When Gjelina first opened, George W. Bush was finishing out his second term and kale salad was creeping its way across the country. It was 2008, a time when pizza in LA was still bad, Abbot Kinney still had character, and we were in the throes of a recession responsible for making ombre a trend. And Gjelina in Venice was mobbed morning-to-night.
Rightfully so. Gjelina took the standard tuscan kale salad and put it on the grill, tossed it in yogurty dressing, and added toasted hazelnuts. They fermented their pizza dough for three days and scorched it to bubbly perfection in a woodfire oven. Finally, finally! LA could brag about a pizza other than Mozza’s. Gjelina ushered in vegetable-forward California cuisine without the snobbish French undertones or snoozy clientele who froth at the sight of a rare cab sauv. It was all cutting edge and decidedly very “LA.”
Since Gjelina opened, the locally famous and mysterious chef behind it opened GTA, Gjusta, and a pricey, now-closed ramen spot that we don’t miss. Then he disappeared. Kale isn’t even on Gjelina’s menu anymore, and you can now find good pizza in just about every neighborhood of the city. On a weeknight, you could probably walk up to the host stand and have your choice right away between the brooding dining room that could be mistaken for the hull of a ship, or the secluded patio. As other LA restaurants find the spotlight, Gjelina has become more accessible and also an absolute cliche of itself.
And yet, once you're seated, it’s as if nothing has changed. A meal at Gjelina is still genuinely spectacular, so long as you shoo away the stereotypes that come with it. The Burning Man people and their unnecessarily wide-brimmed hats are still very much here, piecing together whole meals out of three vegetable sides. And, well, we can’t blame them. Now that good LA pizza is no longer something to hyperventilate about, the vegetables stand out even more.
The greener things on the menu maneuver acidity and bitterness in a way that only Gjelina can pull off. In a simple escarole salad, parmesan shavings, smoked almonds, and sunchokes cut through the tartness of preserved lemon vinaigrette that, on its own, would make you pucker. Get a grilled vegetable—like radicchio with charred leaves that are juicy and almost unbearably bitter, offset by a just-sweet-enough apple cider vinegar—and then fill out your order from there. Even in the starchier dishes, like the saffron spaghetti with briny bottarga and plenty of tomato, chili, and breadcrumbs, every ingredient practically yodels.
The best way to experience Gjelina is to arrive not long before the sun sets. Inside or out, the space transforms from bright and easy to dark and sexy, and you won’t even notice it’s officially nighttime until the candlelight makes your Japanese sweet potatoes look like biblical iconography. And you know what? They just might be.
A crunchy escarole mountain bejeweled with smoked almonds and sunchokes. The preserved lemon vinaigrette and parmesan shavings add an extra bite that take this salad to the next level. There’s nothing boring about it. Order this salad.
Arugula & Treviso Salad
This salad has been on the menu for as long as we can remember. And that’s because it’s so simple and delicious, that we’ve started frying shallots at home to add to our own, much sadder salads. Add parmesan and sherry vinaigrette, and it’s a perfect start to your meal.
Gjelina likes putting vegetables on grills, and we like the result. Recently, we had a cruciferous grilled radicchio that was the perfect balance between bitter, sour, and sweet, but we’ve also been taken by grilled snap peas, broccolini, and dragon beans. Make sure one grilled vegetable makes it into your order.
An interesting, briny take on spaghetti pomodoro. The bottarga, breadcrumbs, and saffron make for a nice change. Delicious.
One pomodoro will remind you why Gjelina’s light, bubbly pizza still deserves a special place in your heart, or at least your well wishes, even after all these years. Is it a little absurd that you have to pay an extra $6 to add burrata? It is, and worth it for a simply great pie.
Olive-on-pizza lovers, this pie is for you. Topped with green olives, fresno chile, and mozzarella, it’s that ideal mix of hearty and spicy, and the kind of pizza you’ll drive back to Venice for when the craving hits.
This is one of our longstanding Gjelina favorites. It’s rich and buttery and the mushrooms are cooked to tender perfection. It’s not the most interesting thing on the menu, but it’s always a crowd-pleaser.
Flat Iron Steak
This flat iron comes cooked to perfection and bathing in beet-tinted porcini butter, but nothing about it tastes memorable. Stick to the pizzas and pastas for mains.