Pizza is almost certainly the quintessential takeout food. I remember the anticipation I’d feel waiting for the arrival of our regular delivery guy from Three Sarges Pizzeria, a pizza shop opened by — yup! — a trio of Army sergeants from World War II who had discovered the joys of pizza while retaking Naples. Was it a great pizza? In memory, it was the best pizza ever. But then, first love is like that.
Amazingly, the very first pizza delivery is well documented. It was delivered personally by a pizzaiolo — a pizza chef — named Raffaele Esposito, who made a pizza in the colors of the Italian flag — red tomatoes, green basil and white mozzarella — and delivered it as a tribute to King Umberto and Queen Margherita in Naples in 1889. It became know as…pizza Margherita. You can still get it at pizza shops all over the world.
America’s first pizzeria — Lombardi’s Pizza — opened in 1905 on the edge of New York’s Little Italy. But pizza delivery didn’t become the takeout of choice until 1958, with the debut of the first Pizza Hut in Wichita, Kansas. Domino’s came along two years later in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
Getting a hot box of crust, cheese, sauce and very likely pepperoni has became an American way of life. Today, our 61,000 pizza shops deliver 3 billion pies a year. That accounts for 100 acres of pizza a day…360 slices per second. Do we love pizza? Do you even have to ask?
Below are the local hot spots I turn to for my takeout pies — delivered steaming hot, sliced and ready to inhale. Preferably with a beer. And since we all know about the biggest of the nationwide, even worldwide chains — the previously mentioned Pizza Hut and Domino’s, along with Papa John’s, Little Caesar’s, California Pizza Kitchen and more — I’m paying homage to the smaller pizzerias. They may not offer pies in the millions, but they do offer some of the best.
Big Nick’s Pizza
1110 N. Gaffey St., San Pedro; 310-732-5800, www.bignickspizza.com
You know a joint named Big Nick’s Pizza has got to be good; I mean, that moniker! The pies are made to order, which means your ‘za may not show up instantly — prep takes 20 minutes — but they’re worth the wait.
If you want to craft your own, there are 30 toppings to choose from, regular and gourmet, most familiar, but a few, like avocado and pinenuts are not something I’ve ever thought of using on a pie. (I still don’t. Pepperoni and mushrooms are so much more…right.)
Of the various pre-assembled models, The Long Shoreman (such a good name for a crust topped with cheese and sauce!) appeals for its rib-sticking ingredients — pepperoni, Italian sausage, salami, Canadian bacon and ground beef. This is a substantial chunk of food. For a substantial chunk of the San Pedro population.
Bonello’s New York Pizza
20120 Anza Ave., Torrance, 310-542-6131; 24427 Narbonne Ave., Lomita, 310-257-8125; 806 S. Gaffey St., San Pedro, 310-832-7544; www.bonellosnypizza.com
If you’re getting a pizza to go in the South Bay, a classic pizza with a minimum of frills, just lots of well-spiced sauce, plenty of cheese that stretches affably when you tug a slice free, toppings that never venture into the world of modernist strangeness — just the sort of pie you want to kick back with, wishing there was a baseball game on the tube, and a cold brewski in hand — chances are good you’ve ordered from a joint called Bonello’s New York Pizza. This isn’t chain pizza, made in some commissary on the far side of nowhere. This is local pizza, old school, the sort of pizza we all ate back in college — and still eat today.
As the old restaurant catchphrase goes, “It’s not fancy…but it’s good.” It’s Bonello’s — no reservations required. Just…a good appetite.
ExEat and Eatalian Café
ExEat, 14842 Crenshaw Blvd., Gardena, 310-516-0121; Eatalian Café, 15500 S. Broadway, Gardena, 310-532-8880; www.eataliancafe.com
The pizzas on the menu at ExEat and Eatalian Café are divided into traditional models, and house creations — though none are especially outré; even the house creations are traditional.
The thinness of the crust approaches the crackerlike pies found throughout Italy, where pizza is more of a snack, than a heavy, hearty creation atop a thick, bready crust. You can eat the pizza from ExEat without that feeling of having gone a bite too far, of having to lie down for awhile till the pie has passed through you, like a mouse through a python. If anything, it actually stimulates the appetite. It makes you hungry for more.
There are 22 traditional and 10 house pizzas on the menu, all built around tomato sauce (this is not the land of the white pizza), and all built around mozzarella. From there on out, you can find pies topped with mushrooms, ham, sausage, feta, pecorino, salami, anchovies, chicken, seafood, peppers — a fair assortment of extras, though nothing that actually jumps the shark.
If I’m going to choose a favorite, it would probably be the house model called the Rock Pizza, topped with tomato sauce, mozzarella, spicy salami, gorgonzola, spinach and bacon. The bacon gives it a meaty, umami crunch. The spinach is put on with enough care it doesn’t turn the pizza wet. Gorgonzola always tastes good. Ditto salami. A very nice pie.
Grimaldi’s Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria
2121 Rosecrans Ave., El Segundo; 310-648-7503, www.grimaldispizzeria.com
Grimaldi’s Coal Brick-Oven Pizzeria is often referred to as one of New York’s most iconic pizzerias. It’s ranked up there with Big Apple legends like DiFara, Joe’s, John’s of Bleecker Street and Lombardi’s — the royalty of New York pizza. And how has it traveled? The answer is, very well thank you, even admirably so.
Much is made of the “secret ingredient” pizza sauce (my guess is tomatoes, but what do I know?), the “handmade” mozzarella, dough and, most of all, the water. “It’s all in the water when it comes to the dough…and we believe that to be true,” says the press release. “So, we had a chemist replicate the water and through a special filtration process, we truly bring you the same pizza we serve in Brooklyn.”
