The First Annual East Los Angeles Pizza-Off
Photos by Gary Mecija
It all started with a simple top ten list. Now many months later it was finally put to the thest. After several botched attempts and weeks of poor planning, the first annual East Los Angeles Pizza Off took place last evening at Nicci’s house in Echo Park. A lot of planning and a lot of hard work went into creating this event, so before I even begin describing exactly what happened, I would like to thank Nicci, Nate, Ilya and Tom for hosting the event. I’d also like to thank Pat, Shaun, Nate (again), Nicci (again) and Erin for pitching in and buying pizza pies. Thank you to Quiggs, Mark, and Gary for supplying alcohol. Thanks Gary for photographing the event. Thanks to whoever else I’m forgetting for casting votes and making this the first of what will surely become an amazing annual event. We couldn’t have had a better, livelier crowd. Everyone was there to serve a higher purpose — I think we were all cognizant of that fact — and it helped the competition run smoothly and efficiently. Most of all, everyone had fun chatting and bantering about their favorite and worst slices, and if we’re going to change what pizza in Los Angeles is, open dialog is definitely the first step towards realization of a common goal.
The rules were simple: find the best pizza in the Echo Park / Silverlake / Los Feliz / Eagle Rock / Highland Park area. We had seven competing restaurants/parlors. We tried our best to hide the identities of the pies, but hardcore fans can always tell their favorite pizza, even when its box is covered in torn out pages from a phone book.
We tried to ensure that all the pies arrived at the house simultaneously so that they would be judged under the same conditions, but late guests to the party caused us to slow down the process of beginning the next round of taste tests. As we approached pies five and six, we realized that they had become quite cool, so we threw them in the oven for a few minutes, just to get them close to the freshness of the other pies. I don’t believe that this skewed the results of the competition. Pie seven arrived fresh at the tail-end of the contest, so that might have had something to do with its scores. Nevertheless, it was a much sought-after pie we could not procure earlier in the evening, so we didn’t want to exclude it from the event.
That said, here are the logistics: We had 12 judges tasting seven pizzas. Our palates were cleansed with three types of beer (Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat, Stella Artois, and Peroni), and two wines (white and red). The pizzas were judged on the following criteria: appearance, sauce, crust, consistency, and an overall grade. The first four categories were scored on a scale of 1-to-5, and the overall grade was on a scale of 1-to-20. In hindsight, I think this turned out to be a really bad idea, because some people were extremely lazy in their grading approach. For example, on pie seven, one person circled all fives and then twenty. That just shows a lack of a objectivity (or someone was under the influence of too much pizza to think clearly). Similarly, there were some ridiculously stupid scoring choices, like the person who gave a pie a five in one category, but their overall score was only a 2. Since this was the first event of its kind ever, we were sure to have some flaws in the system. Hopefully these kinks will be worked out the next time around. And there will be a next time. And you will all be invited.
Let’s talk about the pizzas and the results. If you don’t care about comments or individual scores, scroll down to see the result matrix.
Pie #1 – Casa Bianca (Eagle Rock) – I think some people graded Casa Bianca a bit too conservatively, because it was the first pie of the night, and no one wanted to overrate the first pie they tasted. That said, Casa Bianca’s slice scored a 1.92 in appearance, which earned it last place overall in the category. It scored a 2.33 in sauce, good for 5th place overall (tie). The crust was a solid 3, which gave it 3rd place. A slice’s consistency scored 2.8, which gave it 3rd place. I’m pretty sure this is because no one knew what the hell consistency meant. I described it as “mouthfeel,” while Mark described it as texture. The overall score for Casa Bianca was 9.08, which in my opinion is way too harsh on a scale of 1-to-20.
Pie # 2 – Folliero’s (Highland Park) – The scores for Folliero’s were very consistent across the board, which is something that cannot be said for any of the other pies in the competition. Considering some people were very harsh, the scores were very uniform. The appearance of Folliero’s slice scored an average of 2.42, ranking it fifth. The sauce was 2.67, good for 3rd place. Crust was a 2.67 as well, but only good enough for 5th place. Consistency was 2.75, a 4th place score. Overall, the score for Folliero’s was a 9.23, which in my opinion was also criminally low for any of the pizzas we tried tonight. If the average score on a scale of 1-5 was between 2.5 and 3, one would expect the overall score to be closer to 12 than 9. Oh well. Comments on the Folliero’s ballots included, “Tasty!” and “Mmm…cheesy”.
*Note* This raises a good point that, in hindsight, exposes a fatal flaw in the judging. People simply did not understand the weight that each number actually had in determining the results. For example, it’s baffling that Casa Bianca had top-3 finishes in two categories, and was voted the second-worst pizza of the night, while Nicky D’s had only one top-3 finish and yet it placed 3rd overall. Liberal use of 1s and 5s, and especially low rankings in the overall category, ruined the chances of some of these pizzas to see even moderate results. In my opinion, it was a shame that so many pies finished with overall scores of less than 10 (or 50% if you’re grading on a 1-100 scale). None of them were that bad, and I expected to see many more scores in the 13-16 range than the 7-9 range. We will get these kinks worked out for the next competition.
