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A Brief History of California Pizza

Ah, California. The land of surfers, sun-kissed hair, Hollywood, tech start-ups, and pizza. Pizza, you say? California isn’t Chicago or New York!

Au contraire. And we don’t just mean California Pizza Kitchen. California Pizza Kitchen is the most famous in a long line of innovative restaurants that changed the way Americans viewed pizza and its toppings. To unpack all of this history, we have to go back to its beginnings, with Spago and Chez Panisse.

Chez Panisse: Alice Waters is an undisputed California culinary icon. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse, has been at the forefront of California cuisine since it opened in Berkeley in 1971. So when she began making wood-fired pizzas with unusual toppings, people took notice. Pizzas topped with locally sourced ingredients like leeks and duck confit started to be served at the restaurant in 1980. Chez Panisse is recognized as one of the creators of California-style pizza, along with Ed LaDou. Which leads us to…

Spago: Wolfgang Puck’s legendary restaurant hired Ed LaDou to run its pizza program when it opened in 1982 after Puck tasted one of LaDou’s culinary creations. It was a pizza topped with ricotta cheese, red peppers, pate, and mustard, and it cemented LaDou’s place in pizza history. At Spago, LaDou developed a pizza menu that included smoked salmon pizza served with a side of caviar and pizza with smoked lamb, eggplant, roasted peppers, and cilantro. None of these pizzas sound revolutionary today, but at the time, pizza was for pepperoni and sausage only. Spago became an icon of celebrity dining and elevated the humble pizza.

California Pizza Kitchen: California Pizza Kitchen was founded by two lawyers in Beverly Hills, proving that you, too, can follow your dreams and leave a stressful career behind to enter the glorious world of pizza. The savvy founders hired, you guessed it, Ed LaDou, to develop the restaurant menu. It all makes sense now. Now, it’s a corporate behemoth owned by PepsiCo, but it did originally start as an exciting new restaurant.

California Pizza Today: These days, California is dotted with innovative pizza restaurants following in the footsteps of giants. Flour + Water, in the Mission in San Francisco, serves wood-fired pizzas topped with things like nettles, green garlic, escarole, and anchovy sofritto. California-style pizza continues to be focused on innovative toppings, and most California-style pizza uses a traditional Neapolitan crust. In LA, Venice’s Gjelina carries on the tradition with squash blossom pizzas and gruyere, caramelized onion, and arugula pizzas.

Indeed, California-style pizza is everywhere these days from Seattle’s Delancey to growing national chain the Pizza Press. And pizza farm restaurants, participating in the tradition of local ingredients, have popped up everywhere from Austin, Texas to Minnesota. So during this darkest time of winter, inject some sunshine by trying a California–style pizza.