Chris O'Donnell on His Restaurant Pizzana, Now Open in West Hollywood
"I’ve never eaten so much food in my life. It’s like wine tasting, where you try to find the little nuances of what makes this one different than the other one — but with wine you get a spit bucket," said the 'NCIS: Los Angeles' star and restaurateur of menu sampling in a chat with co-owner Candace Nelson.
Anyone not willing to jump the 405 for a cacio e pepe pizza at Brentwood’s always-buzzing Pizzana is in luck: a second location of the pizzeria, owned by Sprinkles Cupcakes founders Candace and Charles Nelson and actor Chris O’Donnell and wife Caroline, recently opened in the heart of West Hollywood.
Since Pizzana first opened in 2017, chef Daniele Uditi’s perfect pies have garnered a near cult following (including Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon, Katie Lee, Steve Carrell and Usher) and a new Bib Gourmand designation from the Michelin Guide. Located in the former Ed’s Coffee Shop on Robertson Boulevard, with only 40 seats, there’s a good chance demand will be high at the new outpost, too.
What’s new: a few menu items, including smoked salmon-topped pizza (Uditi’s ode to Wolfgang Puck and Spago) and New York-style thin crust slices available to go only after 10 p.m. The place stays open until midnight most nights, too. And the covered patio alongside the building has already become a neighborhood favorite for quick lunches.
This particular building is special to both Nelson and O’Donnell. Not only did it almost become home to the Nelsons' first Sprinkles cupcakery, O’Donnell happened to have his very first "Hollywood lunch" at Ed’s. "My first screen test was directly across the street, so I grabbed lunch there," the NCIS: Los Angeles star recalls. "I always thought of that space as a good luck charm."
O’Donnell never set out to become a restaurateur, but when the stars aligned to open Pizzana with the Nelsons and Uditi, he couldn’t pass it up. He says it’s not much different than acting. "When you prepare for a role, you don’t know how people are going to respond to it. It’s the same with restaurants," O’Donnell explains. "So much effort and preparation went into that first restaurant, and before we opened, we just kind of held our breath wondering if people will show up. Sometimes it’s just lightning in a bottle."
The Hollywood Reporter sat down with O’Donnell and Nelson to talk about the confluence of Hollywood and the food world, Michelin stars, cupcake wars and eating pizza until you sweat.
What do you think about what’s happening in Los Angeles in terms of food, dining and restaurants?
Nelson: It’s the most exciting time for food in L.A. The diversity of cuisines, the chefs coming here to open restaurants. That Michelin decided to come back to California. It’s just exploding, and we’re so happy to be a part of it.
O’Donnell: Traffic is so brutal, it’s amazing to me that people go to such great lengths to get to so many restaurants. I mean, it’s work. So there are a lot of places I haven’t been yet because it will take so long to get there. But when we do, we’re always happy to do it for a world-class meal. It’s better than having to get on a plane.
It’s true that there are many global influences here, lots of diverse communities. But pizza is a mainstay, and we have more options than ever. Is it too much? How do you make Pizzana stand out?
O’Donnell: When you’re craving pizza, you’re craving pizza. I don’t care if it’s a corner delivery place or something else. But to really focus on it and make it as good as you can with the absolute best ingredients, it takes it to another level. The attention to detail that Charles and Candace have focused on with Daniele, the ingredients, and the service is just such another level than I ever imagined when we first talked about doing this.
Nelson: It really is this comfort food that we’ve all grown up with, but now with Daniele, and the cheese flown in from Italy, the tomatoes grown for us and in the soil of Mount Vesuvius, it really is taking something so simple and elevating it to make it exceptional. Each bite, it’s not just pizza anymore. People are taking their first bite, like back when Charles and I first had Daniele’s pizza at your house, Chris, and they’re just like, “Whoa.”
How did that come about again?
O’Donnell: We built our house and put a pizza oven in the backyard, but I was so green and had no idea what to do with that oven. I asked Daniele and his brother to come teach me how to make pizza, and what they made was just so good. So we started this tradition with three or four families and Sunday night dinners. When Charles and Candace came over, they joked that we should open a restaurant with them.
Nelson: Those pizza parties were legendary. I remember having my first bite of Daniele’s pizza. I was like, “Who is this guy?” I found him off to the side by the wood-burning oven, and we just talked all night about the nuances of making a great crust, and the nuances of making a great cupcake. We just really connected. And then we all sat down and decided to do something together. The rest is history.
Do you eat any other pizza in town?
O’Donnell: Well, I have five kids. I’m not afraid to call Postmates and have something delivered that will make everyone happy. But honestly, to know I can order from Brentwood and have at my house in like 30 minutes, and it comes where it’s not finished cooking, so we just put it in the oven for a few minutes. I’m pretty loyal to that.
Nelson: I don’t go for comparison's sake, no. I went down that road with Sprinkles. I think the best lesson I learned from going through the cupcake explosion is that you have to focus on what you’re doing first and not worry about what others are doing. We’re excited about all the great pizza that’s happening out there because I truly believe everyone needs access to great pizza. But we have to be true to ourselves.
As an actor, what surprised you most about the process of opening a restaurant?
O’Donnell: It’s amazing to watch the effort by the entire team. The details, like the specials written on a little piece of paper you get in a glass when you sit down. It’s just a fountain of creativity by the entire team. Watching Daniele tweak recipes, doughs with different flours, it’s very foreign to me. It was fun to watch and fun to be a part of.
O’Donnell: I’ve never eaten so much food in my life. It’s like wine tasting, where you try to find the little nuances of what makes this one different than the other one — but with wine you get a spit bucket.
Nelson: Well, Caroline brought out a bowl for our crusts. At some point, you just can’t eat anymore crust. You try a pizza, give your comments, and the chef goes back into the kitchen and makes another one, and then that might need another tweak. And that’s just one of a plethora of pizzas you’re trying that day. You start kind of sweating after a while.
Was expansion always in the cards? Do you think this will become the next great pizza empire?
O’Donnell: When we fell in love with Daniele, we just wanted to help him out. You know, here’s this guy trying to live the American dream. I would’ve been happy just helping him start some little pizzeria. The restaurant business is brutal, and thinking too far ahead is a little overconfident. But I knew the chances were good with the combination of Daniele, Candace and Charles. It’s exceeded all of my expectations.
Nelson: We’ve had requests for franchises since we opened in Brentwood. For us, the quality of what we’re doing is paramount. Daniele is ambitious and an incredibly talented chef and does things in a really unique way, so we’re not going to get ahead of ourselves. With that said, L.A. is huge. I could see going into the Valley, maybe downtown. We’re just taking it one day at a time.
How are the two Pizzanas reflective of their neighborhoods?
O’Donnell: We have so many friends on the other side of town that said, you know, we wish it was in our neighborhood. Now they have one.
Nelson: To be honest, it was a little selfish on our part. We live closer to West Hollywood. The last few nights, I thought it felt like I was on a New York City patio, it just felt urban and cool. Brentwood is families, we have valet out front, it’s easy and comfortable. West Hollywood feels like more singles and couples, and a lot of neighbors walking there.
With such so many high-profile regulars, special requests must be huge. How do you handle it?
Nelson: Before we even opened, I knew we’d have to have a gluten-free pizza. Daniele thought it was crazy, but he was up for it. And he worked on a dough for months, and people say it’s the best gluten-free crust they’ve ever tasted.
O’Donnell: For me, I just never thought I was gonna be in the reservation business. I mean, I get more people texting me about tables than anything. It’s not exactly what I signed up for, but I’m glad there’s a desire for it.