides the high notes. On the Mozzarella Affumicata e Tartufata with white truffle oil ($12), smoked mozzarella slices fan out like a mandala and yield flavors just as mesmerizing.
Save room for the Facci ri Veccia, paper-thin leaves of focaccia layered with Crescenza cheese, baked and topped with prosciutto and white truffle oil ($12).
4251 Martingale Way, Newport Beach, 949-955-2755, ilbaroneristorante.com.
8. PIZZERIA ORTICA
Until recently, brilliant L.A. chef David Myers’ effort here was a shoo-in for O.C.’s best pizza, no contest. No more. Three pies over two visits arrived scorched. Big beauteous bubbly blisters—burnt. Somebody’s asleep at the walnut-burning oven, at least some of the time. Fabulous combinations of intriguing ingredients—house-cured pork cheek, ricotta, scallions, and fennel pollen ($16); dandelion greens, mushrooms, and pecorino ($15)—and 300-year-old biga starter come to naught when the execution is wanting. At its best, Ortica can be the best, but for now the best we can call it is uneven.
Come back for the pear and pecorino tortelli ($14); or the chocolate caramel budino ($7).
650 Anton Blvd., Costa Mesa, 714-445-4900, pizzeriaortica.com.
9. RUSTIC PIZZERIA
Flavor-dense cured meats from Hungary add savory distinction to the 14-inch specialty pies at this homey store wedged into a bland business park. Fennel-infused sausage crumbles, pungent bacon slivers, and red onion steal the show on the Rustic house pizza ($13), but the Mediterranean’s ($13) mix of smoked chicken, artichoke hearts, spinach, tomatoes, and feta, splashed with roasted garlic oil, is terrific, too. A sturdy, chewy crust with a toasty char gets a light blanket of tomato sauce—not overly sweet or garlicky—making it a perfect foil for the gutsy toppings.
Good to know: Depending on catering demands, take-out can be limited to weekends.
20651 Lake Forest Drive, Lake Forest, 949-716-8282, rusticpizzeria.com.
10. STELLA’S SERIOUS ITALIAN
Sure, there’s a blue-water view and cushy lounge seating at Monarch Beach’s sole trattoria, but founder Joe Morano has shown much love for authentic Neapolitan-style pizza from the first day he lit a wood fire in the brick oven in 2006. Hearty Pizza Astarita ($14) delivers gusto, but with a careful balance of Italian sweet sausage, pieces of signature meatballs, imported salami, and fresh oregano leaves. Flavorful, thinnish crust, plus housemade mozzarella and tomato sauce, are the foundation of the Naples formula favored here.
Best deal: the $5 meatball sliders at happy hour: 2:30 to 6:30 p.m Monday through Friday; 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Saturday; 4:30 p.m. until closing on Sunday.
17 Monarch Bay Plaza, Dana Point, 949-234-1679, stellasitalian.com.
11. PICCOLINO RISTORANTE PIZZERIA
Easy to miss while zipping toward the 73, this cozy spot is the foothill zone’s best for gourmet pizza and welcoming hospitality. Prego alum Salvatore Faso, son of Sicilian restaurateurs, serves up several lavishly topped pies with light, springy crusts. Sharp gorgonzola pushes the four-cheese pizza ($15) well over the top, but the Vegetali ($15) nicely balances tomato, eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, and artichoke hearts, drizzled with fruity olive oil. Gotta love the fresh focaccia and pale jade dipping sauce reminiscent of green goddess dressing.
Return for the Nero D’Avola, Spadina 2003 ($28) paired with spiral pasta in sausage ragout, mushrooms, and pecorino.
28731 Los Alisos Blvd. #3, Mission Viejo, 949-380-7261, piccolinomv.com.
12. THE ORIGINAL MAMA D’S ITALIAN KITCHEN
A “Godfather” movie poster shares wall space with kids’ crayon drawings. First visit? The owner sends over a complimentary appetizer—and a card for another. Servers are extraordinarily personable. The feel-good experience is worth a drive without the pizza, but the neo-Neapolitan pies ($14 to $20), made in a conventional oven with conventional flour, are feel-good, too. The crusts are pliant, toppings fresh and flavorful.
Regulars ask for the pink sauce, a marinara with cream and Parmesan that’s terrific on the pastas, especially the spinach ravioli.
3012 Newport Blvd., Newport Beach, 949-675-6262.
13. BROOKLYN PIZZA WORKS
Some suburban patrons who dined here on high school dates now bring their grandkids to this shopping center pizzeria, with big booths and long, glass-topped tables. Proprietor Sam Rafidi says his most popular pie is The Works (large, $19), but the East Coast Greasy Cheese pizza (large, $18) is the most compelling reason to return. A pliant crust oozing with whole-milk mozzarella, fresh garlic, a swirl of olive oil, and a sprinkling of dried oregano is floppy in the center, firm on the edges. These are the flavors from joints that are now long gone. Is it cheating to add pepperoni? Rat us out. We don’t care.
Fun for a small sum: the Zeppole, a generous heap of just-fried dough nuggets rolled in powdered sugar ($3).
