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Main St.-Abbot Kinney Pizza Parlors ~ Santa Monica/Venice

11:24 AM PDT on September 3, 2008

I thought I had my mind made up before embarking on a self-guided pizza tour from Main St. to Abbot Kinney, convinced I already knew the exact standing I'd put Bravo Pizzeria, Dagwood's, Wildflour, and Abbot Kinney Pizza Co. in, having dipped my 'buds into their pie so often. What I found under the TACO-scope shocked and awed me to be sure!

The SoCal pizza I grew up on was excellent as far as I can muster any memories past last night. But I can't play deaf to the volumes of criticism that we don't have a good slice in this region. I spent many years in New York's Lower East Side as a broke vegetarian, gobbling up pizza the way Rush Limbaugh downed Oxys. While a slice at your typical random spot went from shitty to divine, it is undeniable that those East Coasters know what they're doing with pizza ("It's the wata, the wata!"). At Gotham's truest and best pizzerias, --Lombardi's, Grimaldi's, Totonno's, Isabella's, DiFara's, Franny's, and Patsy's-- there is a craft and dedication to pizza that knows no equal out West, as far as I've tasted. And weighing in at 413 lbs., I have tried them all. Except Hollywood's Mozza. If anyone wants to take me, I promise I have excellent tableside manners (I'm talking to you, Ms. Kunis).

#1. Bravo Pizzeria ~ 2400 Main St. Santa Monica, CA 90405

First stop was Bravo Pizzeria, the only local to be knighted with a "pizzeria" title. Bravo busts a real New York pedigree, with amiable owner Peter being a co-owner of Ferrara's, a famous centurion bakery with its start in Little Italy. He and his bro have a couple of places on the wesssside. Bravo gets a gold star for having actual Italian-American fare, like top-notch cannolis, regularly flown in from NYC, as well as the kinds of subs and pastas you would find at a red-checker tablecloth spot in the old neighborhood. It's a true Cali spot, you can tell the tatted-up servers here know how to duck-dive.

Bravo's pizza racks up points for a tasty, unique sauce with deep herbal notes,and a thin cheese layer of perfect consistency. It is an ideal hybrid between the comfort of our contemporary slice and an old world thin-crust pie, with the basics loosely toppled together, creating a delicious, soft mixture in the slice. The crust is rustic, fragile, and crisp, with any doughy pieces airy and easily chewable, making it entirely crushable to the end. This damn good slice pays homage to the heritage of pizza while standing along and above modern competition. But Bravo really excels over its neighbors with great ingredients and a dedication to freshness. A slice with onions and peppers burst with the pent-up juices of ripe fruit, making my chin a little wet.

My favorite house-specialty is the "Cheese Explosion," a medley of creamy ricotta, house-smoked mozzarella, fontina, aged pecorino, farm-fresh spinach, and little nubs of raw garlic that by design or accident get stuffed with cheese. This results in an ofay slice inundated with flavor and warmth, hurtling past your typical slap-dash, white cheese triangle. Bravo, Bravo Pizzeria!!

#2. Dagwood's ~ 202 Main St. Venice, CA 90291

Dagwood's is the local pizza joint that seems most like a chain, just a few steps up from Chuck E. Cheese in decor, with its loud yellow walls and groovy sign. Indeed it has a few outlets in L.A. Perhaps it might surprise people that, for my money, Dagwood's has the best plain slice in town. It is perfectly reminiscent of the best shop slices I had while drunk and stumbling home at 4AM in New York. Also, the environment makes me feel like a kid in a pizza parlor, without a stand-up version of Double Dragon to munch my quarters, but you can read the Onion and watch TV. The staff, some of whom are heirs to Dagwood's throne, are generally cool, young, and perky, good-looking kids who'd look comfortable in the sand themselves.

The slice has a rich sauce that is not a bit overpowering. I like that there is plenty of it, as well as a solid, delicious crust and a durable layer of cheese with a well-balanced consistency, taste, and coat. Dagwood's is the kind of spot that calls to you when you're famished, there's something nostalgic and refreshing about the room and vegging out there feels right. Plus, one big ol' slice is generally enough to get your mojo back and working. Although also good with toppings, I'll stick to Bravo for that, and Dagwood's for my cheese and pepperoni. Then when it comes to subs, I would swing back towards Dagwood's, as they build long and lean toasted subs with all the right Italian-style deli dressing. Those are the bomb! I feel Dagwood's is the most under-rated, and along with Bravo, best pizza places of this neighborhood.