The pies come in three sizes — 12-inch personal, 16-inch small and an 18-inch large. (Order the large, it tastes fine the next day.)
The basic pizzas are topped with sauce and island-like slabs of mozzarella, and can be ordered with garlic or pesto. There’s an additional charge for any of the 24 toppings — black olives, Italian sausage, meatballs, pepperoni, all the usual suspects, which of course includes anchovies, and of course does not include pineapple. Or barbecue sauce. Or Alfredo sauce. (Thank goodness!)
I guess jalapenos are abut the wackiest the toppings get. And maybe the grilled chicken, which wasn’t served on pizza back in the day. There isn’t even pasta on the menu. Grimaldi’s is totally focused on doing one thing, and one thing only. And they get it right.
La Bella Napoli
23906 Crenshaw Blvd., Torrance; 310-517-9952, www.labellanapolimenu.com
La Bella Napoli sits in a strip mall — pretty much like any of a hundred other strip malls — with a Chinese takeout shop, a massage joint, an old school bar called Southland; there’s a hair and nail place in the mall next door. Of course there is. Isn’t there always?
La Bella Napoli is tiny, but the pizza comes with big taste. This is pizza of the thin crust, old school (heck, the original school!) style. There’s nothing very fancy about the pizzas. There are 12 of them, more than anything else on the menu, most (but not all) served in a smaller “personal” size, and a larger “family” size.
There’s a Margherita. Of course. But if you move down the list, the kitchen adds pepperoni, Calabrian salami, artichokes, ham, mushrooms, olives, arugula, bresaola, prosciutto, sausage — even anchovies and smoked salmon. But no barbecue chicken. And definitely no pineapple. Let us be thankful for that.
Locale 90 Neapolitan
1718 S. Catalina Ave., Redondo Beach, 310-540-9190; 1040 Hermosa Ave., Hermosa Beach, 310-372-9090; www.locale90.com
At Locale 90 Neapolitan, the pizzas are an exercise in understatement — or at least, as close to understatement as a slab of dough with sundry toppings gets. The menu says, “We encourage you to choose no more than three toppings…Neapolitan pizzas are meant to be lightly topped to highlight the flavor and quality ingredients. Your pizza’s crust will be charred in spots. That’s correct and how it should be. It adds flavor. In Italy, they eat pizza with a fork and knife. We won’t judge you if you don’t, but we thought you might want to know.”
They serve a very fine pizza here, as fine as any pizza in the South Bay. It’s a fair competitor for the much ballyhooed pie offered at Nancy Silverton’s Pizzeria Mozza, considered by feinschmeckers to be the sine qua non of pizza in Southern California. (And yes, I did just mix German and Latin in the same sentence!)
They cook the pizzas in an imported oven, looking a bit like a beehive from Hades, and pulling them out before rushing them still sizzling into the boxes. There’s a choice of 10 red sauce pizzas, six white pizzas (without tomato sauce) among the pre-sets — about the most complex of which is the capricciosa, topped with cotto salami, mushrooms, roasted artichoke and Gaeta olives.
The salami pizza, with Calabrese peppers, comes drizzled with honey — a wonderful touch. There’s truffle oil on the kale & egg white pizza and mascarpone on the thyme roasted mushroom pizza — so good, so…elegant. (You can also create your own, drawn from 18 ingredients, none of which are pineapple.)
Mama D’s Redondo Beach
1109 S. Pacific Coast Hwy., Redondo Beach; 310-316-5050, www.mamadsredondo.com
There’s a sign on the wall at Mama D’s Redondo Beach that reads, “Family: We May Not Have It Together…But Together We Have It All.” It’s an appropriate motto for what may be the most family friendly eatery in the South Bay — which from Day One was packed with family groups often including a wide array of toddlers and rug rats, happily making a mess of themselves and everything within reach with handfuls of pasta, red sauce, pizza and other kid friendly food. Which is, obviously, not what’s happening these days. Nowadays, the mess is in your own COVID-19 resistant home. (Note: Wear washable fabrics!)
Concerning the pizzas, they say it best: “Mama D’s original pizza made in the traditional Neapolitan style with a medium thin crust. Our pizza sauce is made with fine Italian tomatoes, fresh basil, fresh parsley, olive oil, garlic and oregano. Topped with mozzarella and sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan. Our fresh dough is made with filtered water. (For a perfect bake, please allow 15-20 minutes)…” In other words, goodness takes time. Time is an essential element of taste. Though extra pepperoni doesn’t hurt.
Aloha Pizza & Shave Ice Company
1534 W. Artesia Blvd., Gardena; 310-715-6900, www.alohapizzaandshaveice.com
This is the South Bay. And so, a pizza with ingredients that are off the grid is pretty much essential. You can find the Japanese equivalent of pizza — okonomiyaki — at spots like Azuma and Chinchikurin. And you can find Hawaiian-style pizza at Aloha Pizza & Shaved Ice, where there’s a decided leaning toward sweeter sauces, and pineapple on a pie is considered to be a very good thing. Also Portuguese sausage, Kalua pork, Sriracha garlic chicken, ranch dressing and brown gravy.
Is Spam available as a pizza topping? Of course it is! In Hawaii, Spam is considered to be a blessing. If they make Spam sushi, why not pizza? And, honestly, it’s not half bad. When you’re hungry, Spam ceases to be just a punchline. It’s becomes…a tasty punchline.
Merrill Shindler is a Los Angeles-based freelance dining critic. Send him email at email@example.com.