New Yorkers love their pizza, especially this New Yorker, born in Queens, raised in Staten Island, and now a proud resident of Highland Park of over 10 years. Staten Island is famous for its pizza with over 75 pizzerias populating the 59 square mile island, thanks to its thriving Italian community. While I cannot claim to have a single drop of Italian blood in my veins, I can safely say that New York-style thin-crust pizza is, indeed, my lifeblood. Whenever I travel outside the US, the first thing I do upon my return is eat a slice of pizza. It is always the one food I craved the most coming back from a foreign country. It’s the spinach to my Popeye, the hamburger to my Jughead, and the power pellet to my Pac-Man. I live, breathe, and dream pizza.
Since I moved to LA in 2003, I’ve been on the hunt for a pizza that is remotely comparable to the New York slice in Northeast Los Angeles. I lived in Eagle Rock my first year here in LA and was quickly introduced to Casa Bianca’s Sausage and Fresh Garlic pizza. Don’t get me wrong. Their pizza is decent but I was disturbed by how they sliced their pizza in a gridded pattern. It’s the kind of pizza you eat with a knife and fork, a huge New York no-no. Any way you slice it, pizza should be folded and eaten with your hands no matter how sloppy or scorching hot it is. It’s the (Italian) American way!
I moved to Highland Park the following year. Again, the first thing I did was scour the neighborhood for pizza joints around town. Out of desperation, I finally settled on Italiano’s. It was my go-to joint because it was cheap, conveniently located, and the only place in town that sold thin-crust pizza by the slice.
Fast-forward to 2014, Italiano’s shuts its doors and reopens as TOWN under new ownership and it does not disappoint. Founded by Executive Chef Joram Young (of Li’l Woody’s in Seattle) and long-time Angeleno residents, Scott Lunceford and Sean Kelly, TOWN prides itself on serving the best thin-crust pizza by the slice made with the freshest, organic, locally sourced ingredients from California. This ain’t no California Pizza Kitchen pizza – it’s a New York slice by way of Los Angeles, a perfect marriage of East-meets-West Coast. It’s something I never thought I would ever bear witness to and it’s all happening here in Highland Park.
I got the chance to sit down with TOWN’s co-founders, Scott and Joram, to talk pizza and about how they ended up in Highland Park. “Sean and I were in Los Angeles many years ago together, ” says Scott. “We don’t want to come across as outsiders who came into this very insular neighborhood where people get pretty vocal about that. I’ve been in Northeast LA for 5 years, in Eagle Rock before, and now in Mt. Washington. The reason we are at the old Italiano’s location is because we drove by it a zillion times and it had come up in conversations that it was for sale. It’s not like we saw a listing and came into the area. It came from within, from being in the neighborhood, and learning that a local business was up for sale.”
Joram confessed that opening a pizzeria wasn’t even in their original business plan. “I’ve worked in restaurants and bars my entire life. I knew that I could do a business and was up to the challenge of learning whatever it needed to have.” TOWN’s the only pizza place on the burgeoning strip on York Blvd between Avenue 50 and Avenue 53. For Scott, seizing the opportunity for that location, there was no changing the cuisine, “Pizza was a perfect fit for that corner. It had to stay pizza.”
Scott met Sean as teenagers in San Diego through the music scene. Sean eventually moved to Seattle to work at the iconic Sub Pop Label. Joram, also from California, was in the Seattle music scene as well and was supplementing his income by working in bars and restaurants. “I realized I was more successful with working in food than in the music business so I decided to take my experience and knowledge to start something here in LA. As soon as we got here I tried to talk to as many people I knew about making it happen. One day while watching a Seahawks game, Sean had mentioned that he knew the perfect guy to connect me to in LA. Scott and I met up and we clicked instantly.”
Scott had been working as a graphic designer in the advertising business for a long time and was itching to do something new. He knew that he wanted to explore the restaurant industry. “Joram is the chef and operational manager. I handle the back office stuff.” Due to his experience in graphic design, Scott was also responsible for branding the business. He worked with SAWYER Agency for typography and Matters of Space for facade renderings, both Highland Park businesses. TOWN’s notable hand-painted signage was done by a traditional hand-lettered sign painter, David Bond of Lucky B Design. “He’s an incredible sign painter,” says Joram. “He’s in the car and motorcycle scene but he specializes in old-style signage that not a lot of people know how to do anymore. We walked all around Highland Park and he was so psyched about seeing all the old signs in the neighborhood.”
