Restaurant Review: The Paradox of Pizza Gentrification Comes to Echo Park
In this city of ever-rising rents and ever-changing streetscapes, there are almost as many forms of gentrification as there are two-bedroom houses listed for more than a million bucks. There’s the old-fashioned land-grab version, wherein wealthier, whiter people buy up housing in an affordable neighborhood, rendering it no longer affordable. Then there’s the coffeehouse gentrification, art gallery gentrification, gay bar erasure — and from there all that’s left is for artsy, upper-middle-class Angelenos to be pushed out by more moneyed, less artsy New Yorkers and their cutely named toddler spawn.
Mixed up somewhere in all that is pizza gentrification. This phenomenon is slightly more meta than all the rest: An old-school pizza place is bought and revamped and becomes a new-school pizza place, while appealing to both the gourmet pretensions and the nostalgic instincts of a gentrifying population that grew up eating in old-school pizza places. Upscale pizza is nothing new — just ask Wolfgang Puck and Nancy Silverton. And not everything that’s fancy is a force of gentrification. But turning a cheap pizza joint in a newly expensive neighborhood into a pizza joint where you can sub out regular mozzarella for bufala mozzarella? That’s pizza gentrification.
And ugh, I can’t help it — I like it. I liked it when Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo did it at Jon & Vinny’s on Fairfax, replacing Damiano Pizza, and I like it at Cosa Buona in Echo Park, which replaced Pizza Buona. Yes, even the name was appropriated, a move on the part of chef-owner Zach Pollack that probably felt to him like a respectful nod to the past but to some undoubtedly seems like a co-opting of a history Pollack had no part in building.
What Pollack has had a hand in building is the more recent tradition of very good pizza in Los Angeles. (Gentrification aside, some cities have an abundance of great, cheap pizza; L.A. is not one of those cities.) As one of the opening chefs of Sotto (along with Steve Samson), Pollack had an obsession — which included importing a 15,000-pound Stefano Ferrara oven from Italy — that resulted in pizza many still believe to be the best in the city. When Pollack left Sotto to open Alimento in Silver Lake, he focused on his own brand of Cali-Italian cooking, which didn’t include pizza.
A longing to return to the heat and reward of a great pizza oven was certainly a factor in Pollack’s opening of Cosa Buona, but the original kernel of inspiration was the chicken Parmesan sandwich that he began serving at Alimento. The sandwich, which got an intensely positive reaction from customers, took all the elements of old-school chicken parm — battered and fried chicken, ham, melty cheese, soft bread — and ramped it up with high-quality ingredients and an excess of crispiness, saltiness and gooeyness. Pollack made it to satisfy his own hunger for the nostalgic flavors of Italian-American comfort food, but it kindled enough passion in his customers that he wondered if there might be potential for a whole restaurant based on that hunger. So he took over the Pizza Buona space on the corner of Sunset and Alvarado in Echo Park, renovated it in wood and slick black tile, and Cosa Buona was born.
There are lots of obvious comparisons to be made to Jon & Vinny’s, which is also a cheffy attempt to re-create and upgrade the family Italian-American restaurant, and some dishes are practically identical on first look. Cosa Buona’s meatball appetizer, served with burrata and marinara and a hunk of crispy, oily bread, differs in appearance from the version at Jon & Vinny’s only in the choice of creamy, milky cheese (Jon & Vinny’s meatballs come with ricotta). But Pollack’s meatballs are crumblier, more rustic. In general, Cosa Buona is aiming more for the pared-back simplicity of a neighborhood pizza joint: There’s no pasta (save a pasta salad appetizer); there are subs at lunchtime; the focus is on classic appetizers and pizza.
That means smoked mozzarella sticks and chicken wings slathered in a house-made “red hot” sauce that’s spicy but also fruity, the sweetness of the peppers shimmering throughout the sting of heat. Is there blue cheese sauce for dipping? Um, there’s gorgonzola sauce for dipping. It’s really good.
Also really good: a square stack of eggplant Parmesan, its layers so sticky and dense with sauce and cheese and eggplant smoosh that it’s basically a paragon of Italian-American eggplant greatness.
Unsurprisingly, the pizzas are wonderful — the crust dappled with just enough char and imbued with a mellow tang, the structure sturdy but stretchy. There’s no one pizza that’s obviously superior to all the rest, but I do recommend ordering the calzone, which is almost a pizza/salad hybrid, its contents of slightly wilted romaine in a caesar dressing spilling out of the crust along with a ton of capers and burrata. It oozes funk and crunch and freshness, and redefines the form in the best way possible.
Pollack can’t help sliding into slightly more creative territory here and there, as with the soft-boiled eggs tonnato, a snack of eggs sliced over a tangy, creamy tuna sauce. It’s delicious and beautifully plated and probably the only appetizer you really need before your pizza. But it’s decidedly outside the realm of things you might have found on the menu of a pizza joint in this neighborhood 10 years ago. It was also the first dish that highlighted a bit of a disconnect between the kitchen and the wait staff, who are eager and friendly but often aren’t prepared for anything beyond very basic questions. Asked about the eggs tonnato, a waitress told us, “It’s eggs … with a kind of fish thing? It’s fish.”
There’s a short and fun wine list that’s meant to pair well with the food but also cater to the tastes of folks who might want something fairly simple to go with their pizza — yet most of the staff can only talk about the glass pours, and even there they seem awfully shaky. Fortunately, a manager on hand was happy to come by and discuss the ins and outs of the whole list.
And, of course, it’s expensive. If you order two pizzas, two desserts (or appetizers) and two glasses of wine — and once you add tax and the automatic 18 percent service charge — you’re easily looking at a $100-plus meal. It’s not exactly your casual family Tuesday-night dinner at the pizzeria. But neither is the food consistent with that kind of night — it’s much, much better, right down to the classic cheesecake served with Luxardo cherries. It’s the food of your youth but better and the pizza of your adulthood (but also probably better).
Is this a good thing for the neighborhood? Well, it’s sure as hell not going to help lower your rent if you live nearby. But it will put you within walking distance of some of the city’s best pizza.
COSA BUONA | Three stars | 2100 W. Sunset Blvd., Silver Lake | (213) 908-5211 | cosabuona.com | Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m.; dinner: Sun., Mon., Wed.-Thu., 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 5:30-11:30 p.m. | Antipasti, $9-$15; pizzas $13-$19 | Beer and wine | Street and valet parking