Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Pitfire Pizza: An unsung pizza hero

It’s easy to forget about Pitfire Pizza.

It’s not the hot new thing. It’s not a scene. And it’s not the type of place that makes waves around the LA dining blogosphere.

The local artisanal pizza chain, masterminded by proprietors Paul Hibler and David Sanfield, has been churning out its eclectically-topped rustic, fire-singed pizzas since 1997 – long before Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali brought Los Angeles its most famous pizzeria.

Even though Pitfire Pizza now operates four locations in Downtown, North Hollywood, Culver City, and West LA, it occupies a quiet existence in a city that is seemingly all about buzz, trends and flashbulbs. There’s no complicated reservations system requiring patrons to book a table weeks in advance, there’s no flashy “Top Chef” alum at the helm, and there’s no sous vide steak with dehydrated onions and mushroom foam on the menu.

Pitfire offers its loyal cadre of pizza-craving patrons comfortable food that’s easy to eat any day or night of the week. It’s the place that crazed UCLA grad students flock to when they are in the middle of finals and are too tired to cook or go to the store. It’s a place where friends and family gather for “pizza night.” It’s a place to start an evening before heading to a movie, bar or concert.

As such, it’s easy to let the casual pizzeria fly under the radar – below the “it” dining destinations of the moment.

But Pitfire’s presence and influence in this city cannot and shouldn’t be brushed aside. Even after 15 years, it’s still buzzworthy, and the thoughtful menu of starters, salads, pizza, pasta, panini, and splurge-worthy desserts, is still worth mentioning.

This past Saturday evening, I was invited into the Downtown location to check out the newly remodeled space and sample some of the items from both the regular menu and special Spring menu. Over the course of dinner, I saw a more dynamic, soulful side to the restaurant that I’m always recommending to friends who are looking for a quick affordable bite.

Like the Culver City space that was recently nominated for a James Beard Award for outstanding restaurant design, the Downtown location flawlessly melds a modern sensibility with a functional space. It’s not self-conscious or obviously garnished – the artistic elements are in the details – the bar with a bulls-eye view of the pizza oven, the light bulbs that dangle from the ceiling, the fire red staircase leading up to a private room upstairs.

In this way, the design is not unlike the food itself – thoughtful, but not over thought. The Farmer’s Market Plate ($9.95) with grilled asparagus, braised fennel, grilled potatoes, rainbow carrots, grilled bread, and a whipped ricotta dipping sauce is simple in concept, but refined by its execution. The bread is unreasonably good, the vegetables, undeniably fresh.

A simple Spring Vegetable Salad ($7.95) with asparagus, goat cheese, peewee potatoes, radish, and lemon vinaigrette is similarly inspired. Pitfire sources its potatoes from local Farmer’s Market favorite, Weiser Farms, and they shine in the setting of the spritely salad. They taste divinely earthy – like someone plucked them from the ground just prior to cooking.

While Pitfire is best known for its pizzas, the Linguini Bolognese with spinach linguini and house made beef ragu ($9.95) marries al dente noodles with a sweet tomato sauce that almost eradicates the need for the meat. It’s a sauce that’s been simmered under a watchful eye – a sauce that, like the restaurant itself, has something going on underneath the surface.

Yet even with the well-composed salads, astutely prepared vegetables and sublimely sweet tomato sauce, the pizzas are still what most excite me about Pitfire. On this particular occasion, it’s the Big Sur ($10.25) with Laughing Bird Shrimp that is most arresting to my palate. Despite claims that seafood and cheese are never meant to mix, the fresh, sustainable shrimp are the perfect accent to the mozzarella, roasted garlic, parsley, and red chile flake-topped pie. This is the obvious choice for people who can’t decide between pizza and pasta – think of it as shrimp scampi on a perfectly executed crisp, thin, yet still substantial, crust.

The ingredients at Pitfire aren’t complicated. The pizza dough itself is made of just flour, water and yeast. But each component in the Pitfire operation – the architecture, the specialty sodas and reasonably priced glasses of wine, the vanilla soft serve ice cream from Straus Family Creamery – has been put there for a reason.

Not to be flashy, not to be “so hot right now,” but to bring its customers the best affordable, everyday dining experience possible.

It’s working. And that’s something to buzz about.

Pitfire Pizza

108 West 2nd St.

Los Angeles, CA 90012

(213) 808-1201

Details about other locations can be found on their website.


Ashley said...

Even just re-living it through this post is making me contemplate a take-out order tonight.

Esi said...

I went to the West LA location a couple of months ago. I liked the steak salad more than the pizza, but that Big Sur sounds gooooood.

Valentina said...

I love Pitfire. The Culver City location is definitely my favorite, but the Downtown one is the most convenient. My only issue is that the Farmers' Market Plate used to have cheese, but no more. That's a tragedy, but I'm still pro Pitfire.

Monet said...

As much as I enjoy visiting the new "it" restaurant, I always find myself drawn to the classics. Thank you for sharing this pizza parlor with me tonight, my sweet friend. I hope that you have a wonderful week full of laughter, love and good food. As always, I'm leaving tonight feeling inspired by your creativity and kindness.

bagnatic said...

mmm...pizza. it's been a while....

Darin said...

I had no idea this place had Straus froyo! I live so close too..gotta check it out.

Diana said...

Ashley - I'm contemplating stopping in to one of the Westside locations tomorrow night... the merguez pizza must be mine!

Esi - I think you should go again soon. With ME! :)

Valentina - That's my favorite too - though I haven't been to the North Hollywood location yet! I didn't realize the Farmers' Market Plate used to cheese - that is a tragedy!!

Monet - I really should be going to the new hot places in town for... err... "research," but most nights when I go out, I crave my old favorites. There's something so comfortable about going some place familiar.

Amy - Get thee to a Pitfire Pizza stat!

Darin - Yep, and they have an awesome salted caramel sauce to go with it! ;)

Kung Food Panda said...

I need to visit Pitfire soon!

There's nothing wrong with an unsung hero. The place I want to eat at the most is Angelini Osteria. Far from being the "IT" spot at this time.

Gastronomer said...

Is that caramel I spy on the soft serve, my sweet friend? Mmmm!