1235 E. Imperial Highway, Placentia, 714-524-1260, brooklyn-pizza-works.com.
14. PREGO RISTORANTE
Sleek as a Milan runway model, Prego may have new owners, but the kitchen still relies on a handsome wood oven to support much of the menu. Personal-size pizzas arrive searing hot, and somehow maintain both a crisp bottom and a stretchy chew beneath a tomato sauce that stands up well to the mozzarella, sausage, and spicy salami on the Salsiccia pie ($15). But the Quattro Stagioni (Four Seasons; $14) mix of ham, artichokes, and mushrooms is varied enough to make each bite taste different than the next.
Also worth a visit: the beef tenderloin carpaccio with capers and Parmigiano-Reggiano to accompany those addictive complimentary grissini.
18420 Von Karman Ave., Irvine, 949-553-1333, pregoristoranti.com.
15. THE PIZZA BAKERY
“New York-style pizza with a California flair” has been served here for more than 20 years. The pert lip of the pies has a gentle crunch; sauce is discreet; 34 toppings include Genoa salami, eggplant, and Spanish onion rings. Pizzas can be prepared with whole-milk mozzarella, half the cheese, cheeseless, or with soy cheese substitute. The no-sauce Chevre ($18 to $23), a standout, is topped with Roma tomato slices, goat cheese, sausage, garlic, and red onion.
On Monday nights, try the “all-you-should-eat” special: pasta with meat or marinara, slice of cheese pizza, mixed green salad, bottomless beverage ($7.50 includes tax).
1741 Westcliff Drive, Newport Beach, 949-631-1166, thepizzabakery.com.
16. DORIA’S HAUS OF PIZZA
The Orange County Register’s Food Frenzy column once rated Doria’s, a Costa Mesa veteran of 30 years, the county’s No. 1 Hole in the Wall restaurant. The décor includes a Budweiser Clydesdales panorama, and a festive sombrero. You’ll find families knee-deep in pizzas with generous toppings that include vibrant veggies atop oodles of mozzarella, liberally herbed sauce, and a hefty, rich crust. Pizza ingredients, including anchovies and jalapeños, can be ordered on the side, and the portions are gargantuan. Love the plastic DIY pizza-cutting-serving tool!
Lunch special: The hot eggplant-and-cheese sandwich—breaded eggplant, melted mozzarella, and marinara sauce on a fresh Italian roll, side of coleslaw or pasta salad ($5).
1500 Adams Ave., Costa Mesa, 714-751-8777, hausofpizza.net.
17. NICK’S PIZZA
This Costa Mesa landmark for more than 40 years looks out onto a Home Depot. But inside, the handsome spot is filled with replicas of Roman statuary and paintings of Venice. It’s a pizzeria of substance, especially if you like a hearty crust—golden with cavernous blisters and the perfect amount of char—and substantial mozzarella and sauce. Go for the Futura ($13 to $17), topped with Roma tomatoes marinated for eight hours in olive oil with basil, garlic, Parmesan, and red onion.
Don’t miss the butternut squash ravioli with butter sage sauce, artichoke hearts, asparagus, green peas, and prosciutto ($13).
2300 Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, 949-722-7566, nickspizzapasta.com.
18. MANGIA BENE CUCINA
Look for the giant spoon and fork front-door handles to this cavernous space with bright murals and a local following. This is a kid-friendly spot, but there are several adult creations that don’t include pepperoni. Slender, pale, slightly bland crust requires toppers to carry the day. Stringy, caramelized onions, musky Portobello mushrooms, and plenty of tangy goat cheese are tasty compensation ($16).
Freebie for the brave: The cheese-speckled garlic bread, but only for those who can abide the reek of plentiful raw garlic.
27281 La Paz Road #1, Laguna Niguel, 949-831-0141, mangiabenecucina.net.
If you can never be too rich or too skinny, this luxe resort dining room has the pizza for you. Ultrathin and sparely adorned, the pizza is so crispy and delicate it’s in no danger of being called pie. These fragile discs can bear the brunt of only two cuts, yielding four wide quarters. Even the decadent-sounding White Pizza ($20), with bufala mozzarella, premium prosciutto, jagged arugula leaves, and truffle oil tastes light enough for a weight-phobic socialite. And because this is Pelican Hill, every order includes obliging service and Newport Coast views.
Leave room for the intense, satin-smooth pistachio gelato, churned by hand ($11).
22701 Pelican Hill Road S., Newport Coast, 949-467-6800, pelicanhill.com.
20. SELMA’S CHICAGO PIZZERIA
Find real deep-dish at this spot in Rancho Santa Margarita, smartly decked out in brick with dim lighting and beer-logo mirrors. Order one of those beers while you wait; deep-dish takes about 25 minutes. When it arrives—in a high-side skillet placed on a pedestal at the center of the table—it feels special. The Santa Margarita riffs on the classic Margherita ($13 to $21); the Smoking Inferno ($13 to $21) works in jalapeños, meatballs, pepperoni, and Italian sausage. Toppings also include cucumber, and andouille sausage. But no matter how you dress the pie, the crust can overwhelm; pop for extra sauce ($2).
Don’t miss the brews in the adjacent Tap Room. Consider Abita’s refreshing Purple Haze Raspberry Wheat ($5) or Mikkeller’s remarkable Beer Geek Breakfast ($16), an American Double/Imperial Stout brewed with coffee and chocolate.
30461 Avenida de Las Flores #B, Rancho Santa Margarita, 949-709-8165; 218 Avenida del Mar, San Clemente, 949-276-2828. selmaschicagopizzeria.com.
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This article originally appeared in the February 2011 issue.