Pie #3 – Tomato Pie (Los Feliz) – Pretty much everybody who helped plan the event assumed Tomato Pie would score the worst of all the pizzerias in the competition. Admittedly, I quite enjoy their “Mr. White” pie, especially when topped with Italian sausage. I’ve never had their plain pie before, but the general distaste for the eatery definitely led us to believe that it would not fare well in the competition. We were all correct in our predictions. The average score for appearance was 2.25, putting it in 6th place. The sauce averaged a 1.83 — last place. The crust averaged a score of 1.91, which was also a last place ranking. The consistency scored a 2.08, which gave it 6th place. The overall score for Tomato Pie’s pizza averaged a 7.27, which if you were grading it on a scale of 1-100% would be roughly a 36%, or the same score I got on my 8th grade Algebra I final exam. Again I find that to be a low score, even though I thought it was the worst pie of the evening. Comments on the Tomato Pie ballots included, “Tastes like the Little Building,” which I believe is an Emerson College-related response, and one person just wrote “Fail.”
Pie #4 – Il Capriccio (Los Feliz) – Il Capriccio was a bit of an underdog in the competition. Many of the judges had never eaten there before, and quite frankly we didn’t even know its pie was going to compete until a few hours before the event. So, how did it fare? The appearance was 4th best overall with an average score 3.08. The sauce averaged a rating of 2.5, or 4th place. The crust scored a 2.54, sixth place. Consistency was 2.71, good for 5th place. Overall, the average score for Il Capriccio was a 9.83. Here’s where the low scores really come into light. There was one comment written on an Il Capriccio ballot. It said, “Blah!”
The first four pies of the night all “failed,” as none of them received an overall grade better than what amounted to a 50% score. Either that says a lot for the sub-par quality of pizza in Los Angeles (which it probably doesn’t), or the judges were unusually harsh towards these pies. Personally I think it’s the latter, but who the hell am I to say, I can find something good in pretty much any pizza.
Pie #5 – Hard Times Pizza Co. (Los Feliz) – Hard Times has many fans among the judges, so we knew it would be tough for some people to put aside their biases and vote objectively. The scores for Hard Times slice were generally positive, either because it really is good, or because it was recognized by those who enjoy it. Furthermore, this pie was re-heated and served warm, which may have affected its scores. It earned second place votes in every category. The appearance scores averaged 4.0, the sauce averaged 3.17, the crust averaged 3.08, the consistency 3.46. Overall, it averaged a 13.13 total score. One person wrote on their Hard Times ballot, “Tasty!”
Pie #6 – Nicky D’s (Silverlake) – Nicky D’s was another pie like Il Capriccio. Not many people judging the contest had tried it before. Again, it was served slightly re-heated, which may have affected its scores. Nicky D’s appearance earned it 3rd place with an average score of 3.7. The sauce was 5th place with a 2.33 score, the crust was 4th place worthy with a 2.83. Somehow, its consistency managed to drop way down to 2.17, which gave it the worst “mouthfeel” of all. But it’s overall score was 11.92, which is pretty high given the results of the first four pies, but really low in the grand scheme of things, considering the range of possible scores went as high as 20. Conservative judging? Or bad judging? You decide. One person wrote on their Nicky D’s ballot, “Spit and then shit.”
Pie #7 – Two Boots (Echo Park) – People might have been tired at the end of the competition after eating so much pizza, but our fresh “bonus” pie managed to score exceedingly high marks from all the judges. It swept the competition, winning every category. Appearance scores averaged 4.36, sauce was 3.54, crust was 4.54, consistency was 4.0, and overall was a 16.45. One person wrote on their ballot for Two Boots, “I am going to throw up,” but I think that was a response to all the pizza they’d eaten, not specifically the Two Boots slice.
|1st ANNUAL EAST LOS ANGELES PIZZA-OFF! RESULTS|
||4.36 (1)||3.54 (1)||4.54 (1)||4.00 (1)||16.45 (1)|
|2||Hard Times||4.00 (2)||3.17 (2)||3.08 (2)||3.46 (2)||13.13 (2)|
|3||Nicky D’s||3.70 (3)||2.33 (5)||2.83 (4)||2.17 (7)||11.92 (3)|
||3.08 (4)||2.50 (4)||2.54 (6)||2.71 (5)||9.83 (4)|
|5||Folliero’s||2.52 (5)||2.67 (3)||2.67 (5)||2.75 (4)||9.23 (5)|
|6||Casa Bianca||1.92 (7)||2.33 (5)||3.00 (3)||2.80 (3)||9.08 (6)|
|7||Tomato Pie||2.25 (6)||1.83 (6)||1.91 (7)||2.08 (6)||7.27 (7)|
No matter how you calculate it, the results are the same. If you add up the individual scores and average those, or average the averages we came up with, they still all rank the same. No, the irony is not lost on me that a middle-of-the-road (if that!) New York pizza chain absoutely demolished all these start-up pizza places in Los Angeles. This sweeping victory for Two Boots says horrible things about West Coast pizza.
In case you’re wondering how I voted, my individual ballot looked like this: Two Boots (5, 4, 4, 5, 17), Folliero’s (3, 3, 3, 4, 15), Casa Bianca (4, 2, 4, 4, 13), Nicky D’s (3, 2, 3, 4, 13), Hard Times (4, 2, 2, 3, 13) and Tomato Pie (4, 2, 1, 2, 9).
So there you have a it. A lot of confusing numbers and a lot of information to process. As I stated earlier, I think the competition was very well received by all those who attended, and we’re already planning how to improve next year’s pizza-off. As for those pizzerias that didn’t win this year, now is your chance to step up your game. You see what people liked and what they didn’t like, this is the best and most-detailed customer feedback you’re going to receive, perhaps ever.
Oh, and by the way, if you’re one of the places in the competition and you maybe get a phone call on this date next year ordering one cheese pie, and someone instructs you to “make it good and get here quick,” you might want to think twice about where your pizza is heading…next year is going to blow this year’s competition away. New rules, new format, new scoring system. We’re gonna take this thing global…in East LA terms, I guess.
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