We don’t care what people say-it’s different on this coast. People who grew up in California know better than to order Mexican food in Manhattan. So, East Coasters, what’s with the complaining about our pizza and all?
We know it’s a disc of dough topped with sauce, cheese, and condiments; that its disputed origins still point to some region of that ancient kingdom founded by Romulus and Remus; that it should be baked in a big oven till crisp and melty. But we like pineapple sometimes and jalape±os too. Your version may be tastier on a regular basis, granted. But we have developed certain kinds of pizza panache. Honest: Our different is not always what you might call worse.
Take Deano’s Pizzarama for instance. Since 1960, the cavernous Mesa hangout has been not merely for the re-tanking softball teams, City College scholars, and noisy Westside family types. Deano’s offers something unique. The crust emanates a doughy duality: It’s cracker-y on the bottom but chewy at its topping-interface layer.
“One reason is that we fold the dough,” said manager John Henning, who has been soldiering for the joint long enough to raise a child and send him to private college on the pizza-snobby coast. Henning was trained at Rusty’s but made the leap over to Deano’s when he married into the Deano’s dynasty. (It’s a long story, though nobody would accuse the soft-spoken Henning, who surfs mornings at Leadbetter’s, of anything molto Machiavellian.) “The trick is to fold the dough over 20 times,” he said, confessing that this belabored texturing takes place in a rolling machine.
“But the real secret to Deano’s is parchment paper,” he said. That’s because the salient distinction Deano’s pizza offers is The Crunchies. “You can only do that with parchment paper,” said Henning. “And every Deano’s pizza is baked on parchment paper.” Doing that means loading a pizza with cheese so high and near the outer rim, that it melts over and produces a flavorful burnt residue-blackened pizza, if you will. “If you did that just on the oven the cheese would just burn up,” he explained. Begun as an accident, it’s now the Deano’s flavor edge. “I get people complaining they don’t have enough crunchies on their pizza,” laughed Henning, who’s the first to admit that crunchy development probably owes as much to chaos theory as it does to the skill of the pizza masters.
They are deeply skilled, however, said Henning, and there is next to nil turnover at Deano’s, where most of the older workers started in the back room washing dishes before they were even allowed to touch the crust. The place, originally founded as a Me-n-Ed’s chain, was liberated by Dean Metcaff, who brought in his friend Oliver Moraga. (Dean and Oliver: Hence Deano). Though the Moragas ran the place for most of the intervening years, they sold it to Lou Torres, an S.B. guy now working as an L.A. firefighter, who pledged to keep the faith, though the mall owners once tried to replace them with a Blockbuster, according to an ex-manager.
If you are an old-timer, crusty or not, chances are you have compromised memories of Deano’s early days, a blurriness not entirely due to befuddlements of age. For me, for instance, Deano’s has the unlikely patina of a psychedelic shack. That’s because we used to party there when the joint had the earned reputation as a spot where pitchers of beer might be had without too close an inspection of IDs. (It is most decidedly NOT like that nowadays.) Besides, it was a big dark place with a great jukebox, cool neon, and trippy silent movies playing where today a widescreen sportscast TV stands.
Periodically, Deano’s has been a music venue and, according to the Moragas, Eric Clapton and Janis played in the yawning Cliff Drive eatery. Some have questioned the veracity of these claims, though the assertion that Strawberry Alarm Clock blazed “Incense and Peppermints” on a makeshift bandstand in the back of the room is greeted as reliable. Henning’s son’s band Punch It, Chewie delighted crowds there in the Clinton ‘90s, for sure, man.
But the best thing about Deano’s is the pizza, and for me it’s the Italian-sausage-and-green-olives combo. For you, it’s different. There are times in this life when exhaustion weighs your lower back and makes cooking for the gang impossible and going out even seem hard. This fatigue, as well as softball victories, is why Deano’s was invented. It’s the flavor of the neighborhood you grew up in, or, maybe better, the one you chose. The jukebox is still far out, the disc is cracker-y and sharply flavored with burnt cheese, and the sauce and even the pineapples taste like home.
Deano’s Pizzarama is located at 1950 Cliff Drive. Call 965-1077 or see deanospizzarama.com.