One of my colleagues recently proclaimed pizza as “the new pizza.” Indeed, as fine-dining establishments open casual spin-offs seemingly every day, excellent, creative pizza has come to the fore in several large American markets, including our own.
So the surprise that a chef like Sage’s Shawn McClain has opened a pizza joint in Aria to complement his fine-dining restaurant is tempered by this trend, but McClain has a multitude of tricks up his white sleeves. It is tempting to compare Five50 (the name is a clever reference to the temperature at which the restaurant cooks its pies) to D.O.C.G., Scott Conant’s casual pizza and affettati joint adjacent to his tonier Scarpetta in the Cosmopolitan. But Five50 has a personality all its own, and a compelling one at that.
This is a striking David Rockwell-designed space wedged into a corner of Aria’s main floor that includes a 15-by-60-foot mural depicting street life in L.A. (by CYRCLE, a Los Angeles art collective), a charred wood wall and a snazzy, horseshoe-shaped bar where one can sample the superb charcuterie McClain sources from Olympic Provisions of Portland, Oregon.
In fact, the starters and sides are so irresistible, many first-timers won’t even make it to the pizzas. Certainly, I almost didn’t. Things get off to a bang when you order pork rinds in a paper cone, marinated olives, warm ricotta cheese, giardiniera and warm Marcona almonds, all listed under the Snacks heading. They are all fabulous, but the giardiniera—a sort of pickled vegetable relish popular in Chicago, composed of red peppers, onions, garlic and other stuff—is dead-on addictive.
Then there’s that charcuterie, including a standout mortadella (like bologna on steroids) and a terrific finocciona, a fennel-spiked sausage. McClain’s warm fennel sausage, here called Grilled Garlic Sausage, comes with white beans, almost a meal all by itself. And the pasta not to miss, bucatini all’Amartriciana, is textbook with guanciale (pork jowl) melted into the sauce. And I almost forgot the piece de resistance, porchetta, the best thinly sliced, smoked pork belly in creation, which the chef makes on premises.
If you do manage to make it to the pizzas, Five50’s crust is sort of a hybrid of Neapolitan and Sicilian—thin and crisp, with a sour tang and a persistent chew. All pizzas are 16-inchers, and you can build your own by choosing from a toppings list or order one of the signature pizzas, priced a tad higher. From that list, choose North Beach (topped with clams and smoked mozzarella) or the Sicilian (pancetta, broccoli rabe, peppers and white anchovy), a stellar pie.
Five50 also has a killer beer list—a dozen craft brews on draft, and another 30-odd by the bottle, including the Goose Island Brewing Co.’s amazing Matilda, and my choice from the spout, a heady, yeasty North Coast Brewing Co. Old Rasputin Stout. There are also many delicious wines by the glass, just one being the 2011 Venica sauvignon blanc from Friuli, Italy.
If you can deal with dessert after all this, Stephanie Boswell, the talented pastry chef who also makes the desserts for Sage, has stacked the deck with fare such as fried zeppole (Italian fritters dusted with powdered lemon sugar and limoncello sabayon), and a tempting milk-chocolate lavender custard with chocolate streusel, whipped crème fraîche and tiny chocolate pearls.
When chefs with a résumé like McClain’s take on the pizza joint, everybody wins.
In Aria, 590-7550. Open 11 a.m.-midnight daily. Dinner for two, $45-$79.