An LA Art Museum Has a Secret Life as One of the City's Best Pizzerias
All photos by Javier Cabral


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An LA Art Museum Has a Secret Life as One of the City's Best Pizzerias

It is located just a few steps away from Guillermo Del Toro’s personal replica of that creature from Pan’s Labyrinth with its eyes in its hands, and a room where it’s always raining.

Los Angeles' pizza does not suck, contrary to what a New York transplant who recently moved to LA might drunkenly tell you at a bar or rant about on social media.

At one point, in like the early 80s or something, when LA chefs were slapping things like caviar and smoked salmon on pizza, sure, you could have argued that those missteps were utter blasphemy, and therefore, that our pizza sucked. Nowadays, where wood-burning ovens are a given and you have the church of Nancy Silverton's Mozza, the cult of stunningly charred crusts from places like Bestia and Sotto, or the devout followers adhering to the strict school of Neapolitan-style pizzas like Wood in Silver Lake, it's safe to say that in LA, finding great pizza is almost as easy as finding a great taco.


Case in point are the pies currently being fired to doughy perfection at perhaps the most unlikely of places: the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Specifically, Ray's & Stark Bar, the unassuming restaurant on premises located just a few steps away from Guillermo Del Toro's personal replica of that creature from Pan's Labyrinth with its eyes in its hands, and a room where it's always raining.

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This is all thanks to a young Brazilian-Italian chef named Fernando Darin. He was quietly made the restaurant's executive chef in April, and has made it his personal mission to crank out the best pizzas imaginable from the place that was otherwise known as the home of America's first water sommelier.

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If you were to peek at the menu as you paced to and from the museum's buildings, you'd see that the toppings on the pizza are tempting enough to stop you in your tracks and make you consider skipping a show for a pie or two. There is a decadent white pie with sottocenere, a pungent, Italian truffled cheese; robiolina, which is like a combination between crème fraîche and burrata; saba syrup; and rosemary. If you can't handle all that creaminess, there's also a light summer squash pizza with cherry tomatoes, ricotta, and an addictive anchovy, garlic, and caper sauce.

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However, the toppings in the case of Ray & Stark's pizza are actually just the vehicle for the slightly chewy, perfectly charred crust, a discipline Darin has been obsessed with since leaving his old cooking job at the Hollywood Bowl and setting up shop at LACMA. I stepped into the kitchen with him to learn a little more about the crust and his oak-firing process. Despite Darin having an Italian heritage, he is extremely careful not to label his pizza "traditional," "Italian," or even Neapolitan, as its thin crust might suggest, or to affiliate it with any other regional style. He simply calls it "Ray's style," as he knows that everything from the type of water used in the dough to the humidity in the air to the locally sourced cheese he uses will make a different pizza than the pies you would have while visiting Italy or living in Brazil.

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"It's all about fermentation," he tells me as he gracefully picks up a smooth orb of dough resting in a box and props it on a wooden surface to roll out. His dough is fermented for a minimum of 24 hours before it's ready for action. According to him, the more it ferments, the lighter the pizza dough will be on your stomach when done. He senses the skepticism in my voice when he says this, and he backs it up by telling me that he has eaten a pizza every single day since he got the job at Ray's & Stark. His rockstar-skinny frame could confirms truth to his statement. He uses Caputo 00 flour from Italy and a sprinkle of coarse semolina flour, along with water and salt. Aside from the fermentation, he says that the single most important part of the process is the human element of stretching the dough by hand.

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As we wait for the 800-degree oven to do its thing to the pizza. I learn a little more about him. He used to be a musician, but prefers not to talk about any of the famous acts that he played with back in his home country. He's from the countryside of southern Brazil, and some of his earliest memories are of him cooking in the kitchen with his grandmother, who practically raised him. He recalls that they had a wood-burning oven and that it was their only form of heat in the home. His grandmother grew vegetables and raised some animals, which explains the garden he grows behind the restaurant—where he got the basil for the Margherita pizza in the oven that was starting to smell heavenly.

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When I see him carefully studying the air pockets in his crust as he slices through what is perhaps his thousandth pizza this month, I get the feeling that perfecting pizza is more like a life calling for Darin and his Italian roots—not just something to brag about. He's completely self-taught, too.

He then proudly shows me the gaps in the crust in the same way a gym rat would show off his six pack of abs.

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"I've had people visiting the museum from Naples who have tried the pizza on a whim and said that they haven't had pizza like this outside of Italy," he gently boasts. "How could something so simple be such a crowd pleaser?" He's content with today's result.