This summer I made a bucket list, including a food destination list. It’s not designed to kill the spontaneity of dining out and the surprises that come from that, or to build expectations about a place. It’s more a checklist to keep me reminded of stuff, and a few priorities that turned out to be quite reasonable once I started chipping away at the list. It’s not the be all end all either – I will keep adding to it over time.
Mozza is on that list and while it wasn’t foremost on my mind, my friend Erik and I were on our way to LA for a day of looking at galleries, dinner, and a show at the Largo and once he mentioned the area we were visiting (La Brea) and that he’d heard of an amazing pizza place, my Google-fu showed that Mozza was in the area. Turns out, it was the same place Erik had heard good things about too. It was a perfect match. We arrived just after the lunch crowd had simmered down.
And what a stroke of luck, during our visit they were running a special for seats at the bar: a glass of house wine, a pizza, and a dessert for $20. I’m sold!
The ambiance of Pizzeria Mozza is elegant but casual. There are two bar options – the wine bar and the pizza bar. I opted for the latter, so I could watch all the good things coming out of the oven. And the stuff looked amazing. People were rolling out and throwing dough, dressing the pizzas, serving up tall salads and desserts. Everything looked delicious. For my $20 special, I opted for a squash blossom, tomato and burrata pizza, the chocolate tartufo dessert, and a glass of house rose. For reference, most pizzas are in the $18 range, and mine was $23, so it was a dead bargain just for the pizza alone. But also dessert! and wine!
Erik and I effectively shared this special, supplementing it with a house salad ($8) and another dessert ($10).
My squash blossom and burrata pizza was fantastic. Beautiful crust with a few charred bubbles, crisp on the bottom even after sitting on my plate a few minutes. Fresh and vibrant tasting, an absolute pleasure to eat. My house rose was also fine, being both crisp and slightly sweet tasting, perfect for my tastes and perfect for it being a hot summer day. My dessert was rich and good. It was bittersweet chocolate tartufo with olive oil gelato & sea salt. It was almost too Americanized sweet, but very good nonetheless. The couple next to me ordered the same dessert and were just finishing it when I was hemming and hawing over the menu. The woman looked up at me, mouth still full, and half mumbled and moaned at me, eyes rolling slightly. Clearly, she enjoyed it.
The guys working the pizza bar had their tasks dialed in. It’s not so much a rehearsal, but the ongoing practice of moving within each others’ spaces that made their work seemed well-choreographed. One man was looking at me, or maybe just beyond me, and with his eyes focused front, he picked up a pizza platter, held it out to his side at just the moment the fellow with the pizza peel pulled a steaming hot pizza from the oven and slide it quickly onto the platter. Everything happened behind him, no eye contact, no talk. And he knew I was watching. I saw what you did there, and I smiled at him. He smiled back and said he knows the timing well.
So, about $40 later, we rolled out of Mozza, feeling full and happy. I was especially pleased with this since it was something Erik enjoyed a lot as well, and even for being on a food bucket list, ended up being a spontaneous and serendipitous visit. I’d love to come back.
The special runs Monday-Thursday, 12 pm – 4 pm.
It was a leisurely stop en route to the central coast, and there was time for an overdue lunch meetup with my friend Dan. We met at Bell Street Farm in Los Alamos, where I’ve intended to have lunch for ages and ages, but could never find a time when I was passing through and the place was open.
Bell Street Farm caters to the weekend crowds, originally heading north or south for wine tasting, although in recent years Los Alamos has become a destination in and of itself thanks to places like this cafe.
The prize item most of my friends have raved over is the rotisserie pork belly salad – I knew I was going to order this before Dan and I even confirmed we’d be dining here. Just look at the photo, isn’t it magnificent? The pork is tender, as belly should be, but with a light searing on the outside to make it both golden brown and crisp on the outside, juicy and tender inside. It doesn’t feel too heavy to consume, thanks to lots of salad provided instead of heavy starches.
Dan went with his instincts and got the meatloaf sandwich. I stole a bite here and there. Meatloaf is a secret comfort food from childhood (isn’t this true with everyone?) that I don’t eat often enough. This sandwich is great. I’d get it again if I ever tired of pork belly, although the probability of that is very low.
Part of what makes Bell Street Farm such a nice place to dine at comes from the vivacious personality of the owner and the friendliness of the people working there. This was just a pitstop while heading further north for the weekend. I knew I needed to buy a few provisions for the final destination and although the deli and market section is quite limited, it had everything I needed: half a rotisserie chicken that came with lemon hummus, chunky slices of housemade pate, a wedge of cheese, and souvenir sized bottles of local olive oil and balsamic vinegar that was the perfect size for feeding friends over the weekend at our rented space in Atascadero.
