Anyone who doubts LA Times' Jonathan Gold's sway clearly has never been to Zelo. Off a busy, yet quiet street chock full of expansive manses and grassy lawns seemingly of another time and another Los Angeles, the Arcadia neighborhood pizza shop owes a great deal of its success to the famed food critic.
How do I know this? Well, unlike many in the protective, close to the vest LA food scene, Zelo owner Mike Freeman is very forthright regarding the tale behind his little pizzeria that could. Freeman admits the place struggled to stay afloat the first two years. Then Gold ventured out to the SGV and tried the spot. Then Freeman started to see the culinary pundit often. Gold then scribbled about the place a few times. Zelo has now successfully been open for 12 years running, slinging out pan pizzas to Arcadians and West Los Angelenos (like the guy typing right now) willing to brave the commute.
To pinpoint the style of pizza Zelo serves you have to first understand its auspices. Here's the rub: it all started at San Francisco's trailblazing Ruby's Pizza, which introduced California to gourmet pizza toppings. In the mid-80s, Ruby then joined forces with other weighty local restauranteurs (the owners of Hayes Street Grill) to open an influential San Francisco Opera-adjacent Italian restaurant, Vicolo. Using organic cornmeal (complete hearsay at the time), the restaurant's pizza quickly became a very popular pre-, inter-missionary and post-opera stop. To keep up with the demand, they sold by the slice with predetermined toppings. Freeman worked in that kitchen and eventually moved to SoCal. After realizing there were no pizzerias like Vicolo down here, he decided to carry on the tradition at Zelo.
So, Zelo is very much the product of evolution. A pizza influenced by another pizza, which, was also influenced by another pizza. To add an additional wrinkle: Portland's beloved cornmeal crust specialist, Dove Vivi, opened in 2005, is run by former Zelo employees.
History aside, what really makes Zelo special though is that you've definitely never had any pizza like it. Although in layman's terms it could probably be described as a Chicago-California-style pizza, in actuality it's really neither. Sure, you've probably had Chicago Deep Dish before. But Zelo's not Chicago deep dish. There's NO sauce and the crust, though similarly buttery to the taste, is crunchier. You've also probably had so-called "California-style" pizza before. Zelo isn't really California-style though. Their most popular pizza (and the one seen in the pictures above and below - with added pepperoni) features roasted sweet corn and marinated balsamic red onions. These fresh toppings, as well as others on the menu, certainly possess the innovativeness of a California-style/Spago pie, but Zelo packs them on so heavily there's nothing Golden State dainty here. In fact, one slice, maybe two for the adventurous, does the trick. You'll be full for days. So much so that if you order a whole pizza like I did, the leftovers will linger in your freezer for a while because you just don't know if you're hungry enough to tackle it any time soon.
My only squabble with Zelo: the garlic bread. Don't order it. It's nothing special and just fills up vital stomach space that should be saved for corn pizza. After all, you drove to Arcadia for pizza, which is crazy, but worth it.
328 E. Foothill Blvd, Arcadia
Mon, 4pm-9pm; Tues-Thurs, 11:30am-9pm; Fri-Sat, 11:30am-10pm; Sun, 3pm-9pm