The brick building was conspicuously painted black, standing out on a street lined with low-rise garages and warehouses.
It seemed a bit newer and smaller than many of the Arts District buildings; the railroad-adjacent neighborhood to a former shipping district for nearby grape, later grapefruit orchards. It reminded me of industrial mechanic shops I used to see back home in New York in Willets Point, Queens or Bay Ridge, Brooklyn—stockily standing guard on an unwanted commercial street corner. But the Los Angeles Arts District is no longer unwanted. Now one of the fastest-growing hip neighborhoods of Los Angeles, this is where, eight years ago, professional skater Salman Agah saw the building and wanted to open a bar.
I’d first come to know of Salman’s skating, like many of my generation, from the Black Label video Label Kills. The diverse trick selection, use of black and white, and Cheap Trick song “Surrender” made it stand out for me in a video with a host of arguably better parts. It wasn’t until a few years later that I understood Salman’s legacy in skateboarding; the 1993 Skater of the Year accolade, light and powerful style, and switch innovation. This is when, especially for Salman, the bulk of his skateboarding career really happened. “I feel like Black Label was an afterthought to my skate career,” he tells me. “My career was pretty short in the sense that the energy I had to put into it was sort of concentrated in the ’80s and early ’90s. In the early ’90s, to be a pro, it had as much meaning as you wanted to attribute to it. I feel like people who were at the pinnacle of their career then, did it purely out of the love of skating. There was nothing else to really get out of it.”
Salman believes that all the facets of a person—personality, interests outside of skating, worldview—should add up to a holistic definition of a professional skater. In a way, just like his widespread use of switch skating, he was ahead of his time. In the 80s and early 90s the industry wasn’t as inundated with big brand mentality and the idea of marketing skateboarding as a ‘lifestyle’. Even though he considers his time at Black Label (who he still rides for) as some of his best skateboarding-wise, when the 2000s were really under way he found himself at a crossroads. “I feel like I became the best skater I ever was, for myself, riding for Black Label. But a lot of it was never seen because much of it wasn’t documented. It was always more important to me to be a good skater in person than it was to portray my ability to work out a trick and film it. The video age was lost on me.” Despite what I had believed as a kid based on repeated Label Kills viewings, Salman’s career was in decline and he found himself on the sand in Huntington Beach with his head in his hands wondering what he was going to do next.
This phase didn’t last long and Salman’s not one for sulking, so he powered forward and parlayed his philosophies about skateboarding into a consulting company that helped skateboard and media brands setup advertising and sponsorship and, tellingly, figure out what to do with social media. In this new age of big money in skateboarding Salman was helping brands communicate a lifestyle to their consumers, rather than just selling skateboarding. It was this, and a bit of personal history, that helped him move forward with his next venture.
Growing up in Washington, D.C., when it was too hot to skate Salman and his friends would hang out in Rico’s pizza shop and sit and play Mario Brothers. He got so good at the game, he says, that he was able to beat it perfectly still on his first life, a feat that took upwards of four hours. Over the course of this time, he and his friends would save money by eating other patron’s leftover slices. He laughs recounting this story; his parents owned a French bakery and cafe that he could have easily hung out at and pilfered free grub from. He doesn’t place too much meaning on it now, but it’s possible that the home-away-from-home aspect of a local pizza shop, fostering a warm, welcoming feeling to any East Coast skater kid, informed who he would eventually become.
These fond social memories in the pizza shop, or a familial streak, may have been what influenced Salman to desire a brick-and-mortar business of his own. In his case, it was a bar and he had his sights set on the mechanic-style building in Los Angeles’ Arts District where he was living. Problem was, the space had already been purchased and turned into a bar—Tony’s Saloon. So, Salman held on to the idea and waited. Then, while hungry on a trip to New York in 2009, he grabbed a slice at a local pizza spot. Back home in Los Angeles, while walking his dog, Salman remembered that slice. A kind of idealistic pragmatist, he downplays his epiphany, speaking of it casually. “I really like that in New York you can be walking around and just grab a slice of pizza and it’s good and inexpensive and I thought that would be something sick to have in this neighborhood. And I started looking for a place. I think this was the fifth place I saw and settled on it and just went for it. I was like ‘we’re going to do a pizza place, it’s going to be right here and we’ll do pizza by the slice.’” The fifth place he saw happened to be in the same building as Tony’s Saloon.
