789 W. Harbor Drive, Downtown San Diego
It was so easy to bear Pizzeria Mozza all the ill will in the world. For starters, people go bonkers over the one in Los Angeles, and, as any true San Diegan knows, nothing good comes out of LaLaLand. Then, there was the buzz surrounding the place, complete with the heavily Photoshop-filtered snaps of the dining room. Sorry, but hyping something up like that sets up disappointment 95% of the time.
And then there’s the other five percent; those rare occasions when something lives up to the hype and then some. Mozza, by the power of food alone, met the challenge of its own reputation.
Nothing’s perfect, and the cramped dining room at Pizzeria Mozza, done with overzealous love for all things red, might as well be tacked onto a Midwestern Holiday Inn. The designers jammed too many tables into the narrow space, which would have all the charm of a Papa Johns if not for the nice linen napkins and well-dressed servers classing the place up.
But end the grouching there, because as soon as the food hits the table, it’s time to slip into a cocoon of gastro-bliss and forget that the next table is mere inches away.
Fried goat cheese atop a bed of lentils sets the bar high for rustic, Italian simplicity. How does one extract such flavor from mere lentils? By loading them up with veal (?) stock and cured pork, of course! The legumes swim in a succulent gravy of their own design, cut by the tang of goat cheese.
Toast piled high with chicken liver paté sets off alarms. Surely, such a mass of liver will be overkill, but Mozza’s paté transcends its ingredients. Fragrant chunks of garlic, salty guanciale, the green tang of parsley, and subtle hints of caper all work together in perfect harmony to form an intricate and exceptional dish that could be eaten with a fork, out of a jar, like candy. It’s almost disgusting how good the stuff is.
And then there’s the pizza. The sauce could be tomato jam, reduced with loving affection to incredible, pungent flavor. The crust, flavorful and obviously loaded with olive oil, might as well be laced with heroin for all the difficulty in not overdosing on it and dying beswooned at your table.
A simple concoction — white anchovies, Fresno chiles, and red sauce — gets the fishy sweetness in perfect concert with a lemony tang and mild spiciness. It’s near-perfect balance at work.
“Breakfast” pizza with bacon, potatoes, and an egg puts simplicity forward. The slices of potato may have been soaked in a buttery ocean for all the fatty, salty flavor that they pack in. The egg, cracked atop the little ‘za and finished in the oven, spreads perfectly around the pizza. The bacon is, naturally, of the finest sort.
If there’s one complaint about the food, it’s that every dish seduces the palate by way of fatty, salty goodness. Sometimes, the vast quantities of olive oil drizzled on everything come off as just a bit much. It’s a small bit, however, and words like “great” and “awesome” come to mind. That’s “great” in the sense of Peter the..., and “awesome” in the sense of literally inspiring awe in the beholder.
The food is that good, and it manages with neither pomp nor posturing. Elegance happens because each dish takes a few elements and puts them in meticulous balance. That, right there, is the essence of Italian cooking at its very best.