Pitfire Pizza server Mailah Milliton with a Merguez lamb sausage pie and a white pie with ricotta and mozzarella. Photo by Kevin Cody
I find the Pitfire Pizza name strange – there are cuisines that are actually cooked in pits, such as Hawaiian luaus, traditional Brazilian barbecue, and the Early California bull’s head feasts, but the pizzas here are quite obviously cooked above the ground. I have seen the domelike oven, flames flickering merrily along the sides and heating those yummy pies by natural convection. It’s fine with me if they keep making them this way because the process obviously works very well, but the literal-minded among my readership have been warned.
Pitfire is one of the very few chain restaurants in downtown Manhattan Beach, and one that has been surprisingly successful at identifying a market and serving it. It’s not that there aren’t other places downtown where you can get a pizza, because there are plenty; it’s that they offer a premium product at a relatively modest price, in an atmosphere that is welcoming to a wide range of demographics. It’s the most family-friendly restaurant to open downtown in years, but one where you can get sophisticated flavors and a quality beer, wine, or sangria on the side.
There is nearly always a line here, partly because the specials board isn’t visible until you’re already inside, and until you see that you don’t really know what you want. Whether the specials items are peculiar to each location or imposed by the corporate chefs I don’t know, but they are always interesting reading, and the counter staff are used to people gawking indecisively as they reach the counter. My experiences with them have generally been positive, and my recommendation is to order a salad or one of the farmer’s market side plates as an appetizer for the table, then follow it up with pizzas. The farmer’s market plates area selection of four different vegetables, sometimes in unusual combinations; I fondly remember the shaved zucchini with pickled fresno peppers and mint, a combination of cool, spicy, and tangy that was the highlight of a meal. A few items seem to be house favorites that are nearly always available, like grilled asparagus topped with romesco sauce, made with chopped nuts, roasted bell pepper, garlic, and oil. This is a crowd pleaser and worth trying if they have it, and so is the kale and date salad with Champagne vinaigrette.
There are some winners on the regular menu too – the Tuscan bean soup with pesto is a hearty starter, and the chopped salad is a reliable standby. I was less enamored of their version of a Nicoise salad, which had curiously muted flavors – the anchovies and olive that are traditional were left out entirely, and the vinaigrette didn’t have the mustard bite to offset the tuna. I tried it twice and found it to be one of the few failures of this kitchen.
Some pastas are offered as main dishes, and despite the fact that I was in a pizza place I have tried a few. My wife is a fan of the spaghetti with handmade chicken meatballs, and I liked the chicken and mushroom cavatapi – both were comfort food very well done. Most people come here for the pizzas, and there’s a good reason for that – they have a crisp, slightly irregular crust with enough bubbles in them that you know the dough was rising up to the moment it hit the oven. An amazing variety of toppings are offered, many from premium suppliers – they proudly advertise their use of fresh mozzarella and organic ingredients, as well as boutique sausage and cured meats. Anything you like is probably available, as well as some things you probably haven’t thought of. I admit that I tried the Greens, Eggs & Ham pizza (braised rapini, whole eggs, garlic oil, cheese, and prosciutto) just because I liked the clever name, but I ordered it the second time just because it was a good pizza. A daily special Brussels sprout and bacon pizza was delicious enough that I wish it was a regular item, and the “Sausage Party” – you guessed it, every kind of cured and processed meat in the kitchen – was probably terrible for me but tasted delicious.
As for libations to pair with your meal, a changing list of beers and wines beckons, but I particularly recommend the sangria – both white and red are usually offered, and they’re both refreshing. Those who do not imbibe can enjoy housemade lemonade or a variety of sodas sweetened with cane sugar instead of corn syrup, which is as healthy as you can get while drinking soft drinks. Though you order your food and your first beverage at the counter, the servers can take repeat beverage orders at the table, so there’s no need to get back in line.
The only weak spot in the menu here is the paninis – I have tried two and been dissatisfied with both. The tuna Lucca was a timidly spiced tuna salad that was supposed to come with basil and shaved fennel, but I tasted only a little of the former and none of the latter. It was served on a toasted bun similar to a hamburger bun rather than the pressed Italian bread, which didn’t help. The pork belly was better thanks to the contrast of the meat with pickled zucchini and watercress, but the fruity apricot mustard along with the caramelized pork overdid the sweetness. Since I liked the other items so much here, I’ll probably stick with them.
Desserts are offered – organic ice cream with various toppings or cookies – but I always fill up on starters here and usually take some pizza home, so I can’t report on them. Even with my penchant for over-ordering the bill is modest – the pizzas, large salads, and pastas are priced between ten and twelve dollars, astonishingly modest for the quality on display here. Pitfire has become a mainstay in downtown Manhattan Beach because they’re consistent with their regular menu yet surprising with the specials– a great trick if you can manage it.
Pitfire Pizza is located at 401 Manhattan Beach Boulevard – open 11 AM – 10 PM daily. Street parking or underground lot – entrance from Morningside. Children welcome, patio dining, beer and wine served. Menu at pitfirepizza.com,phone 310-359-9555. ER