Just as every region of the country has their own take on pizza, it seems every part of town does its own thing, with something special no matter what part of L.A. you call home. Maybe that’s because unlike more exotic or high-end forms of cuisine, everyone eats pizza, even kids. Especially kids. In this article, I want to draw attention to three of my favorite pizza joints in the San Fernando Valley. One of the common traits of this trio is not only great pizza, but the rest of the menu is also special.
From Chef Roy Elam, Donna Jean was such a hit in San Diego, it’s now opened in Sherman Oaks (Woodman Avenue at Riverside Drive). Elam’s hard rock roots (he’s in a band) are evident in every aspect of the restaurant, creating a relaxed vibe that pervades the space.
Elam’s resume includes a long stint working for innovative (and ageless) Chef Matthew Kenney, an artist with plant-based foods. This seasonal restaurant, which encompasses so much more than just pizza, relies on partnerships with local farms for the finest ingredients.
Just about every component in the kitchen is made in-house, which of course means the pasta, but also includes vegan butter and spicy tomato ‘nduja. The plant-based cheeses include mozzarella, ricotta, goat cheese and a Fresno Jack. There’s even an in-house fermentation program. And the wine list is a curated selection of sustainable options. This is the sort of place where you can feel good about yourself, and that’s not always something you can say when you’re going out for pizza.
The Fungazi pizza is a plant-based masterpiece, featuring mozzarella, ricotta, duxelles, mushrooms, red onions, spinach, truffle cream and parmesan. The blend of flavors complement each other well, and delivers an umami-rich experience.
The most surprising dish was the Hot Shrooms. I had expected some spicy little button mushrooms and I’d have been fine. Instead, I was given a couple of giant forest-foraged mushrooms fried up Nashville-style and served with pickles and house-made hot sauce and Ranch. It required a fork and knife. And it was unlike anything I’ve eaten recently and it is still on my mind. Donna Jean also serves brunch.
The wood ovens come directly from Naples, and the ingredients are just as authentically Italian. This Sherman Oaks favorite (Ventura Boulevard at Cedros Avenue) is the work of Amit Kleinberger, the man responsible for Menchie’s frozen yogurt. The space centers around a gorgeous olive tree in the center of the room, which is flanked by the pizzaiolos crafting their pies for all to see.
The dough is made with only four ingredients: non-GMO double zero flour imported from Naples, pure water, sea salt and live yeast. Garnishes include non-GMO Italian tomatoes, whole mozzarella and Italian extra virgin cold-pressed olive oil.
The extreme-heat ovens (800 to 1,000 degrees F), which can cook a whole pizza in a minute and half, have become de rigueur in the pizza biz in recent years, but MidiCi has been doing it for almost a decade. My favorite is probably the Truffle & Prosciutto, featuring crisped strips of prosciutto di Parma.
Another fantastic item, a rare find at a primarily pizza-centric establishment, is the Burrata with Melon & Prosciutto. This is a dish you’d be more likely to expect at a white tablecloth-type place, but don’t be deceived, MidiCi is genuine Italian dining that happens to be famous for its pizzas. The menu also includes authentic Italian gelato and, brace yourself, a Nutella calzone.
Of course, no discussion of Valley pizza – or California pizza – or for that matter, pizza – is complete without mentioning Ed LaDou, arguably the godfather of California pizza (not to be confused with Godfather’s Pizza, not that there could possibly be any confusion. LaDou famously worked with Wolfgang Puck at Spago as the pizza chef, concocting pies that left New Yorkers and Chicagoans stupefied. He was the first guy to put barbecue sauce on pizza. LaDou founded Caioti Pizza (on Tujunga Avenue just south of Ventura Boulevard) in Studio City.
One of my favorite perks of Caioti was bringing a bottle of my own wine to enjoy, with no corkage fee. Sadly, this feature is no longer available at the now-completely dry restaurant. And it’s hard to advocate for a pizzeria that doesn’t allow you to meet up over a pizza and a bottle of wine with friends. I hope they’ll rethink that policy. In the meantime, the food is as good as ever and they do delivery these days.
My favorite pizza is the Sunchoke. No one else, as far as I know, has even attempted to copy this gem. In addition to fresh sunchokes (also known as Jerusalem artichokes) it includes applewood-smoked bacon, roasted red peppers, fresh dill and mozzarella. I know, it sounds unusual. But it is a testament to the creativity that is possible in a pizza kitchen.
The menu is sprinkled with other surprises. I could mention the Chicken Marsala or the Italian Sausage Sandwich, but have you ever seen Dutch oven roast beef at a place renowned for its pizza? It’s slow-roasted for over three hours and topped with a house-made dried cranberry sauce, vegetables and roasted red baby potatoes. It’s also worth noting there’s a remarkable kids’ menu offering buttermilk pancakes and French toast as well as pastas and a grilled cheese sandwich.