I’m so glad I finally had a chance to eat here. I hope there are many more opportunities to come.
Bell Street Farm
Something very special happened this past weekend and it had nothing to do with large men wearing lots of protection running around the grass and taking breaks every 40 seconds. It has everything to do with turning a year older and having super awesome straight up baller friends.
First, I remembered that Greg and Rob in the past had flown into town in Greg’s plane to have lunch. On Saturday I whimsically sent Rob a message, “Ya wanna?” and they’re all like, “Dude! Hells yeah.” Meanwhile, a third friend Mike who caught wind of the action going down is all, “Psst, I want in, but keep it on the DL.” **
What resulted was Greg and Rob flying into town at noon on a private freaking plane, I collect them at the Atlantic airport for private planes (they get free coffee and fresh baked cookies there, did you know that??) and we go to Via Maestra 42 for lunch, where Mike’s already waiting at a table for us. Surprise!
And what a fabulous lunch we had. How quickly we forget that Santa Barbara has some nice Italian food outside of the popular spots downtown. Via Maestra is a small gleaming gem in the mid-late century of uptown suburbia. It’s tiny inside, reminiscent of European bistros, waitstaff that are proud of their product and their positions, and quick to give great recommendations. Our guy pimped his caffe lattes very well.
The boys went the more traditional route of ordering main dishes. But I started with San Pellegrino bitters, as Via Maestra is one of the few places I know that serves it. So nice of them to put it in a fluted glass with a slice of lemon.
And while they feasted on the house salads their main dishes come with, I have a more substantial dish called the Tricolor Salad (but spelled in Italian). It was a baby green salad with candied walnuts, dried fruit, prosciutto and blue cheese. Beautifully presented and substantial, a meal in itself, especially if you’re ordering dessert (hint of things to come).
Food came generally at once, so while I was digging into my lovely salad, the main dishes came out for the manfolk. Mike is fond of pesto, so he ordered bowtie pasta with pesto sauce. Greg succumbed to my recommendations and ordered the pumpkin ravioli with brown butter sage sauce.
Rob, the hungriest of the bunch and also the primary moneybags of the meal, got one of the specials: grilled salmon and crisp tender greens. Oh, it looked really great!
For dessert, I opted for a small selection of sorbets, and Greg and Rob shared the profiteroles. All of Via Maestra’s gelato and sorbet are imported from Milan. We also bowed to the pleasant pressure of our waiter and ordered his special caffe lattes. Yes, they were beautiful and delicious. Thank you.
Then Mike drove home to LA, and Rob and Greg piled back into Greg’s Cessna and flew home! And I ate some of the chocolate chip cookies at the airport. Then, because I’m officially old and crotchety, I went to bed at 8 pm.
Via Maestra 42
** conversation not verbatim
On Wednesdays the special of the day is banh mi.
They use curry-marinated chicken, shredded daikon (radish), sweet peppers, carrots, cabbage with a Vietnamese-style dressing on a granary baguette. It included side portions of sweet tangerines and apple slices. The apple has a light turmeric dressing, which makes them derishous. The meal is $9.
This is Corey’s lunch. I didn’t have as much stomach real estate and asked for a half sandwich. Mine was $4.75 and still came with tangerines and apples. The filling is yum, but the bread is a bit tougher than I prefer for banh mi. However, later that day a friend send me a picture that stated: people who eat white bread have no dreams. So perhaps today was a good day to have granary bread.
A quick lunch with Tom, while running errands. We were peckish, but not particularly hungry. We went to Kahuna Grill, I got an order of sweet potato fries.
It’s ample, but these are not my favorite. They are a bit too soft and mealy for my tastes. But I do like making a dipping sauce from 4 parts bbq sauce, and 1 part ketchup, both of which come from the condiment pumps.
There ya go.
How to please a Santa Barbara gal like me:
I was in the area running errands, noticed it was past lunchtime, and walked into Whole Foods for inspiration. I should point out here I was beyond hungry, the kind of hunger that makes me indecisive in the face of food.
I was deeply suspicious and talked to the man at the counter for a while. What’s the deal? What do you get? Is it already made?
No! It’s a freshly prepared burger, completely customized to your specs.
I selected ground bison, cooked medium, with grilled red onions, swiss cheese, toasted ciabatta and the regular fixings. Sure enough, about 10 minutes later, it’s ready, loaded into a little paper tray and packed neatly into a takeaway box.
