JUST WHEN YOU think a neighborhood can’t possibly handle another wood-fired pizza joint with pastas and lots of seasonal vegetables, you walk into Gesso and realize it clearly can. That’s what my friend and I decided as we sat in a big booth at this new West Hollywood restaurant. The place was absolutely buzzing the night we dined—full of couples on dates, groups of friends and even locals who probably walked only a few blocks from their cute Craftsman homes nearby.
Like many of the houses in the area, Gesso is basically a flip. The owners of Pitfire Artisan Pizza decided to make it a slightly less casual experience—gone are the big splotches of bright tomato red, for instance, and you no longer order at the counter out front—and transform the outpost to be a full-service spot with a long cocktail bar and shareable small plates that please the masses. Sure, the people who brought their kids in for early evening pizza might not love the change, but now they can leave the kids at home and have a fun date night for once.
Just as an artist uses gesso to prime a blank canvas before painting, the former Pitfire was stripped down and cleared out to become something new. It’s massive, with a warehouse vibe, on the ground-floor of a mixed-use complex with industrial accents. Unlike its predecessor, the restaurant is now filled with custom-built wood tables and ironwork, and sexy modern light fixtures dangling from the high ceilings overhead. The whole place feels like it could just as easily live in DTLA’s hip Arts District as it can in this mainstream neighborhood.
While Gesso’s pizzas tend to be the star, chef Doug Miriello does offer up some nice seafood dishes on his menu, like the gorgeous wood-fired spot prawns (when in season), and a pan-roasted corvina, which is similar to a sea bass with cannellini beans, mustard greens and a pungent salsa verde.
Most of the chef’s plates have a rustic edge to them, with California, Italian and Mediterranean seasonality as the backbone. That means the roast chicken is rubbed with harissa and served with tzatziki; the gorgeous Peads & Barnett pork chop is doused generously with fennel before hitting the fire; and the arancini—cheese-stuffed fried rice balls—come with a meaty Bolognese sauce. There are lighter dishes too, like the fried eggplant, which isn’t in the parmigiana style. Instead, little cubes of the vegetable are fried, served on top of a tomato confit and doused with thin strips of frizzled eggplant skin for texture. It’s a smart use of something most kitchens would throw away.
There are the aforementioned pizzas, and they might even be better than before—especially the ones with blistered cherry tomatoes, scamorza and herbs; bitter greens with caramelized onion, morbier and sottocenere cheeses; and a proper white clam pie with parsley, chili and Parmesan.
Do you need a pasta? Probably not. The winter wheat tagliatelle with walnut pesto has a little too much grit to be really enjoyable, so consider using those saved calories for dessert. The chocolate espresso cake is never a bad choice.
Offering a little bit for everyone at every time of day (breakfast, lunch and dinner is served daily), Gesso taps into one of L.A. hottest dining trends: a solid neighborhood restaurant that every pocket in town craves morning, noon and night. Paul Hibler and his American Gonzo Food Corporation team have a knack for creating this kind of space, from Superba Food & Bread in Venice to the Pitfire chain. And like those, Gesso can be replicated for other up-and-coming neighborhoods, but still feel somewhat unique. It’s a locals’ joint for anyone, whether a true local or just someone who wishes to become one.
801 N. Fairfax Ave., West Hollywood, 323.544.6240
Small plates, $3-$16; vegetables, $10-$14; pizzas, $15-$21; mains, $17-$33
Sun.-Wed., 8am-11pm; Thu.-Sat., 8am-1am
WHERE TO SIT
The booths around the big windows are the most comfortable and have the best view of the room and action.
WHAT TO DRINK
The wine list is smart and filled with eclectic finds from all around the globe. For cocktails, the G&T&T, made with gin, matcha and lemongrass, is a fab sipper.
With a daily breakfast menu and bumping brunch, the resto offers everything from overnight oats to seeded granola and a gravlax bialy.