Grieving the loss of a friend — and remembering, with pizza

Pizza Rosa from Pizzeria Bianco

A week before my friend John Adams was diagnosed with cancer, we ate pizza. We sat at a table at Pizzeria Bianco in downtown Phoenix and talked about graduate school, his dog, and the many vacation dinners he spent with my family. This was my first time visiting him since he moved to work, and we were both very excited to go to the restaurant. “Did you know Chris Bianco was the first person to win the James Beard pizzaiolo award?” he texted when my plane landed.

It was a great night out with a dear friend, ate our way through Bianco’s menu. Nice bubbly pizza crust, crispy, chewy and a little grainy. The obvious favorite is the Rosa, a sauceless cake topped with enough Parmigiano Reggiano to create a visible layer of cheese, chunks of red onion, rosemary leaves, and crumbled Arizona pistachios. Crispy pistachios melt in the hot oven, the cheese melts and the shallots turn sweet. After sharing more than a few school delivery pizzas, we agree that this pizza is nothing short of a revelation.

I’ve been back to Arizona many times to visit, and we always have a Rosa. Finally, while he was in treatment, dinner at the restaurant was converted to take-out at John’s house. We ate our favorite pizza and ice cream while revisiting “Ted Lasso” or YouTube videos of John’s favorite comedians.

When he passed away earlier this year, I was heartbroken. I am fine. Thinking about our time together helps, and so does Rosa. When Bianco started serving pizza at its new downtown Los Angeles location on Row, I couldn’t wait to go. LA Rosa is pretty much the Arizona version, just with this pizza he’s buying local pistachios.

The memories of the many meals John and I shared comforted me with every slice.

Hansei x JACCC’s teriyaki steak plate

A plate of juicy red beef slices.

Hansei x JACCC teriyaki plate.

(Stephanie Breijo / Los Angeles Times)

I grew up eating teriyaki chicken plates at Kabuki, a casual Japanese-American restaurant in Hastings Ranch. The chicken is always dry and the sauce is too sweet, but served with steamed rice, it’s one of my favorite dinners.

A plate of teriyaki is something Chris Ono knows he wants to put on the menu at Hansei, the pop-up restaurant that recently opened inside the Japanese American Community and Cultural Center in Little Tokyo. Part of the inspiration for the dinner came from ancient Japanese church cookbooks and community centers with dishes like tamales, tons of Mexican and grilled spaghetti.

“These cookbooks are used to preserve Japanese-American recipes for the next generation, mainly[-generation] Japanese-Americans who put all their recipes together,” Ono said on a recent call. “I am still using it as a guide for future dishes.”

Ono’s version of the teriyaki plate appears at the end of a tasting menu that begins in the James Irvine garden with a range of small dishes like cornbread chicken liver with umeboshi. The teriyaki combo is served on a tray, with Black Hawk Farms New York full cut steak. Ono’s sauce is truly a fusion of teriyaki and bordelaise, with the richness and complexity of classic French red wine sauce and the sweetness of teriyaki.

A spoonful of corn pudding is mixed with the steak. In addition, there is a selection of seasonal dishes in addition to steamed rice and some yuzu kosho dishes. Recently had the cucumber pickle and the sardines and tomato salad.

“I grew up in LA, and there are a lot of Japanese restaurants serving sushi and teriyaki,” says Ono. “Exact teriyaki combinations may eventually change, but this is my return to those restaurants.”

Hilltop Coffee and Kitchen

A grilled cheese sandwich alongside a cup of tomato soup.

Grilled cheese and tomato soup from Hilltop Coffee in Windsor Hills.

(Jenn Harris / Los Angeles Times)

Most days, I eat at many restaurants. This is not a complaint, it is just a fact. However, sometimes, when I can’t make sense of a sit-down dinner, many other dishes and I can’t muster the energy to cook, I eat like a 5-year-old sleeping through the night at my grandmother’s house. Peanut butter and jelly with the crust removed? Right. A bag sized to share with Snyder’s of Hanover’s Honey Mustard and Onion Slices? Sure. Half a box of cereal with cold milk? Yes, please. One thing that’s always on the list is grilled cheese, preferably with tomato soup.

The most satisfying version I have found while researching and about is from Hilltop Coffee and Kitchen. There are three locations, but the one in View Park-Windsor Hills, with its high ceilings, ample parking, good playlist, and plenty of space to work on a laptop, is a favorite. .

Grilled cheese is decadent in the way that it is supposed to be grilled cheese. The sourdough slabs are buttered and baked. In the middle of the bread are cheddar, provolone and pimento, creating layers of white, orange and red melted cheeses that are crisp and creamy in color. They’re an inch of solid cheese, enough to extrude an impressively thick, greasy strand that can stretch your arm’s length.

The cafe also makes creamy tomato soup for dipping, and the dipping in half is fun.

Pizzeria Bianco, 1320 E 7th St., 100, Los Angeles, (213) 372-5155,
Hansei x JACCC, 244 S. San Pedro St., Los Angeles, (213) 628-2725,
Hilltop Coffee, 4427 W. Slauson Ave., Los Angeles, (323) 815-9833, Grieving the loss of a friend — and remembering, with pizza

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