Judging by the line out the door, former Michael Mina chef Anthony Carron is doing something right with his recently opened Neapolitan pizzeria, 800 Degrees, in Westwood. Carron came up with the concept, then partnered with Adam Fleischman of Umami Burger to make the restaurant a reality. Surrounded by the smells of wood-fired dough and fresh mozzarella, we sat down with Carron (and a pretty tasty pie) to find out how a Michael Mina alum comes to run a pizza joint.
You’re putting out Neapolitan pizza with organic, local ingredients that are dirt-cheap and ready in minutes. After working in fine dining most of your career, how did you come up with the concept?
AC: For a couple years I’ve wanted to do a Neapolitan pizza place. In my old job I was traveling for Michael Mina and every city has one Neapolitan pizza restaurant and they’re all super busy. In DC it’s 2 Amys, in Phoenix it’s Pizzeria Bianco. I was like, if you only need to cook the pizza for a minute, what’s stopping you from setting it up like Chipotle where people can make all their own pizzas, look at the beautiful toppings, decide what to put on it. I literally jumped up out of bed and started calling everyone I know. Three years later, here we are.
What was it like working for Mina?
AC: I was based in Vegas, but I was the corporate chef for all the restaurants. Each executive chef reported to me and I reported to Michael. Every time there was a menu change, I’d work with the chef and the restaurant. If we needed a new chef for a restaurant I’d hire them. I worked on new concepts and kitchen designs.
What was your background before that?
AC: I never went to culinary school. I went to a four-year liberal arts college in Minnesota, and in my last year I started cooking. I was like, “You know what? I love cooking. I like learning things but this kind of structured learning environment isn’t for me. I’m outta here.”
What were you majoring in?
AC: I was majoring in history. But really I was majoring in hanging out, having a good time. (laughs)
Were you raised around food?
AC: No, but ever since I was little I loved to cook. My mom has pictures of me in a high chair pulling everything out of the cabinet. After college I moved back to St. Louis, and when I was 22 my parents and I bought an old diner. We fixed it up and made it into a hip breakfast spot. But I couldn’t do it forever. When I was 24 I was like, I gotta go see the world, so we sold it and I moved to San Francisco where I worked for Michael Mina. I spent 10 years with him. I worked my way up from line cook to executive chef.
And is that when you did most of your traveling? How did you research the pizza?
AC: I would always eat at the Neapolitan place wherever I was when I was traveling for Michael Mina. I went to Naples and spent time there eating in every single pizzeria, four pizzas a day for two weeks—so I did my research. Naples is amazing because there’s a pizzeria on every corner, and they’re all good. It’s all wood-fired, just flour and water in the dough. It’s just fresh tomatoes, no fancy sauce, mozzarella’s made in the next village over. And it’s all cheap. like 4 Euros. So I really wanted to bring that back. Pizza doesn’t need to be expensive to be good. Here you have cheap places like Domino’s and then you have pizza temples like Mozza where it’s $17 for a pizza. It’s flour and water and just a little bit of cheese and sauce. It should be convivial and fast and cheap.
What characterizes that Neapolitan pizza style?
AC: Since the mid-’80s, it’s a protected style in Italy, so you have to adhere to a certain set of standards. In the US you don’t have to do that but we adhere to them anyway. One rule is that the dough can only be worked by hand. You can do it in a machine, but it has to be a specific kind of machine to mix the whole batch, and the individual crusts have to be made by hand. You can’t use a baller, you can’t use a divider, you can’t use a rounder—you have to do it by hand by opening or stretching the dough. There’s a specific technique to it. You’re not flinging pizzas in the air. Dough is literally flour, water, salt, and yeast. We use a natural yeast, the sauce is just tomato. You open a can of whole tomatoes. It’s so simple that you need to use the best tomatoes, so we do. I tasted every single one that’s out there and decided on this one. We use fresh basil. And then our mozzarella, it’s what’s called Fior di Latte because it’s made from cow’s milk. It’s a very soft mozzarella, and it’s fresh because ours is delivered three times a week so it’s never more than two days old. It’s made half an hour from here by a pretty famous Italian cheese maker who taught all the places in the US how to make Italian cheese. It’s a family business called Di Stefano that makes burrata and mozzarella. They make custom cheese to our specification. Then we add a little extra virgin olive oil to the pizza. It has to be cooked at at least 800 degrees. Characteristically it has a soft and chewy, elastic crust, which a lot of people are not used to. But I fell in love with that. A lot of people are like, “It’s not crispy!” It’s not supposed to be crispy. It’s like going to Chicago and being like, “This pizza is a little thick.” But we’re happy to cook it a little longer if you want that. We have a lot of Napolitanos that walk in here, a lot of people from Naples, who like the traditional style.
How do you choose your ingredients and toppings?
AC: My background being in fine dining, I’ve made a lot of relationships with farmers and small producers. I wanted to bring those same ingredients to a casual audience, so that’s what I did. We’re using Fra Mani salumi from Oakland, Molinari sausage from Sand Francisco, and a lot of organic products. We buy whole organic chicken, roast it, and shred it. All the toppings are really high quality. The mushrooms are a wild mix. We use California tomatoes from Cristoforo Colombo. It’s an Italian family that came over here and wanted to make something that felt like a San Marzano and tasted like it and this is their version of that. There’s no citric acid or calcium chloride added. All it says on the label is tomatoes, salt, and basil.
What’s your topping combo of choice?
AC: I love the Napoletana, it’s a marinara (no cheese) with shrimp, anchovies, and capers. I’m an anchovy guy. And without the cheese, it’s a lot lighter. That’s how pizza was until a hundred years ago. Cheese is a relatively new addition. People are always surprised by that.
How did you choose Westwood?
AC: I was new to L.A. and I didn’t know any better. (Laughs) Just kidding. When we were looking for real estate, I looked around here and I looked at the crowds of people walking. You have all these different demographics here of college kids and businesspeople and families.
UCLA kids can’t stop talking about your futuristic soda machines. What’s the story?
AC: I got told “no” for six months by Coca-Cola and finally I found a connection and worked it. It’s been a huge hit. It took a lot of emails and phone calls to get it, but we’re really happy we got it.
10889 Lindbrook Dr., Los Angeles (Westwood Village)