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How These Five Pizzerias in (And Around) the San Gabriel Valley Are Changing California-Style Pizza

The idea of the California-style pizza is an elusive one.

A dive down the Google rabbit hole linked to the phrase unsurprisingly takes you to areas of the upper crust, to the likes of high-profile, high P.R.-backed establishments like Chez Panisse and Wolfgang Puck. Then there is California Pizza Kitchen which even trademarked the term and built an empire on BBQ sauce and chicken breast Chicken Pizza. (The restaurant has roots in Studio City.)

However, what exactly does California-style pizza mean in 2018 for those of us who live east of the L.A. River in Los Angeles? 

I recommend that you point your curiosity to the San Gabriel Valley, where you might just find the answer to this pizza conundrum. Let us not forget, over 50 years ago, the area saw an onslaught of Italian-American immigrants establishing their eateries with various checkerboard-draped tablecloths that lived and died by the red sauce. While the cultural climate has vastly changed since then, the S.G.V. finds itself as a modern-day petri dish of what it means to be California Pizza.

Here are five pizzerias to get your California fix in the real Eastside.

“Avocado Festival” and the "Farmers Market" at The Luggage Room

The Luggage Room Pizzeria

Located in a former luggage room for a train station just off the “Del Mar” Metro Gold Line Stop in Pasadena, Luggage Room is known for its wide variety of wood-fired pies. It’s always flown low in the not-quite-traditional topping crust game in L.A. The crust is cooked perfectly with just the right amount of softness on the inside with equal amounts chewiness on the outside. It is dotted with the requisite charred bubbles around the edges. Their dough is made from a natural starter that is fermented overnight to provide that extra amount of sour flavor that is distinct in true sourdoughs.

The California-style star here is their “Avocado Festival,” whose base consists of stewed tomatoes, basil, lemon zest, and then topped with ripe cuts of avocados. While your first reaction might be to take pause at the idea of avocado on your pizza, before you know it, you find yourself ready to drop in with your avocado surfboard as you embark this cheesy wave, carving an individual path through each section of the slice. The “Farmers Market” is also a rotating selection of various local produce such as shaved bits of fennel, mushrooms, and blistered tomatoes to name a few. If you can't decide on just one, they run a “Neighborhood Nights” deal on Mondays and Tuesdays, which means that you get your second pie for just $5.

If that isn't an excuse for an impromptu pizza party, what is?

Rose City Pizza

Nestled into a sizeable shopping center on Rosemead Boulevard, R.C.P. sits in between such corporate honchos as Target and Cold Stone Creamery. Though don’t confuse this pizza joint with the juggernauts next door, it is fiercely independent. The menu showcases all the finest aspects different immigrant cultures in Southern California. Exhibit A is their toppings, whose origins serve as a smorgasbord of influences ranging from Italian-American, Mexican, and Asian.  These options effortlessly combine to form R.C.P.’s own style of California pizza. Yes, they have an “Al-Pastor” pizza, with slices marinated pork and crunchy burnt edges, because they actually have a trompo where they shave it from daily. That pizza also has fresh pineapple — from that same trompo — and radish, tied together by ribbons of jalapeño aioli.

The “Elote” pizza combines hot buttered corn kernels, that sit atop their thin crisp crust, sprinkled with parmesan cheese, and then drizzled with their spicy mayo concoction made with Sriracha and lime. If you're feeling extra that day you can also request a side topping of Flaming Hot Cheetos dust to top you off. The walls are adorned with street art as well skateboarding. The mid to late 20 and 30-year-old patrons tend to gather around the tables to enjoy their meals, coupled with the pint from their well-curated selection of local craft brews, while they upload pictures and videos to either Snapchat or Instagram stories.

The Margarita pizza at Pizza of Venice is $5 on Mondays

Pizza of Venice

P.O.V. is in a class all its own. The Altadena-located small pizzeria sits on the northern end of Fair Oaks Blvd. Their ever-changing seasonal menu has become the stuff of legend, especially among the locals. You'll notice the dramatic difference in their California-style pizza as soon as soon as you see a P.O.V. pie for the first time, with its oblong shape and almost cracker-like consistency in the crust. But to call it a thin-crust pizza would somehow be selling it short. Make no mistake that isn't your average pie.

The Italian Stallion on the right

Their “Italian Stallion” is just one example in terms of innovation behind each pie they have to offer with their meatballs made from beef, veal, and wild boar which are sliced thin allowing for pockets of flavor with each bite. The Margarita pizza is $5 bucks every Monday and it comes with fresh ingredients sourced from the Farmers Market, such as tomato wedges and red onion affixed to the velvety blanket of their unique cheese blend. P.O.V. also offers weekend specials such as smoked brisket, ribs, gumbo and braised lamb pizzas. This is the kind of spot that you just have to be there in person to experience it.

Hello Pizza

Hello Pizza

First off, Hello Pizza isn't located exactly in the 626, but rather just slightly farther northwest in the city of La Cañada Flintridge. Nonetheless, you'll find one of the finest examples of Korean style pizza in Los Angeles at the spot. Three words: sweet potato crust. It is essentially a folded traditional wheat dough with an injection of sweet potato mousse inside the actual crust. The “Potato Gold” is the signature pizza here, topped with fried potato wedges, a two-inch slices of bacon, and cheddar cheese. Below this Korean-Italian-American beauty is something that could be equated to discovering a pathway to a multiverse. There are small bits of ground beef, mushroom, corn, and onion, which then all get covered with a chemtrail-like design of sour cream throughout the pie.

While it might sound like a lot, it is, but the beauty of the Potato Gold is that it somehow it all perfectly works. Maybe it can serve as the perfect metaphor for Los Angeles and all its mouthwatering diversity it has to offer today?


Zelo Gourmet Pizzas

The pizza at Zelo's tends to defy any real type of category. The best way to describe it to someone who hasn't had it before would be a semi-deep dish style made with a cornmeal crust. Tucked away on a sleepy section of Foothill Boulevard in the city of Arcadia with its plain-looking signage, you wouldn't think that you are encountering one of the most unique pie experiences the region has to offer and yet there you are.

The go-to option, as the menu would tell you, is their “Corn” pizza mixed with their housemade sausage. These two featured players set the stage for the other ingredient in the mix: balsamic-marinated roasted red onions, caramelized to a state of excellence. This combination of flavors makes you totally forget that the pizza itself doesn't contain any amounts of tomato sauce and therefore any notions of authenticity.

Fortunately for all of us, authenticity doesn’t really matter with California-style pizza.  

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