We had been to Pizzeria Mozza in Newport Beach a few months ago and, at the time, I described our lunch as just about the best lunch I had ever had. I try to use superlatives sparingly so, from my perspective, this was obviously an extraordinary dining spot.
I also knew that when three culinary superstars come together the results are bound to be exceptional. It’s hard to go wrong with Nancy Silverton, Mario Batali, and Joe Bastianich. As if all this wasn’t enough, Pizzeria Mozza’s San Diego location in the newly renovated historic Headquarters at Seaport District was bound to be an exciting place to explore before and after dining.
As a result, my expectations were about as high as they could be when we walked in the door of Pizzeria Mozza in San Diego for the spring luncheon of the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association. I quickly learned that my expectations were completely justified. It’s no wonder Mark Bittman of the New York Times cited Pizzeria Mozza as serving him the best meal he had on a recent trip to San Diego. The upscale setting is cheerful and congenial, a perfect place to serve rustic, Italian cuisine. When you walk in the door, you expect to luxuriate in the ambiance the restaurant has created with its inviting decor and you will not be disappointed.
Of course, the welcoming Orchard Blossom cocktail served to us by the restaurant’s sommelier, LaMont Schroeder, set the tone for a great meal. The restaurant has an innovative, tempting list of cocktails and this one, made of gin, St. Germain, peach schnapps, lime juice and apple cinnamon house-made bitters, was a refreshing hit with all of us. We agreed that it should be their signature cocktail this spring.
We enjoyed meeting the Chef, John Stenbakken, who described the dishes he served us and emphasized his staff’s commitment to sustainability and using local, seasonal ingredients as much as possible. Pizzeria Mozza is green certified and has a strong focus on composting and recycling. The Chef also pointed out that while the food is simply presented, each dish is the result of a lot of thought and preparation.
Perhaps my favorite dish of the afternoon was the first one: Pane Bianco, an artisanal bread which was served warm, drizzled with olive oil. It literally melted in our mouths and set the tone for the wonderful dishes to follow. Pizzeria Mozza features exceptional bakery items, in great part because one of its founders, Nancy Silverton, was the original founder of the famous La Brea Bakery. The bread was served with a savory antipasti of Mozza caprese with slow-roasted tomatoes, pesto and creamy mozzarella.
We were next treated to two different bruschettas, both innovative and delicious. One was a toasted crostini topped with creamy chicken liver pate with capers, pancetta, roasted garlic, lemon zest and olive oil. The other topping was a white bean puree, alla Toscana, with saba, a reduction of grape must (grape byproducts) that gave it a succulent flavor.
The Insalata Rosso that followed had a unique combination of textures and flavors, with crunchy radicchio, bacon bits, pecorino Romano, and the final glorious touch—soft boiled egg. This was all lightly dressed with a fresh, lemon vinaigrette. We all devoured this creative salad with its surprising flavors.
Of course, we couldn’t leave without sampling pizza. Pastry chef, Julie Sinning, talked to us about how she had learned Nancy Silverton’s secret pizza dough recipe while she was studying in Italy. This recipe has never been written down but is held in the memory of a select few who have it tucked away in their brains. The dough is made twice daily right in the restaurant from a sourdough starter. The process is challenging and the dough is temperamental, but the resulting crispy, flavorful crust is worth the effort. (But don’t bump into it while it’s rising.) The special pizza we were served featured kale, ricotta salata, cacao di roma, mozzarella and coppa (bits of pork shoulder cured with chili flakes). We savored every bite of this unique pizza, which I will definitely order it again. (Who ever heard of kale on pizza, but it was scrumptious.)
The beverage menu features Italian beers and San Diego-area handcrafted beers from such well-known breweries as Iron Fist, Lost Abbey, Stone and Mother Earth. (If you can’t make up your mind, you can try a sampling of three or four beers.) The wine list is exclusively Italian, some of it from Joe Bastianich’s Italian vineyard. The sommelier recommended a light, floral white wine to accompany our lunch on this warm spring day. A few of us thoroughly enjoyed a 2011 Lazio Bianco “Coenobium” Monastero Trappiste Vitorchiano, especially when we learned it was made by Trappist nuns. It was refreshing and light enough to not overpower our food while still enhancing the diverse combinations of flavors in our dishes.
Our Dolci course was the restaurant’s signature dessert, Butterscotch Budino, a caramelized brown sugar custard with whipped crème fraiche, seasoned with Maldon sea salt, and topped with a rosemary pine nut biscotti. We were also treated to two luscious, light and fluffy gelatos made from scratch—hazelnut and pineapple-coconut.
After eating, we enjoyed walking around the Headquarters, which was originally constructed in 1939 in the classical Mediterranean Revival and Pueblo architectural styles typical of Southern California. At the time, it was the largest police headquarters in the country and included several jail cells, a shooting range and courtrooms. In 1987, the Headquarters closed and in 1988 the complex was put on the National Registry of Historic Places, but it wasn’t until last fall that the complex was turned into an appealing shopping and dining destination with a variety of enticing restaurants and specialty boutiques. You can even tour the original jail cell area (but be careful or you might get locked up, as a few of us did after our wonderful meal). We were also pleased to learn that the area is dog-friendly and your dog can even sit with you on a variety of outdoor patios while you dine.
Pizzeria Mozza, which is open seven days a week for lunch and dinner, has an inviting outdoor patio and also an enticing wine/cocktail bar. It is located at 789 W. Harbor Drive in the heart of the Headquarters. Try walking in or make reservations by calling 619-376-4353. Other locations are in Singapore, Los Angeles, and Newport Beach. You are in for an exceptional dining experience that you won’t soon forget.