Pizza Antica is a light, airy eatery on the dining deck of Santa Monica Place, the only mall we actually like. With its open plan and ocean views, this collection of upscale shops overlooking the Promenade still manages to be democratic; more important for our purposes, it has obvious aspirations to become a foodie destination. Consider, for example, the newly opened Market, chock-full of artisanal vendors, and the half-dozen self-consciously epicurean restaurants, of which Pizza Antica is itself an example. For appetizers, we ordered crispy hearts of artichoke with aioli and lemon, and antipasti of young vegetables. The artichoke pieces, which were breaded and fried, calamari-style, were a bit dry and might have been enhanced by a dash more salt, but dipped in the creamy, garlicky aioli, they were undeniably tasty and gone in an instant. The antipasti dish, on the other hand, was more than just good; it was truly impressive, featuring delectable little heaps of vegetable sides, each better than the next. There were caramelized onions in a balsamic dressing; mushrooms sautéed in a wine sauce; marinated slices of fingerling potatoes; sweet fresh corn; and beautifully roasted red peppers with slivers of garlic that conjured childhood vacations in Sicily. (But see update below.) All of these were served with crunchy focaccia crisps, baked with a hint of Parmesan; more aioli; and the silky house-made mozzarella. For our pizza, we chose a classic margherita, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil. The restaurant identifies its thin-crust oval pies as Roman; since we saw several that looked burned around the edge (intentional charring, our waiter explained), we requested a gentler treatment. The result was a lovely creation with a light and chewy, almost flaky, crust. Though the sauce was slightly sweet, the pie as a whole was excellent. For dessert, we ordered the bittersweet chocolate tart with hazelnuts, whipped cream, and caramel; the chocolate, as it turned out, was more sweet than bittersweet, like a homemade brownie, but the cream was subtly sugared, the caramel judiciously distributed, and the overall effect sophisticated and scrumptious. Finally, we should not fail to mention our drinks, plain lemonade and strawberry mint lemonade, both spritzers made from manifestly fresh ingredients and perfectly balanced between sweet and tart. Notwithstanding the reasonable prices and casual, friendly atmosphere, Pizza Antica proved a rare creature indeed, a mall-based pizza restaurant in which the food is so far from cheesy that it’s positively upper-crusty.
Update: On two later visits (July 25 and August 10), we were, sadly, less thrilled by the antipasti of young vegetables, which included a seasonal substitution of hard peas and red onion (see picture above). Whatever gap this left in our enthusiasm, however, was filled by the heirloom potato pizza, whose tender slivers of purple spuds; caramelized onions; combination of Fontina, Parmesan, and Petit Basque; and sprinkling of truffle oil and chives, all on a garlic-puree base, was a feat of sublime deliciousness that will surely inspire us to return yet again. (For dessert, we recommend the moist, delicate cornmeal shortbread with fresh strawberries and cream, also shown above.)