We arrived without reservations (they don't take them), with a bottle of our own wine, and sporting jeans rather than trendy statement pieces. We came as we were, with no pretense, no agenda to see or be seen, and with no secret mission other than to enjoy the company and eat really good food in a comfortable setting. It was a successful venture. And a unique dining experience that I can see myself craving again and again in a city that is far too often defined by the scene rather than the food.
Caioti Pizza Cafe on Tujunga Avenue in Studio City is a bit of an anomaly in Los Angeles. Besides being among a short list of BYOB Italian eateries, it is the type of restaurant that future patrons stumble upon rather than hear about on EaterLA.com. My dining companion admitted that he discovered the restaurant by default. He and a friend planned to grab dinner at Aroma Coffee and Tea down the street, and decided to try Caioti instead. He introduced the restaurant to me last Wednesday, and in the few days since, I have already spread the word to my circle of friends. This is a restaurant that inspires whispers rather than shouts, and as such, attracts a different sort of crowd than many Italian eateries offering similar plates around town.
In short, it attracts regulars.
Despite the charm of its no frills attitude, Caioti is most revered by its patrons because of the food. This isn't just the typical corner pizza place with processed Parmesan shakers on each sticky table. The Parmesan on the (clean) tables is real Parmesan -- the kind that might be found in the specialty cheese store across the street. Bread is not an afterthought like at so many casual Italian eateries that dole out underwhelming, cold slices that need a butter bath to be palatable. Mere moments after settling into their chairs, diners are romanced with fresh, piping hot garlic knots that seem almost worthy of the "amuse-bouche" descriptor.
Salads are similarly alluring. Traditionalists can opt for a standard house salad with the requisite shredded carrots, red cabbage, grape tomatoes and Italian Vinaigrette, but the menu also offers a taste of something more exotic. The grilled beet salad with candy spiced pecans and seared goat cheese over arugula and field greens is an affair to remember -- the type of salad that is attacked with a fork and craved after the last bite is consumed. It is not overshadowed by the cafe's namesake offering in the least. If anything, the pizza is playing second fiddle to this particular plate of robust greens.
The pizza is available in three varieties - Old World, described as "light and thin crusted," New World with "rich contemporary flavors on a medium framed crust," and New York style, in the "classic Neapolitan American tradition." Each category boasts a substantial roster of pizzas, each one owning to a certain personality and/or distinct "vision." The cafe is famous for their barbecue chicken pizza from the New World menu, but the house favorite is the Salsiccia with Italian sausage, mushrooms, Gorgonzola, mozzarella latter, fresh basil and pine nuts from the Old World menu. On the particular night of my visit, we opt for the Con Funghi Sugo (Old World menu) that marries Porcini mushrooms, roasted garlic, fresh arugula, Pecorino Romano and mozzarella latte together. With the addition of truffle oil, the pizza is transformed from simple and rustic to sensuous and refined. While not the best example of what the cafe's wood-burning oven has to offer, it is far better than most of the pies I've encountered in the city, and seems to improve with each bite I take.
The dinner menu also offers patrons heartier entrees like lobster ravioli with shrimp, avocado and tomato in a spicy cilantro cream, and pressed crispy chicken that is grilled and sprinkled with truffle oil. The descriptions read like poetry to a foodie, and provide ample reason for regulars at the humble cafe to keep coming back. I'm already hungering for my return visit and for the point where I too can be a part of the cafe's scenery. Not because of what I'm wearing, but because I, like the others who frequent the restaurant, am part of the fabric that makes the eatery what it is -- a place where everyone wants to know everyone's name.