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#3. Abbot's Pizza Co. ~ 1407 Abbot Kinney Blvd. Venice, CA 90291

Surely the above statement will bother the many devotees of Abbot's Pizza Co., possibly the most popular pizza joint in the area. It is always full of those Abbot Kinney people striking at bohemianism with all the subtlety of Meg's Ryan's plastic surgeon: Aaaand here we have the punk mom! And the skinny guy in the wife-beater and porkpie hat with his longboard skate! And please give it up for that weird-looking, bald German dude who has bike clothes, but no bike!! Location is any eateries' best asset and Abbot's is smack in the weird-cum-trendy action.

Like the Dodgers, hey and the Lakers too, Abbot's has intrinsic talent but very inconsistent, frustrating performance. I have had some truly wonderful pizza here on some days and left cursing it on others. This is the west coast mecca of creative pies with concepts and wacky, gourmet ingredients that has been praised and worshipped again and again in written words. Unfortunately, the avocado-bonanza of the great salad slice or the yummy tequila lime Popeye chicken pesto slice doesn't make up for other slices that have come into my hands soggy or even barely warm, flavorless and underwhleming. The slices seem to sit around all day in a display case that is impossible to see through to determine what they happen to have. The mostly indifferent counter service doesn't help to make things any clearer.

You can also go for plain slices and build your own "traditional New York" pizza.  Way more than Bravo, Abbot's has a very potent sauce, with a lil' too much herb for my tastes. I like a generous sauce, but something here tastes canned, and frankly, the abundance of the stuff seems a cover-up for some flavor that the slice lacks on its own merits. The oft-ballyhooed bagel-based crusts underwhelm me as well, as nice as they look I like sesame seeds and pppy seeds, but on my bagels, this is like a tough bialy with too much flour. Though the undercrust is nice and soft, the whole thing is a little too doughy for me to feel sublime.

I would recommend trying your luck at Abbot's. You might strike gold and get a slice of five-onion, three-cheese pesto pizza or goat-cheese and Shitake mushroom slice that is transcendent. Then again, you might be adding a couple of bad words to your vocabulary on the way out when you could have gone elsewhere. Do you feel lucky? Well...do you punk?!

#4. Wildflour Pizza ~ 2807 Main St. Santa Monica, CA 90405

Wildflour is the pizza joint that I want to like best here, but whose pizza falls shortest of any high expectations. It has the best atmosphere of these places; feeling like a true pizza joint, a sawdust floor lays under what looks like an ancient pub of wooden walls and handmade window frames. I'm a sucker for art and murals and Wildflour has this killer one behind the register of cartoon characters acting dirty and hoo-riding in a lo-lo. Plus, nestled in a tiny shack that's just had a new paint job (bright as yellow!), it is the kind of classic, adorable small house we are seeing ripped from our city's popular neighborhoods again and again and again (down the street "The Dogtown Station" lofts are opening up in exchange).

With a plain slice and one of their margherita slices in hand, my initial disappointment came at the size of the slices, which were about the same price as the others, all hanging around $2.50 or so. These were a little wide up top, but chiquito nonetheless, like the tuna-cans of the pizza world. The plain slice honestly tasted a little better than what Mama Celeste has been cooking in my kitchen for decades. it is like Dodger Stadium pizza, with a too-thick, raw-ish undercrust that is possibly made from whole-wheat. It is not bad per se, but it is not remotely remarkable.

A good margherita slice needs no sauce of course, the fresh ingredients on top providing all the flavor necessary. This margherita slice get points for the fresh taste of the tomatoes and its fried garlic, but would have been a lot better if it were on a crust thinner than a sponge. I'm actually in doubt as to whether Wildflour makes their own pizza, it seems store-bought, with the 'fresh' ingredients, while tasty, more reminiscent of Wolfgang Puck's frozen pizza. There is a lot on the Wildflour menu in terms of fast Italian food which I've never tasted, and they have a lot of character. In terms of pizza though, they get shattered by the neighbors.

I'm Having Conclusions...

Most of these places make some sort of claim to repping New York. What I find funny is that at all four, asking just for "a slice" got me puzzled looks, revealing their Cali-osity ("A slice of what?" they ask). Maybe we'll fare better on that query at L.A.'s newest Noo Yawk transplant, Joe's Pizza, which just planted its feet among the palms of Broadway after a reign on Bleecker St. in Greenwich Village for decades.

Many of these slices have been called the city's best pizza before. I'd be more than interested in what other TACO-hounds think and I encourage the city to make their way to Venice and Santa Monica to try these for themselves.

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