It was with a healthy dose of skepticism that I first walked into 800° Degrees, an assembly-line style create-your-own pizzeria. I have no problem with cafeteria style eating—I happily frequent Tender Greens—but the lofty claims made by the founder, Anthony Carron, in this somewhat hilarious video featured on their website made me cringe uncontrollably. The video absolutely makes me want to eat pizza, but the founder’s persistent claims like “this is the way that pizza was first invented in Naples, Italy” and “we wanted to capture the spirit of Napoli,” had me raising an eyebrow. He mentions “Naples” or “Napoli” at least four times. That’s more than once per minute. I hate to sound snobbish, but I did have the extreme pleasure of eating authentic Neapolitan pizza in Naples last fall, and I certainly did not spot any Chipotle-style assembly lines. Neapolitan pizza is crafted austerely—there are two options at Da Michele, the Naples pizzeria made famous in the movie “Eat Pray Love” (don’t let that deter you)—one may choose pizza with tomato sauce, garlic and oregano (no cheese!) or pizza with tomato sauce, mozzarella di buffala, and basil. Both are incredible. Toppings quibbles aside, let’s just point out that the soda machine Anthony touts as being designed “by an Italian design company” doesn’t look like it would quite fit in in a corner pizza joint in Napoli either. I also take issue with the fact that the name of the restaurant is clearly “Eight Hundred Degrees Degrees.” Choose either to use the symbol or to spell it out, but you can’t have both.
I am humbled to say that when I finally did visit 800° Degrees, the aroma alone upon entering was enough to make me eat my words (and a whole lot of thin crust pizza too). I looked down the assembly line at my possible topping options, and my appetite was whetted by lovely looking fresh mushrooms, olives, eggplant, Calabrian chilies, soppressata and prosciutto, among many other selections. There was oregano on the stem, applied by shaking onto the marinara-sauced pizza dough. I ordered the simple pizza margherita (the same thing I ordered in Naples) and by the time we had paid and gotten our drinks, the pizza was ready, just like Anthony promised.
The flavor: it’s good. It’s not Naples. You have no doubt heard legends of the unique “00” flour and the special flavor of the water in Italy, and those legends are true. Nothing will ever taste like the pizza crust at Da Michele, and unfortunately 800° Degrees is no exception. But the pizza does taste really good. It does come out of an 800-degree oven bubbling and chewy and thin and edible only with a fork and knife, which is pretty authentic. Everything on the menu is unbelievably cheap—a basic margherita pizza is only $6.45. You can get a delicious salad of creamy burrata cheese with roasted beets or cherry tomatoes and pesto or eggplant caponta for $5. I still can’t believe that. They have wine and beer in addition to their space-agey soda machine.
The bottom line is, the place is really cheap—like Naples cheap—and it’s tasty too. Sure, it is over-crowded with loud UCLA students and the preparation method smacks of Subway. But I applaud the fact that this restaurant has designed a business model where they can successfully offer a dish that goes for $20 on some of my favorite menus around town for $7 instead, and the concept works. They are a chain, and they are slated to open 10 new locations this year. Normally that kind of rapid growth would turn me off, but I am coming to appreciate more and more the turn towards fast food with real ingredients and a pleasant dining experience. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the restaurant reminds me of Italy, but I wouldn’t want to miss out on eating there either.