When asked about why they chose such a ubiquitous name such as TOWN, Scott responded, “The term ‘insular’ to describe Highland park is not meant to be a pejorative term. It’s got it’s own identity and it recognizes within and without. So we recognize Highland Park as a town within a bigger city so that’s where it came from.” The name is supposed to reflect just that – a central gathering place for people to celebrate or be casual. Joram adds, “When you really love the neighborhood you don’t want to just put something in for all the new people in the area. We’re trying to be a business that fits into the community so that was kind of a focus for us when we started this.”
Despite all the rave reviews in social media and rising popularity amongst locals regarding TOWN’s Mole pizza, one would assume this inspired dish could only be invented in a heavily Latino-dominated neighborhood such as Highland Park. Joram explains, “That would seem too purposeful to me – almost a little too tricky. I just love mole. I love making it. I love balancing flavors. We’re in a perfect place for that to go over well but I didn’t make the mole pizza because we’re in a Hispanic/Latino neighborhood. I developed the recipe for my mole sauce when I lived in Seattle. i didn’t read a book about it. I’d just set out to think about flavors and when I added certain elements to it and it came out the way it did, I was so psyched that I kept having taco parties and friends over. Everyone was like, ‘This is the shit!’”
In regards to where he gets his inspirations for developing unique and different flavor combinations for his pizzas, “It’s just trying to make something delicious and thinking about things that go well together like you would for a dinner plate but using the pizza as the vehicle to deliver awesome flavor,” much like they did when they introduced the Bulgogi pizza for their Second Saturday Art Walk Special in July. “There is more of that to come but it’s not all going to be based on an ethnicity. I don’t want to get pigeonholed.”
On their full menu that will be soon coming out, TOWN will be introducing “The Pig & the Fig”, a garlic olive oil based pizza topped with prosciutto, figs, goat cheese, mozzarella, and fried sage. Another is “Beauty and the Beet” with roasted beets, roasted garlic, and ricotta infused with beet juice, and topped with arugula. “I’m totally into traditional pizza but I want to offer more than that. For me to be satisfied and keep it interesting to me, I want to do something kind of different and cool, and hopefully not stray too far outside the traditional realm that people can’t get it.”
As for what’s available on their current menu, their Pesto Pizza is their number one seller, a housemade pesto-based pizza with mozzarella and cherry tomatoes supplied by Country Fresh Herbs with locations in Somis, Oxnard, and Tarzana. The Sausage pizza is Joram’s personal favorite, a tomato-based pizza topped with TOWN’s housemade sausage with a pork grind supplied by Lindy & Grundy in West Hollywood, one of the only butcher shops to sell only pasture-raised and organic meats.
Top-shelf, locally-sourced produce like this does not come cheap and it is reflected in their prices with costs as high as $4.25 for a specialty slice. It’s perhaps TOWN’s most damaging criticism and they fully acknowledge that. Joram explains, “My job before this was working as a janitor at my friend’s bar. I don’t come from money. $2.75 for a slice of cheese? I could buy that and I am the person I’m talking about. We obviously care about the ingredients that we use. We feel that comments about the price that say that we aren’t sensitive to the neighborhood… I feel like there’s more than one way to take care of a neighborhood. You can take care of people by using quality ingredients that aren’t going to kill people. I want to be able to give people an option to put something decent into their bodies so I would rather care for people in that way.”
Fans of TOWN like Brenna, a dog-walker and local resident of Glassell Park, agrees. “Having local partnerships with food suppliers and restaurants is extremely important to me. In fact, when I came here last night I noticed their sausage on the pizza was from Lindy & Grundy’s. I told the gal working at the register that this is my new favorite pizza place so she should get used to seeing me here. I’ve been here 3 times already since last week.”
As of today, TOWN only offers buy-by-the-slice for take-out or sit-in dining only. Last week they introduced their $4 lunch special – a choice of one regular cheese, pepperoni, vegan cheese, or gluten-free slice and a fountain soda or iced-tea. Soon they will be expanding their menu to include fresh organic salads, locally sourced beer and wine, and whole pie orders for take-out. Plans to open a newly renovated 100-seat dining area are also currently underway. “Pizza is very communal food. It’s meant to be shared so we’re going to have some big tables as well as smaller more intimate places for couples to sit and enjoy our food. We also hope to incorporate anyone in the neighborhood into doing what we do, like serving beer and desserts made in Highland Park, and vice versa. We believe in the neighborhood and none of us see anybody as competition as much as just common goals.”
TOWN is located on 5101 York Blvd (at the corner of Avenue 51) in Highland Park.
Open 7 days a week from 11am to 11pm.
Visit TOWN’s website for more info: http://www.townla.com
Follow TOWN at http://www.facebook.com/townpizzala