Pizzanista! was born and, while now a neighbourhood staple moving into its eighth year, it took a lot of work to get going. Salman wanted to do it right and spent a decent amount of money in the beginning, before they had made a dime, hiring a chef to teach the staff about different types of pizza dough and sauces and vendor options in Los Angeles. While it may not have seemed so at the time, Salman contends it’s the best money he spent on the place. Pizzanista! developed its recipe with help from this early education. A lot of American-style sauces are reductions that leave an intense flavor and acidic taste. Pizzanista! uses only California tomatoes to make their homemade milled tomato sauce, creating a slightly waterier but just-as-flavorful sauce that cooks right on the pie. The rest of the ingredients are local, too. Well, other than the sourdough crust that comes from a few-hundred-years-old-sourdough-mother shipped from Italy. I was happy to listen to him harp on the selling points, especially since I had just eaten a slice and, much to my delight, found it surpassed just about all of the pizza I’d had in Los Angeles.
“I knew we would keep this very simple. We only make one sized pizza. We do it by the slice. We have a few salads. That’s basically it,” Salman reassured me. That’s a great starting point and one I could appreciate. In a town as big as LA—despite the presence of many first-rate taco trucks—it can be frustratingly hard to find a good slice. And, with as many former East Coast folk as Los Angeles, Pizzanista! fills an important gastrological void. A friend of mine, a long-time Los Angeles resident, once told me, “As long as there’s cheese and tomato on dough—it’s pizza and I like it.” I scoff but he’s not entirely wrong—far be it for me to tell anyone what pizza is or isn’t, and he did list the only requisite ingredients. Pizzanista!, born of an experience eating pizza in New York, hit many of the hallmarks—a small place that’s primarily a slice joint with fast service. Hell, there was even a window into Salman’s previously coveted Tony’s Saloon, where you can have your slices passed to you as you swill beer. While having a few slices of my own, I delighted in these authenticities as well as pizza’s close relationship to skateboarding. But, Salman deflected all of my efforts to try and draw some kind of connection from his skate career to his pizza shop. With short quips like “Everybody loves pizza,” he’d cut off any attempt I made at romanticizing pizza’s place in skateboarding, or the world for that matter. Still, Salman had managed to segue his skate career into a successful consulting business and then redirect course to a successful business of his own in a pizza shop.
As I’ve already noted, especially given the landscape, Pizzanista! makes a pretty damn good slice. People are passionate about pizza and I was hoping to pull some of this out of Salman, who constantly deflected my insinuations that he had a pizza philosophy similar to his skateboarding one. When I pressed him for notable slices he’s had in his life, he mentioned a few one-off Pizzanista! projects such as a “killer pizza with kale and avocado and ground almonds,” a collaboration with legendary music and skateboard photographer Glen E. Friedman for a book signing. Or a loco moco pizza, created by Christian Hosoi. This monstrosity features the rice, hamburger, eggs, and gravy of the signature Hawaiian dish. New, exciting, different, guiltily pleasurable; this pizza was all that. But this was not the pizza I knew and loved. When I asked again, what was his favorite slice? Salman thought about it for a second. I worried he would respond with “anything we make” or something novel and absurd, like their popular Sunday Mac n’ Cheese pizza. But, as if reading my mind, he responded: “I personally like things that are very plain. I just like our plain cheese slice.” It was well said—to the point, elegant, plain. Like a good slice of New York pizza. Though we’re not in New York, and this was Salman’s pizza joint. So I smiled. “I’ll take it.” I got another slice.