By MICHAEL AUSHENKER | Contributing Writer
Apollonia’s Pizzeria doubles down on the ever-trending Los Angeles pizza with its own array of expert artisan pies.
With cheeky names like The Mayor’s Mistress and The Green Mile, pies here are loaded with quality organic ingredients that will convert the palates of the most jaded hipster foodies.
That’s perhaps because co-owner and pizza chef Justin De Leon hails from the Eastside, so he knows how demanding lovers of LA pizza—with a wide array of pugilist and gourmet styles—are going to be.
His answer to that lies in such pies as Acapulco’s Gold, a head-turning extravaganza with oregano, organic grape tomatoes, arugula and truffle oil atop a cheese-lover’s paradise of mozzarella, ricotta and pecorino romano.
Another protean pie is the square pepperoni pizza with chunks of burrata, a cow’s milk-derived cheese made from mozzarella and cream, and Mike’s Hot Honey for that sweet-savory pull. The Venustiano incorporates Apollonia’s spicy arrabbiata sauce with fresh mozzarella, chunks of Italian sausage, garlic, organic grape tomatoes and fresh basil to dynamic effect.
The pies, which span from 10” to 20”, can be made here with vegan cheese, with an option for gluten-free crust. Apollonia’s also sells pizza by the slice.
What’s miraculous about the cheese pizza, for example, is how thin, light, airy and crusty it is. One can polish off the entire pie in one sitting and not feel bloated or loaded afterward. And that’s not a commentary on the portions, which are generous, it’s a testament to how skillful De Leon’s shop is to producing a pie with the perfect equilibrium.
“That cheese pizza is nowhere where it was, what it used to be,” De Leon said. “The crust has become much more complicated … as time goes by, you try to become better every day.”
“Our burrata is local, it’s made less than 15 minutes away,” he continued. “If I get my burrata today, it was made yesterday.”
De Leon grew up on the Eastside, where he attended Pasadena Art Center and became a fine arts photographer. Simultaneously, he got to know the pizza business well.
“My first job was in a pizzeria, my friends owned pizzerias,” De Leon recalled. “They’d [lose an employee and say] can you help me out until the next month when I find someone?”
In 2012, De Leon and wife Linda opened up their shop after spending a year looking for the right brick-and-mortar venue, including a heavy interest in a Long Beach space that didn’t work out. Apollonia’s found its 900-square-foot home in the Mid-Wilshire district, and the shop has been stationed at this spot ever since, even surviving 2020’s pandemic-incurred upheaval with an economic downturn and state-mandated stop-and-go regulations deeply impacting the restaurant industry.
Fortunately, Apollonia’s didn’t just survive in 2020, it thrived, as De Leon saw business boom after pivoting and transforming the interior space of his storefront into an accessory for pizza pick-up and delivery. Because of the virus crisis, De Leon streamlined Apollonia’s menu—shedding products such as salads and antipasto that require more handling—down to its essence.
“We minimized our menus to only pizza,” De Leon said.
“The pandemic made me make a decision,” he continued. “A cook disappeared, I could hire another cook, or step in and fulfill my role myself.”
DeLeon did the latter.
“If we’re going to get through this, people had to see my face,” he realized. “I made the decision to be here, work harder.”
The plan worked.
“We figured out really quick how to make it work,” De Leon said.
Even after the virus subsides, De Leon has no plans to return the 24-seat area inside, and will offer standing and counter space only.
When asked what was the greatest surprise of his entrepreneurial journey, De Leon responded that, a decade ago, he didn’t know the other pizza-makers around LA, but today, here’s a part of a community of pizzeria owners.
“There’s so much support with other pizzerias,” De Leon said. “That’s something I never imagined.”
Thanks to Instagram, that mutual admiration and support stretches all the way east to New York City.
“Instagram has definitely helped us with a lot of our accolades,” De Leon said.
And while the future may multiply Apollonia’s into a regional chain, there are no immediate plans on the table.
“We have aspirations to open up more shops but for us, we’re not trying to force anything,” De Leon said. “When the right place comes along at the right time, we’ll definitely do it.”
So, for now, the Mid-Wilshire location is where it’s at to find that Acapulco’s Gold and those signature square slices.
Nine years into the game, De Leon is proud of what he’s achieved with Apollonia’s—a business story that is as autobiographical as it is financially viable.
“It has evolved just as I as a person have evolved,” De Leon concluded.
Apollonia’s Pizzeria is currently open for pickup and delivery from Sunday to Wednesday, 12-2:30 p.m. and 5-8 p.m.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.