Even the worst mozzarella sticks are still pretty good. If you have at least one opposable thumb and a working knowledge of toaster ovens, you can turn a bag of freezer-aisle TGI Friday’s cheese logs into a deeply soul satisfying plate of food. But that’s not to say mozzarella sticks can’t be improved, optimized, and streamlined. That they can’t be transformed from a pedestrian snack to—well—a really, really, transcendently good pedestrian snack.
Zach Pollack, chef/owner of Alimento (aka L.A.’s best Italian restaurant, if you believe anything we say), is undertaking the scientifically important task of perfecting fried cheese. He’s not deconstructing the mozzarella stick—this isn’t curd foam with bread crumb soil and tomato ice—he’s just making best version you’ve ever had.
The bread crumb coating perfectly adheres to each baton of smoked mozzarella, no oil penetrates the log to create excess grease, the parmesan shaved on top is of the same quality you would find in a high-end pasta dish, and the marinara tastes like it was made by someone who’s devoted their entire life and career to Italian food. Because it was.
Zach Pollack’s mozzarella sticks are immaculate, and it’s not by accident. “We’re approaching a very classic, simple dish with the same sort of investigative curiosity that any chef should have,” he says. “We’re taking it apart and putting it back together to find out how we can make it better.” He wouldn’t go into detail about cooking or sourcing methodologies—giving away secrets isn’t a great business decision—but the attention to detail absolutely comes through in your mouth.
Until July 31, you can find these glorious crispy cheese sticks on the DineLA restaurant week menu at Alimento, alongside some other Italian American staples like Caesar salad, eggplant parm, and a meatballs with red sauce. It’s a preview for his new pizzeria, Cosa Buona, which is set to overtake the old Pizza Buona space in Echo Park this fall. Though he’s still going to be cooking Italian, the guiding principles behind Pollack’s two restaurants are almost diametrically opposed.
Some of Alimento’s most popular dishes are known for taking a classic concept and flipping it on its head with clever, chef-y breakdancing moves. Take the “Pig in a Blanket,” for instance. Rather than a Hilshire Farms Lil’ Smokie encased in Pillsbury crescent dough (still a great dish in and of itself), it’s a log of seared house-made mortadella topped with an Italian cow’s milk cheese called stracchino, a fermented turnip kraut called brovada, and pickled mustard seeds all bracketed by spelt puff pastry.
The sentimental combo of processed pork, pastry, and mustard is still there, it’s just been spit through some epicurean wormhole to come out the other side as a purely unique and elevated experience. It’s the opposite of what Pollack intends to do at Cosa Buona, where the food will be pure, thoughtful, dare-we-say curated nostalgic pleasure.
“We want to look at food whose simplicity we take for granted, and rather than complicate it, we refine it,” he says. “At Cosa Buona there’s going to be the same attention to detail as there is at Alimento, but the food will be more craft-inspired rather than being driven by—I don’t know—artistic displays of culinary inspiration.”
All over L.A., high-end chefs are ditching artfully plated fine-dining fare for comfort food. Earlier this year, Josiah Citrin of Mélisse—where the lobster bolognese is topped with brown butter foam and the white truffles are plentiful—opened Charcoal, a beach-side spot with grilled wings on the happy hour menu and dual TVs at the bar. Chef David LeFevre’s latest spot, The Arthur J is a throwback to old-school, red-booth steakhouses. At Connie & Ted’s, rather than tweezing lobes of sea urchin into a pool of champagne beurre blanc, Michael Cimarusti is frying up fish and chips and ladling out bowls of the city’s best clam chowder.
The exact reasons why aren’t completely fleshed out. Maybe increasing labor and real estate costs are forcing chefs to open higher volume restaurants. Maybe the anti-fine-dining revolution has officially begun and we’ll all soon be burning white tablecloths in the streets. Or maybe the world has gone to shit and everyone just wants to drown their emotions in some bomb mozzarella sticks.