The night before the 2005 Los Angeles Marathon, most of my fellow runners had already gorged themselves on pasta and were asleep by 9 PM. But at 9, thanks to my friend John, a one-time Chicago resident and deep-dish pizza aficionado, I was at Zelo in Arcadia, downing deep-dish cornmeal crust pizza and chocolate cake. I may have sacrificed valuable sleep, but it was worth it.
Zelo was a long time coming for chef/owner Mike Freeman. After being raised from city to city, the son of a career Air Force man, Mike settled in San Francisco. He spent eight years making pizza for restaurant owner/food writer Patty Unterman at Vicolo before leaving to cook pizza at Fellini’s in Atlanta in time for the 1996 Olympics. After turning down the owner’s offer to open a branch of Fellini’s in downtown Athens, thinking the focus would be less on food and more on carding University of Georgia students, Mike returned to San Francisco and Vicolo. Unfortunately, in the time he’d been gone, the restaurant had become uneven. Mike didn’t want to supervise kids, and found he could make the same money as a bike messenger. A lot of bike messengers are musicians and artists, same as in restaurants, and Mike enjoyed his duty, but he eventually decided he no longer wanted to make his living on the street. While visiting his cousin in Santa Monica and realizing Los Angeles needed pizza, Mike checked the LA Times listings and discovered a pizza parlor for sale in Arcadia: Palazzolo. The space already had pizza ovens. Mike settled on cornmeal crust pizza, cooked in a pan, since it’s more reliably consistent, and opened under the name Zelo, “zeal” in Italian.
Zelo is a cozy establishment within striking distance of Santa Anita Park, the racetrack made even more famous in the movie “Seabiscuit.” Up front, four tables appear across a counter from the ovens. A long hallway leads to another four tables in back. White walls are crammed with music memorabilia and art. The service is unbelievably friendly, no doubt due to Mike’s leadership. He values the social aspect of owning a restaurant, and is disappointed when a customer takes an order to go since he never knows if they enjoy it or not. Painfully for Mike, Zelo does 70% takeout.
According to Mike, “Some people (make pizza) for the love, and some people do it for the business. You can tell. Pizza is a really good markup, so people go into it for that reason. The ingredients set Zelo apart, since it’s closer to a restaurant, instead of just pizza toppings.” After eating at Zelo, and hearing Mike talk, it’s obvious he’s doing it for the love.
My friend and I each started with a salad.
A special salad of crisp asparagus spears on a lettuce bed, drizzled with creamy lemon dressing ($5.75) proved to be a refreshing starter.
John and I tripled Mike’s suggestion, splitting three half-pizzas (3 slices and $9 each). Zelo charges $16.50 for a whole pie, 6 slices. Pizza #1 involved SAUSAGE: homemade sausage, tomato sauce, marinated green peppers, sautéed onions, and mozzarella. Pizza #2 featured PEPPERONI: pepperoni, mozzarella, fontina, mushrooms, and fresh tomatoes. Pizza #3 was a SPINACH special: mozzarella, ricotta, sautéed spinach, garlic + red onion, and fresh tomatoes. Each crust was grainy, dense, full of corn flavor, and tasty. Pepperoni was the clear winner, salty and luscious. House-made sausage was savory. Spinach pizza was very good, sweet and salty.
Other interesting sounding pizzas rotate as specials, including POTATO PANCETTA: mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, thin-sliced potatoes, Italian bacon, tomato sauce and fresh rosemary; TOSCANO: mozzarella, Toscano salami, blue cheese and fresh tomatoes; and KALE: mozzarella, smoked mozzarella, sautéed kale, butternut squash and roasted walnuts. There’s even a calzone ($9 for either veggie or meat).
Mike wasn’t thinking of serving pasta dishes when he bought the restaurant from Carmelo Palazzolo, but Palazzolo insisted locals demanded them. He was so insistent that he even taught Mike his recipes. Zelo thus serves a limited pasta menu. There’s spaghetti or penne with tomato, garlic, basil and olive oil; tomato sauce, sausage and cheese; or garlic & olive oil ($7-$9 apiece). All pastas come with garlic bread. Mike contributed one original pasta recipe: homemade vegetarian lasagna with zucchini, spinach & mushrooms.
Mike offers one dessert, and it’s incredible: zucotto ($3.75). Zucotto is a “chilled, whipped chocolate cake with whipped cream and crushed biscotti layer & ladyfinger crust.” Soft ladyfingers were arranged in a picket-fence formation around the huge, creamy cake slice. Mike was the designated zucotto-maker in his years at Vicolo. In San Francisco, he used different ladyfingers and amaretto cookies. Mike doesn’t like amaretto cookies, and since Zelo is his place, he uses biscotti. “I couldn’t find the same ladyfingers, so I started using Trader Joe’s, which are softer, almost Twinkie-like.” His dessert also incorporates Ghirardelli chocolate and whipped cream. In an ironic twist, they stopped selling zucotto at Vicolo because nobody knew how to make it anymore. Thankfully the zucotto tradition reached Arcadia.
Mike Freeman is seemingly just as passionate about music as he is about pizza. In the back dining room, his souvenir concert posters from San Francisco’s famed Fillmore line the walls, including Wilco and the double-bill of Luna/Rainer Maria. In the hallway connecting back to front, four painted panels feature the members of REM by a Texas artist named Paco. Mike fell for REM’s music while living in Georgia. Mike is more than a musical admirer. He used to play a farfisa, a ’60s era keyboard known for its “Tex-Mex” sound, but sold it, one of his biggest regrets. He sometimes hunts online for a replacement farfisa, but at this point in his life, a dishwasher is a more pressing need. In Atlanta, Mike was even a member of Def Mute, a high-energy rap band known around A-town for warming up concert audiences. The band consisted of Mike, one other rapper, and a bodyguard. They cut a seven-song EP. Currently, Mike has no plans to play the EP at Zelo. He sticks to playing a mix of eclectic music from his iPod. Locals have been known to compliment him on his musical tastes.
As for the L.A. Marathon, I finished in 4:01:36, good for 2165th place. With 25,102 entrants, that meant a Top 10% finish. I’d like to credit Mike Freeman and Zelo for the fuel. If I run the L.A. Marathon again next year, there’s no question where I’ll carbo-load the night before the race: Zelo.
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