The Pizza Issue — May 28, 2019
Redefining Neapolitan Pizza in Los Angeles at Pizzana
At Pizzana in Los Angeles, Neapolitan native Daniele Uditi realizes an American dream and finds a loyal following for his unique pizza.
Words by Oren Peleg
Photography by Antonio Diaz
The first time I met Daniele Uditi, the executive chef and master pizzaiolo of Pizzana in Brentwood, was on a rare rainy day in Los Angeles. If Angelenos are averse to leaving home in the rain, there was no evidence of that here. Nearly every table was full with the dinner rush still a few hours away. If anything, Pizzana was a respite from the dreariness outside: its sleek, modernist lines, high ceiling, and bright blue and white tiles called to mind the sun-bleached Mediterranean coast.
I’m seated at a large booth when Uditi emerges from the kitchen to greet me. But before we talk he wants me to eat. “I’ll bring you a few things,” he says. Within minutes, my table is full of food: a cacio e pepe pizza, a “neo-Margherita” pizza, an order of Uditi’s signature meatballs, and every antipasto on the menu. “Anything else I can get you?” a waiter asks as I shuffle plates around to find room for my tape recorder. Uditi returns and looks at me anxiously as if concerned both my plate and mouth are empty. “Eat, eat,” he says.
It’s a befitting introduction to Uditi, who has centered his life around pizza. “He just dreams in pizza,” Candace Nelson, Pizzana’s co-founder and pastry chef, and the co-founder of Sprinkles Cupcakes along with her husband Charles Nelson, tells me. “He will text Charles and I at three in the morning with five new ideas for pizza. His mind does not turn off.”
It is this dedication that has made Uditi a defining pizza maker not just in Los Angeles, but on the national stage. Within months of its 2017 opening, Pizzana was on Jonathan Gold’s 101 Best Restaurants list, and Uditi was compared to legendary pizza chefs like Chris Bianco and Nancy Silverton.
“Pizzana is being seen as carrying the torch,” Scott Wiener, a pizza historian and founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours, says. “Pizza in Los Angeles was Wolfgang Puck, and then it became Nancy Silverton, and Pizzana is the current wave.”
Uditi’s obsession with pizza began early. He fell in love with cooking as a child growing up in Naples, Italy, in the various kitchens of his family. His grandfather was a pastry chef on a cruise ship, his mother was a chef, and his aunt is a baker. “I was the black sheep of the family,” he adds. “I was the only one that took some of the leftover of the bread dough, flattened it out, and put pizza toppings on.”
Uditi’s family specialized in baking with criscito, an ancient form of natural-leavening. “My auntie used to make criscito, which is just water and flour, and then she used to leave it in the basement and all the bacteria [in the air] would grow and ferment it,” Uditi explains. It is his aunt’s own starter that Uditi brought to America, and which he still uses at Pizzana. “I refresh it here every day. Right now, he is sixty-three years old,” he says, referring to the starter.
As Uditi grew up and continued to pursue cooking, he landed at Rosanna Marziale’s Michelin-starred Le Colonne, right outside Naples in Caserta. Then, when he was twenty-four, Uditi’s mother passed away. That same year, an offer appeared for him and his brother Roberto to move to Los Angeles and consult on a new restaurant for six months. It would be his first time leaving southern Italy. “I couldn’t stay in the same house where I grew up with my mom,” he says of the time. “It forced me to move. I accepted right away.”
The Uditis arrived in Los Angeles on January 1, 2010, and began working at an Italian restaurant in the city’s Brentwood neighborhood. With his family’s criscito recipe, Uditi began making Neapolitan pizzas and garnering notice. “Celebrities started to come,” he continues. One night, actor Chris O’Donnell came in for dinner and was so impressed with the pizza, he asked to meet Uditi. “[I] didn’t speak any English when I met Chris. Nothing,” Uditi remembers. Even with a waitress as translator, Uditi struggled to understand O’Donnell. “The only thing I understood was, ‘pizza,’ ‘oven,’ and ‘teach me.’”
“We had just built a pizza oven in our backyard,” O’Donnell tells me. “I said, ‘You’ve got to come teach us how to cook. He came over the next day, and not only cooked for us, but we kind of hit it off.”
The night was a success, and Uditi soon became a weekly fixture at the O’Donnells’ house for Sunday dinner parties—a much-needed side gig for Uditi and his brother as their restaurant job was quickly souring. Uditi’s boss had taken his and his brother’s passports and, “threatened to call immigration if we ever left the restaurant,” he tells me.
“It turned out that he and his brother kind of had a raw deal going over there,” O’Donnell explains of those first few months. “They were just coming to the country. They weren’t happy with what was happening. I said, ‘I’ll use you a lot. We’ll hire you all the time.”
