Most Wednesday nights this year, Ines Barlerin Glaser’s pop-up Lupa Cotta takes over the back patio at Mandrake Bar in Culver City, turning pizzas one at a time in her live-fire Roccbox portable oven. After about 90 seconds, she pulls each nicely charred pie — puffier than a traditional Neapolitan, and with a little spring — from the Roccbox, handing it off to be delivered to someone in the dimly lit cocktail hangout.
No matter where she’s cooking, be it Mandrake, Roosterfish dive bar in Venice, or hipster natural wine bar-slash-pop-up haven Melody in Virgil Village, Glaser’s compact menu always includes a simple Bianco DiNapoli tomato-sauced Margherita, a honey-drizzled Pepperoni Party, and one market-inspired “fun pizza” like the Surfer Girl, a folded pizza topped with red sauce, whipped ricotta, carrot-top pesto, lemon zest, peppers and pistachio crumbs.
Glaser is one of a handful of underground pizza makers who have burst onto the scene in the past year and change, firing pies in unexpected places: bars and lounges that don’t usually serve food, for instance, or in parking lots. Drawing on the success of Zach Swemle and Marlee Blodgett’s La Morra, who shuttled custom-made Neapolitan-style pizza oven/trailer to regular gigs at East Hollywood’s Tabula Rasa and the now-shuttered Hayden in Culver City, these pizza-makers are braving the elements to make pies that can stand up to their fully built out (and therefore often pricier) restaurant counterparts.
Given LA’s deep tradition of street food, it’s not surprising that pizza is being made outdoors. What’s surprising about the trend is the challenges pizza itself can bring. For one, there’s the dough, which can be tricky to manage when considering natural elements like heat (of which Los Angeles has plenty) and dryness (ditto). And secondly, unlike the multitude of popular burger pop-ups around town, which require little more than a hot griddle, the pizza setup can be more complicated, especially when attempting a wood-fired oven.
“The schlepping of a pizzeria isn’t easy,” says Jack Ramunni of the free-wheeling pop-up Earth Pizza, whose crisp-bottomed thin-crust pies made with 00 flour (a very finely ground, powder-like flour, often used for pasta and pizza) include such psychedelically named creations as the Dancing Around the Sun (cherry tomato, garlic confit, black olives, Italian oregano). “The dough starts to get crazy. You don’t want to make pizzas with dough that’s melting or going too cold. You’re trying to control something you can’t control,” he explains.
Given all that, these pizza vendors have had to come up with some ingenious ways to be mobile. Ramunni and his Earth Pizza co-pilot, artist James Herman, built their own wood-fired pizza oven using kiln bricks and mud, getting instruction from YouTube tutorials and “old hippie books” like How to Build a Mud Oven. And they learned this while living in a communal Montecito Heights home where they first started hosting pizza gatherings. Once they took their pizza on the road, having done about 10 pop-ups in the past two years, they also built a custom trailer to take the mud brick oven off-site.
Or witness the ingenious, deceptively simple nightly setup of Eleodoro Lopez, whose Elio’s Wood Fire Pizza has been drawing crowds to a Sunset Blvd parking lot in Echo Park since early summer 2019. Lopez carts his wood-fired pizza oven in the back of his 2005 Toyota Tacoma pickup truck, where he fires up springy, bubbly thin-crust pies that start at only $10 for a vibrantly saucy cheese pizza. Most additional toppings, like pepperoni, sausage, pineapple and jalapenos, go for a buck each, while some, like arugula and burrata, bring a $2 charge. Once the pies are pulled hot and bubbling out of the oven and sliced in take-out boxes, customers can either take them to-go or eat them on the spot at fold-out tables set up in the parking lot.
Despite their casual set-ups, many of these pizza-makers come to their craft with chops. Lopez has worked in many kitchens around LA. After leaving the film world, Glaser went to pizza school in Naples and did a stint at Steve Samson’s beloved but now-closed Sotto before starting Lupa Cotta at the beginning of 2019. Fellow pizzaiolo and baker Hans Fama of Forno Fama, which made its LA debut at this year’s A Tutta Pizza Fest, honed his craft heading up the pizza menu at Felix before venturing out on his own. These days he makes crisp, cracker-thin Roman-style pizzas topped with everything from a dead simple tomato sauce (for the Rossa) to an Everything Bagel iteration that includes a fonduta made with Philly cream cheese, Parmesan, and heavy cream.
Heading into 2020, Glaser and Fama have their sights set on more pop-ups (venturing further to the East Side for Glaser, with some West Side plans in the works for Fama). And as for the sudden proliferation of street pizza around town, the makers have some theories.
“The pizza community here is surprisingly supportive,” says Glaser, who counts Pizzana’s Daniele Uditi, Justin De Leon from Appollonia’s Pizzeria and Noel Brohner from Slow Rise Pizza as mentors and friends. “And with the entertainment world here and the whole ‘follow your dreams’ mentality, LA fosters pop-ups and creativity.”
But maybe the reason is even more straightforward than that.
As Earth Pizza’s Herman puts it: “Pizza is everyone’s favorite food.”
Where to find underground pizzas in Los Angeles:
Elio’s Wood Fire Pizza: Open nightly at 2517 Sunset Blvd. from 6-10 p.m. Follow @elios.wood.fire.pizza for updates.