It admittedly took us about four years to experience Masa of Echo Park, our previous pizza prejudices barricading the way between us and this Echo Park legend. For Ashley, it was due to her experience with and nostalgic for the taste of traditional deep dish Chicago pies, thus making her wary of any west coast impersonators. For Arielle, an Angelino native and Neapolitan, thin-crust pizza purist, the few experiences with California’s renditions of deep dish pizza were sorry enough to steer her away for life. The result: two sceptical, Chicago pie Scrooges prepared for the worst. And this, dear friends, is where our story begins.
We’ve finally made our way to Masa after meeting it’s co-owner, the blithefully charming Rhonda Reynolds, the week before and embarrassingly admitting we had not yet visited her beloved bistro. We quickly eradicated this error and now find ourselves here, within Masa’s unique and welcoming world (for that, indeed, it is).
The ambiance is, without a doubt, an important aspect of the Masa experience. Mustard yellow walls paired with kitschy China-print table cloths beckon a sense of familiarity, a subtle stance against pretension and a quirkiness found solely in family bred establishments such as this. The sudden image of Lady and the Tramp’s “Bella Notte” serenade appears in our minds as we sit in the candlelit room, hungry yet comforted by this perplexing feeling. The obvious nostalgia Masa has for other places and times becomes apparent and evidently appropriate as we learn of the history behind its location.
It’s well known that Echo Park boasts some of the oldest buildings in California, giving it an inherent sense of history and wonder that is otherwise lacking in highly urbanized cities and neighborhoods in this state. Apropos of this, Masa displays the traditions of both its neighborhood and building’s own personal history with astute accuracy. After its initial incarnation as an automobile shop in the 1920s, the building went on to house a series of bakeries, markets and ethnically diverse restaurants. This includes a Van De Camp’s bakery from the 1930s to 1950s, Carmelli’s Italian bakery and coffee shop in the 1960s and Carmelo’s Cuban Restaurant and Bakery from the 1970s until Masa’s opening in 2004. With due diligence, the first taste to meet our mouths is the Cuban roll, served piping hot from the oven with a knife piercing through it with provincial charm. Our greediness surpases our senses as we dive right in, finishing the entire loaf oblivious to the burns now permeating our gums.
After acknowledging our impish behavior, we gather ourselves and prepare to eat the upcoming Manchego Salad with more politeness than the gusto of our Cuban roll. We should note that this choice was wise for two reasons — for one, we slowed down in time to leave room for our pizza; and two, were able to experience the salad with a more focused perception and discerning detachment (the antithesis to our previous, Neanderthalian display).
The Manchego Salad makes its entrance appearing surprisingly more like modern art than a salad. It’s stacked high on the plate, a presentation almost geometric in shape with surprising elegance from its aerial perspective. The artful drizzle of balsamic reduction and extra virgin olive oil atop the generously thick, triangular slabs of Manchego cheese offers a sophistication to the dish that may otherwise be missing at your typical mom and pop restaurant. It creates instead for us a transportive experience of dining at a bistro in Europe — outside, perhaps, on a cobblestone street somewhere as we people watch between thoughtful bites.
Yes, thoughtful. The word most appropriate to describe this salad both in its appearance and taste as we finally summon up the courage to dig our forks into its beautiful display. The balance of savory and sweet is spot on; the dates, granny smith apples, caramelized walnuts and pear dressing complementing the nuttiness of the Manchego cheese and rich tanginess of the balsamic reduction. Considering the number of ingredients included in this dish, it is surprisingly uncomplicated and refreshing. An impressive feat in this age of over-ambitious salads.
We get through most of it with patience and thoughtful restraint, but before we can finish, the meal’s headliner arrives with upstaging fervor. And we, the impressionable minions we’ve surely become, unanimously push the salad to the lonely side of the table and stare dumbfounded at the massive sphere of deliciousness that is now before us. We slide a piece each onto our plates but proceed with careful anticipation; a calm most certainly needed before the impending storm.
It is hard to describe which tastes, textures and feelings affected us first — the eruption happened so fast and unadulterated in our mouths — but we’ll start with the tomatoes. The sweet, succulent tomatoes burst with juicy flavor, showcasing unmistakable freshness while simultaneously salty and moist. The trap found in many tomato sauces is the overwhelming presence of other ingredients like onions or peppers, making them either too sweet, bitter or spicy. The tomatoes found in Masa’s pizza still maintain remnants of their original shape and taste, with the garlic, olive oil and salt merely enhancing them. It therefore feels inappropriate to refer to it as a sauce, the latter seeming a dumbed-down version of what it truly is.
Let us now discuss the cheese. Nestled under the blanket of tomatoes with delectable, crisp and gooey mounds erupting through like fresh magma from the earth, the cheese plays an important yet unassuming role. Though the hidden quantity is more than we usually prefer with our pizza, it, like everything else we’re experiencing with this pie, is in a league of its own. We simply can’t get enough of it. Not a string, cluster or hardened, toasted slab molded to the Chicago-forged pan receive any mercy from our ravenous mouths, proving that in some cases, less is certainly not more. The cheese has an elasticity to it — inspiring the mature game of who can pull the longest string from our mouths without breaking it — while at the same time maintaining the moisture and fluidity definitive of quality mozzarella. The salt is perfectly present with smack and tang, but resists the common tendency towards upstaging the wonderfully natural milkiness of the cheese. We feel for our vegan friends as we devour this classic margarita pizza, but hear Masa’s vegan alternative, “Teese Cheese,” is an impressive substitute for the real deal.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the pie, one that has profoundly re-educated our naive perception of great pizza, is the crust. The crust, may we remind you, which existed as the hardest act to follow in both of our books — Ashley being a Chicago pie connoisseur and Arielle preferring her’s paper thin to almost nonexistent. But to our delight, the crust, made to perfection with cornmeal and buttery goodness, created for us a new paradigm by which to judge pizza. Unlike many deep dish pies where the crust is so thick and doughy you’re convinced you’ll birth the Pillsbury Doughboy, Masa’s is surprisingly light in terms of this style of pizza.
It may be in the use of cornmeal, but the dough creates a texture that melts in your mouth, one flake at a time, displaying a freshness unusual to comfort food of this nature. The dough’s inherent lightness, however, doesn’t sacrifice the important stability needed to support the deep bed of toppings and the juices they subsequently create; instead, it finds its appropriate density and firmness in just the right places. The bottom is just thick enough to house the top, but never too much that you feel you’re eating pure carbs. On the contrary, the filling part is certainly in the (arguably) healthier components in the pie. That is, of course, until you reach the gold at the end of the rainbow and enjoy the thick crust for what it is — decadent, homey and delicious.
A few slices in each and we regretfully resign to packing the rest to go. A difficult decision, but pulling back whilst wanting more seemed the better strategy if we wanted to enjoy our final dish, the Croissant Bread Pudding shortly on its way. As we take this moment to digest and avert the food coma that is inevitably upon us, we reflect on this establishment and its place in the neighborhood.