LA PIZZA THAT DOESN’T SUCK?
By Chris Nieratko
I lived in LA for four years at the turn of the century. It was a different time: The country was confused by Reagan’s chimpanzee seated behind the desk in the Oval Office; our world was rattled to its core on 9/11; and hope was still years away. But there are some basic values that have stood true since the birth of this great nation, and back in 2001 we held to them like the last life preservers keeping democracy afloat. These undeniable truths are 1.) Polish jokes never get old, 2.) as Americans we can bomb or blow up anything we like whenever we like, 3.) and if you order pizza outside of the New York metropolitan area it will suck. (Sorry, Chicago. Nice try, though.) Nowhere in this country is that last rule more evident than in LA. During my years there I tried each and every pizzeria in the county, one by one, just to make sure they sucked. The consistency of suck was impressive. There was one place, Vito’s on Vermont, which was the lone exception. Vito was from Elizabeth, New Jersey, and he knew what he was doing. On my lunch breaks I’d drive 30 minutes each way to get a Vito’s slice. One day I showed up, and he was gone. I assumed the other shitty pizzerias had had enough of his sullying up the suck scale and ran him out of town. (I’m told Vito’s has reopened on La Cienega in Beverly Hills. I don’t need to go there to know Vito has lost his magic—anything with a 90210 zip code sucks.)
Earlier this month I was out in LA filming the last bits of Belladonna’s interviews for her Skinema episodes. I found myself at my buddy/former pro skater Salman Agah’s downtown LA pizzeria, Pizzanista. Naturally, he offered me a slice of pizza. This happens often to East Coasters in LA. Los Angeles as a whole has an insecurity problem, and they’re always seeking validation. Salman wasn’t offering me a slice because I looked hungry; he wanted me to tell him it was good, that it was worthy of a superior palate such as mine. I didn’t want the pizza. Not because I wasn’t hungry, but because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings when I told him it sucked. I also didn’t want to get socked in the mouth by the big fellow, or worse, see him cry.
“So do you want a slice?” The pioneer of switch skating and one of my childhood idols asked as he towered over me.
“Fuck… dude… I don’t want to—”
“Just try it. I want to know what you think.”
There it was. The sentence that I assumed would set up the inevitable death of our friendship.
“It was nice knowing you,” I said as he handed me a pepperoni slice.
I loaded it up with crushed pepper and garlic and oregano and Parmesan cheese and anything I could find to mask the suck I was about to ingest.
“You don’t need all that,” he told me.
I took a deep breath, dove headfirst into the empty pool of suck, and prepared to die…
But the crash never came. I just kept falling and falling and, God, I don’t even believe I’m saying this… falling in love with a slice of pizza in LA.
I opened my eyes and told him I didn’t understand.
“You don’t like it?”
“No. That’s the thing. I do like it. It doesn’t make any sense. It’s supposed to suck. It’s LA pizza.”
“I know. It’s weird, right?”
Weird, indeed. That week I ate at Pizzanista five times. LA Weekly voted them Best Pizza in LA, and every time I went there another interviewer from some big national publication was interviewing Salman about his miracle pie.
I figured I should hop on that line and beat them all to the punch by being the first to find out what the secret of not sucking in LA is.
VICE: How did Pizzanista start?
Salman: I got the idea to do a restaurant in my neighborhood of downtown LA and just went for it. I had no business plan or anything, just a gut feeling that we could make a good go of it because of the amount of people who live in this area with no food to eat.
You were a pro skateboarder for the majority of your life. What makes you think you can run a successful pizzeria?
The same thing that made me think I could be a pro skater. I think there’s a certain ego or something like that that makes me want to do things that don’t seem possible. To me, skateboarding is impossible, considering my size and where I come from. So why don’t we keep the impossible theme rolling and try and make this work?
You come from a food-industry background too, right?
Yeah, it would be accurate to say I come from a family that’s been involved in baking and food for decades. My grandparents on my mom’s side were bakers, and my dad was in the restaurant business, so I grew up with that.
Because it can be fast food without being greasy fast food. It can be good food without having to be expensive. In my neighborhood, you’re either spending $100 for two or you’re ordering from the McDonald’s dollar menu. We were shooting to just get in the middle somewhere.
LA pizza sucks. How is your pizza not sucking?
I think there’s a lot of good pizza out here, but it gets a bad rap in LA because people try too hard. One thing I learned about pizza is the environment plays a huge role in the outcome of your product—meaning geography, atmosphere, and weather all play a role in bread baking. It takes a while to get that right. I have to give the credit to my wife, Price, for us not sucking. She’s really interested in having high-quality ingredients, and the way we really kept it from sucking was by hiring a friend of ours who is a chef, Steve Samson. He also owns a restaurant called Sotto, which is a really outstanding Italian place in LA. Steve was so helpful in designing our crust and our sauce and our basic product. That was the best thing we ever did, bringing Steve along to help us, because otherwise we would probably be sucking. Well, maybe we wouldn’t be sucking, but it would’ve been harder to figure out.
Are you half Polish? Because you started a pizzeria and lost 50 pounds.
It’s funny because when we first opened, in 2011, I ran the LA marathon. People were asking how I was getting in good shape, but I was running five days a week. I’ve been surfing and skating a lot lately, and it’s hard to do those things when you’ve got 50 extra pounds on you. Each pound is like a ton of bricks when you eat shit. It’s tough. But yeah, I must be somewhat Polish.
How much pizza do you eat now?
I used to eat it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but I stopped doing that. I still eat it a couple times a week. I have to try it. I want to make sure we’re making the right thing. But I probably eat one garlic knot every day because I have to taste the dough.
You’re known as the Sultan of Switch, but more importantly you’re known as one of the biggest brick shithouses to ever ride a skateboard. Who are some other big boys that you like?
I like Tom Boyle; Sean Sheffey; Ron Whaley was a very tall skater; Johnny Layton I like a lot, he’s a bigger kid; Simon Woodstock was a big guy; Grosso is big; Lucero is big; Losi and Schroeder are big.
Everybody on that list, aside from Johnny Layton, are older guys. There aren’t any new big boys coming up you like? Or are they just all skinny waifs?
I don’t know, are there? Manny Santiago is bigger, but he’s super cut so that doesn’t count. I think out of this new generation of big skaters Johnny Layton is the guy to me. He’s big and he’s gnarly. I like that dude.
What’s the secret to being a tank on wheels and still having balance?
Well, the secret is it’s not really a secret. It’s just so painful to eat shit that you try to avoid it at all costs. When you’re as big as I am and you fall it’s like the Earth makes a fist and socks you. And it hurts. After a few of those you’re like, “Maybe I don’t need to be falling that hard.” So I have a rule against falling.
Guy Mariano has staged the comeback of the century in recent years. Can we expect a Salman Agah comeback next?
Guy Mariano is one of the all-time greatest individuals to ever step on a skateboard, and I’ve just been lucky enough to be around him through the years and see it. He’s real special. I love skating and I’ve been skating a lot, but I’m not interested in any kind of comeback. I like the idea of just being around it and skating. I’ve always had the same mentality about filming: if I’m somewhere and a video camera is rolling and someone captures something, that’s cool, but I’ve never been interested in purposely going out and filming something. I have fantasies about making another video part… sometimes fantasies come true.
Do you think your team last year on Thrasher’s “King of the Road” got the shitty end of the stick by having you as the mystery guest?
At the time, yeah. That’s a safe assumption. I hadn’t really been skating, but I did put it down jumping down those stairs. That was not fun. I think I’m still hurt from that. That sucked. I should have been on the Lakai team.