The fries sit on the bottom, so they will get soggy fast, eat those first and quickly. The bison I selected is naturally low in fat, so I found that medium doneness tended to be more cooked than medium and will take that into account if I order it in the future.
Their deli offered other burger combinations, such as ‘cowboy’ style, or bacon, these cost a little more, like $0.50 or $1.00 more, still a very good price.
When Whole Foods first opened, there was an outdoor seating under an arbor. Now there’s indoor seating as well, just inside the entrance. At first I was worried that the baked goods and gelato that had been near the door was gone forever, but the good folks there pointed out it had moved to the back corner where the rest of the bakery was. Whew! I can still get my gelato fix. Oh, and one more thing. You know how McConnell’s is closed for remodel? Whole Foods has a small selection of McConnell’s ice cream.
Burgers seem to be the benchmark of rating American restaurants. Maybe that’s because it’s such an approachable item on the menu. The price is usually moderate, usually everyone’s had a burger sometime in their past to form a judgment of what they like or dislike about a burger, and it’s offered on nearly every menu in a standard restaurant.
But how could I be such a fan of Sly’s without ever trying their burger? Today, I finally did. I had a catch-up lunch date with a friend and I took the plunge and ordered the burger.
Holy smokes, it’s a lot of food. Officially called Sly’s Hamburger Sandwich, it’s a half pound of burger, ground fresh daily, served with fries, $12. I opted for additional gruyere cheese, too.
And a monumental stack of french fries. Eaten with their housemade mayonnaise. I swear I tackled the pile of fries all through lunch and it barely looked touched at the end of the meal.
The burger itself was intensely juicy and flavorful. I really enjoyed it, and the company, but in the future I either need to have a much much bigger appetite or I need to share it.
My dining companion, meanwhile, ordered the more demure huervos rancheros, only available on the lunchtime menu. I wish I’d had room to sample the dish.
Sly’s has public wifi, which was perfect for me to stay the remainder of the afternoon and complete my regular day job work – you know the stuff, that pays the bills. And it was certainly more effective than driving the 30 miles back to the office.
This was supposed to be one of those working lunches, where we get together to get stuff done. However, the business partner I was supposed to be introduced to wasn’t there! So it became just regular lunch, and work got done back at the office.
I’d been to Buenos Aires once before in semi-recent times. A company dinner a year earlier. But never for lunch, so this group was keen to try it all out.
To start out, everyone enjoyed the bread basket and chimichurri sauce to dip it in.
Sean’s lunch was pastel de choclo, a dish of layers of fresh ground sirloin with olives and raisins and sweet corn with basil served in a casserole dish, $11. Gustavo said this was particularly good, he’d had it before. But today he went instead for parrillada de carne y verduras, a plate of mixed grill and vegetables, including skirt steak, short ribs, Argentine sausage, and grilled vegetables and pineapple, $16. Plus an order of sweetbreads, $4.
David and I got sandwich plates, each served with a choice of soup, salad, or fries, $10.
One was the lomito argentino, with sliced sirlion and french fries (left photo) and the other was puerkito chileno, or thin slices of pork slowly cooked with beer, served with lettuce, tomato, onion, saurkraut, mayo and mashed avocado. This had sweet potato chips on the side.
Overall, this is a gorgeous little spot, with a pretty courtyard and fountain. Santa Barbara has very few restaurants specializing in South American cuisine, so Cafe Buenos Aires is a gem.
Cafe Buenos Aires
We’d heard this rumor that the Dutch Garden’s burgers were exemplary because they ground the meat in house. That nagged at the back of our minds for ages because there’s such a narrow window of opportunity to try their burgers. One, it’s only served at lunch, and two, they’re not open three days a week.
But we finally made it, and tried the burger, with cheese. Oh man, it’s big, half a pound of ground beef. And we confirmed, no, it is not ground in-house. Aw! But it was still good. I especially like the grilled bun, with a golden crisp underside. And a platter of German mustards is brought out, to dabble with. This is a burger best eaten open face, because it is big and juicy.
I ordered an item I knew nothing about, but was curious about the name. This is called a Strammer Max and it was pretty much breakfast on an open faced sandwich. Fried eggs, griddled ham and cheese, on toasted sandwich bread and assorted sandwich fixings like lettuce, onion and pickles. Another sandwich-style lunch best eaten with knife and fork because the egg yolks go all oozy over the meal, yum yum.
And finally, a glass of beer to wash it all down. Aaaah.