With the backing of O’Donnell (and a newly secured green card), Uditi and his brother quit the restaurant job that had brought them to America. “We made our calculation and said, ‘I think we can take a risk if we hustle a little bit more, if we talk to other people, we do business cards, and we invest a little bit,’” Uditi recalls. “It paid off, because from Chris I went to Jennifer Garner, John Stamos—all the list of Chris’s friends that called us. For six-and-a-half years we worked as a private chef for a lot of people in Los Angeles.”
It was at one of these Sunday-night pizza parties that Uditi met Charles and Candace Nelson.
“It was our first party,” Candace begins. “I had a taste of this pizza, and I had a moment where I thought, ‘This isn’t just any old pizza; this is special.’”
Uditi continues, “The next day, I have Chris calling me: ‘Daniele, I have Charles here, he wants to meet you. I think it’s a good idea if we meet together; maybe we can do a business together.’ And that’s how Pizzana started.”
For Candace, Daniele’s pizza was removed from what she had grown to expect of Neapolitan pizzas. It “was a crisp slice, none of the ingredients fell off, and there was nothing soupey about it,” she recalls.
“I decided not to do Neapolitan-style pizza because I want to do my pizza,” Uditi explains. “I wanted to do something that I believe is the story of my family.” All the dough is hand-kneaded at Pizzana, and left to proof for two days. While the tomatoes are imported from Italy and the cheese is fior di latte from Southern Italy, all the produce used for toppings are sourced from Southern California.
“Daniele is a very good example of these familial traditions that he’s carried on,” Evan Funke, chef of Felix in Los Angeles, says. “He says quite often, this is not pizza Napoletana. This is the traditions that lie within his family, that have been passed down from generation to generation, and he’s very proud of that.”
“Essentially, pizza is just bread. It’s a bread with stuff baked on top of it,” Wiener says. But from the time Alice Waters put in a wood-burning oven at Chez Panisse and shifted the focus of her pizzas to the toppings, Wiener explains that pizza became “more of a conveyance method for other dishes.”
Uditi continues, “My main focus is not only the toppings. I give one hundred-percent importance to the dough, because at the end of the day, the dough is what makes the pizza feel light or heavy.”
Uditi maintains the foundational importance of bread to his pizzas, but also allows the vibrancy of Los Angeles’ culinary landscape to influence his toppings. “He’s an immigrant, and L.A. is a city of immigrant cuisine,” notes Candace. “There’s so much fusion going on in general that it’s been really fun for him to play with that. He’s an Italian man who came to California and married a Mexican woman, and, of course, develops this Messicana pizza.”
“This is a taco I ate with chorizo, jalapeño, queso fresco, cilantro, lime, and crema,” Uditi explains of the Messicana. “When I was talking about the contamination and the fusion, if it happens in the right way and with the right touch, I think it is good. And it’s good that I have all these restaurants to eat at, so I can never stop learning, and I can never stop taking ideas.”
After his initial meeting with Charles and Candace Nelson to pursue a pizzeria together, and nearly two years of development, Pizzana opened in April 2017. Thanks to the reputation of the O’Donnells’ weekly pizza parties and the Uditis’ growing client base, Pizzana managed to have a steady stream of customers from around Brentwood for its opening. But it was the glowing review from Jonathan Gold that set things over the top. In his review, Gold wrote: “The cacio e pepe pizza is a small miracle: crisp crust, pungent cheese and a showering of black pepper, a near-exact duplication of the flavor of the pasta’s particular tang even before your tongue hits a stripe of cream, which lends a bit of the pasta’s texture. …His dough, made completely by hand in a traditional wooden bin, is allowed to ferment for nearly two entire days. Uditi is the real thing.”
“The thing that I bring in my heart all the time is that one of his last meals was at that table over there,” Uditi remembers, his voice growing softer as he pointed across the dining room. “He knew that he had [cancer], he gathered the family, and he decided to come here.” Uditi pauses again, “Sorry, it really touches my heart.”
It was a definitive point of achievement for Uditi, crowning the seven years of struggle and growth that preceded. Now, Pizzana is set to open its second location. “I want everyone to try Daniele’s pizza, but it’s not Daniele’s pizza if we have fifty locations,” says Candace Nelson, noting Pizzana would not mirror the same expansion model as Sprinkles. “It has to be Daniele’s pizza where he’s literally touching everything.”
“It absolutely is the American Dream,” O’Donnell says of Uditi. “He’s a celebrity back home. They all see him on social media, and all these famous Hollywood people coming into the restaurant, and he gets his picture in magazines and that sort of thing. It’s a big deal back home for all of them.”
As for what’s next? “I’m ambitious,” Uditi says. “One day I would love to win a Michelin star for pizza. But for now, my main goal is to make proud the people who gave me an opportunity here in the United States.”
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