Ed LaDou changed the way we think about pizza. He's best known for inventing California pizza, also known as "designer pizza," which operates under the premise that anything you might put on a plate could go onto a pizza. He was Wolfgang Puck's first pizza chef at Spago when it opened in 1982, and he consulted with California Pizza Kitchen when that chain was getting started in the 1980s.
I had him on my list of people to talk to for the story I am researching for Wine Spectator on American pizza, and I was doubly sorry when I learned of his untimely death in January. When I was in Los Angeles recently, I went to Caioti Pizza Café, the little pizzeria he opened in Studio City, just over the hills from Hollywood. Last year, knowing that he had only a short time to live, he hired a chef, Erik McBeth, and taught him what he knew about making his creative pizzas. McBeth continues to run the kitchen and Kerry LaDou, Ed's widow, the restaurant.
"I learned that there's nothing that couldn't go on a pizza," says McBeth, sliding into a chair across from my table, strewn with the remnants of three pizzas. "I was used to what Ed called the 10 staples of pizza." You know, pepperoni, mushrooms, factory mozzarella, etc.
When LaDou came up with an idea, McBeth recalls, he would go into a corner of the kitchen, put together a pizza and bake it, without telling anyone what he was doing. If he didn't like it, he would make another, and another, until he got it the way he wanted. Then he would let others taste it.
"He used product I've never seen before," says McBeth. "The walk-in (refrigerator) was full of weird ingredients, and he made them taste great."
Among LaDou's most popular ideas, barbecued chicken pizza, a staple at the Wolfgang Puck Express and California Pizza Kitchen chains, is a different thing at Caioti. Here the amount of long-cooked, super-tender chicken on the pizza is modest, just enough to tease the palate. And the chicken is pulled, instead of diced, so it absorbs more sauce in its crannies. It mingles nicely with smoked gouda and mozzarella, thinly sliced red onion and, sprinkled on after the pizza comes out of the oven, cilantro leaves.
Purists may deride the idea of putting barbecue sauce on a pizza, but it's no more sharp or intense of flavor than an Italian Napoletana or puttanesca, which can incorporate anchovies, garlic and chiles into the tomatoes.
Among the other offerings at Caioti on my recent visit (the repertoire changes from week to week) was one featuring Jerusalem artichokes, precooked and sliced, with crumbled bacon, strips of red pepper and smoky cheese. I liked that one more than a margherita, which was listed on the menu as an "old world" pizza but given a California twist by putting fresh tomato slices over a mozzarella pizza seasoned with oregano and garlic.
Although his first priority is to maintain LaDou's popular pizzas as the master made them, McBeth says the late chef urged him to let his own muse take over. "He gave me carte blanche to do whatever I wanted," McBeth says. "I came up with a carbonara pizza that he just loved."
I wish I could say that Caioti is a great pizzeria, but it's really just a nice, friendly neighborhood joint on a pretty stretch of Tujunga Avenue in an L.A. suburb. It's as famous for its salad dressing, which is reputed to induce labor in overdue pregnant women, as for the creative pizzas. Kerry LaDou, Ed's widow, keeps a stack of scrapbooks outlining these personal stories next to the phone where they take the pizza orders.
But if you want a taste of recent pizza history, it's worth a visit for the barbecued chicken pizza—and whatever else Eric McBeth might come up with.
Paul Northrop — Thousand Oaks — March 19, 2008 3:42pm ET
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