Nagila Pizza may be located next to a nondescript mini-mall on a stretch of Ventura Boulevard in Encino, but its spacious interior recalls one of those crowded cafeteria-inspired cafes on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street on a bustling Saturday. A young Chasidic family pours out of a blue minivan and surveys the strictly kosher dairy menu. A group of Israeli women in jeans and strappy Grecian sandals converse in Hebrew over baba ganoush and Spanish eggplant as their kids munch on breadsticks and cheese bourekas. Two little boys in knitted kippot bounce excitedly across the restaurant, pressing their noses against the rounded glass counter and its display of vegetarian side dishes: freshly chopped tabbouleh, homemade hummus with fava beans and a rainbow of assorted Israeli salads.
And then there’s me, pizza lover extraordinaire/recovering East Coast pizza snob, eager to see how Nagila’s pies measure up.
Eli Nitka, the restaurant’s hospitably friendly 52-year-old co-owner (his brothers Reuven and Aaron handle Nagila Pizza’s Pico Boulevard location, as well as Nagila Meating Place, also on Pico) greets me enthusiastically. He waves to a few other customers as they float in, one of them a small boy who makes a beeline for the restaurant’s patio where a miniature coin-operated carousel and Garfield car — two of Nagila’s myriad kid-friendly features — await. (There’s also a toy machine by the restrooms.)
“One of my greatest pleasures is seeing people that I’ve known for years now coming in with their kids,” says Nitka. “It’s an easy place to come with kids. It’s not expensive, it’s got high-quality food. It’s a fast-food restaurant with an upgrade.”
Aptly, the restaurant’s cheery slogan is ‘Hav’ a Nagila Day!’ a nod to the ubiquitous celebratory Jewish song/dance combo.
I ask Nitka what his favorite item on the menu is and he immediately sets me up with a hot double-cut slice of the Stuffed Crust specialty pizza —“It’s the only pizza of its kind,” he informs me— its raised, doughy circumference filled with mushrooms, garlic and cheese, and topped with basil, red peppers and garlic. A perfect marriage of sweet tomato and fragrant garlic, it’s like biting into a little corner of Napoli, only better, because it’s a short half-hour drive from my house.
“The key to perfect pizza is timing,” Nitka tells me, sitting across from me at a rear corner booth. “It’s about how long the dough bakes and for how long the cheese melts and how much tomato sauce you pour, what kind of oven you use. It’s all of these elements coming together.”
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