Getting a restaurant off the ground is a herculean effort, even for a culinary titan like Sprinkles cofounder Candace Nelson. When it came to opening her latest high-gloss temple to handheld food, the sleek L.A. pizzeria Pizzana, Nelson had some legendary backup – namely actor and Pizzana founding partner Chris O’Donnell a.k.a. Robin from Batman & Robin.
While he may be known for keeping the streets safe onscreen, the NCIS: Los Angeles star had less experience as a sidekick in the kitchen. “The extent of my experience was as a customer at a restaurant,” says O’Donnell of the unlikely partnership on a conference call with DuJour and Nelson. But what O’Donnell lacked as a chef he made up for as an enthusiast; he and his wife have a gourmet outdoor pizza oven in their Pacific Palisades backyard for entertaining pals like Nelson and her husband Charles. “I had remembered seeing a backyard pizza oven in a magazine, and I thought, ‘What a cool idea,’” recalls O’Donnell. “We built the oven, and of course we had no idea how to [use] it. Originally, [there was] not a lot of pizza eaten, but we did drink a lot of wine.”
That changed when O’Donnell met Naples-born chef Daniele Uditi at a nondescript L.A. pizza joint. “I said, ‘Oh my God, you’ve got to come over and teach me how to make pizza!’ says O’Donnell. From then on, the O’Donnells’ homespun pizza parties were a hot ticket. “They really took on sort of a personality of their own,” says Nelson. “It seemed like everyone was talking about Daniele’s pizza.”
As the architect of the mid-aughts cupcake craze, Nelson was no stranger to buzzy food fads, and at the time, wasn’t looking for a new venture. “We really had no interest of going into another business,” says Nelson, who cofounded Sprinkles with Charles in 2005. “We had our hands full.” But ultimately Uditi’s method, which employs a 48-hour fermentation process and extra-long baking time, proved to be irresistible. “We met Daniele at one of Chris’s parties and spent the better part of the evening hanging out and geeking out about chef things,” says Nelson. “He said he’d always wanted to have a restaurant, it was like, we couldn’t help ourselves. It happened very organically.”
O’Donnell readily assumed the role of partner, which, he quickly discovered, was no small job. “Candace is an incredible entrepreneur and nothing is left to chance. It’s like nothing I’ve seen,” O’Donnell says of Nelson’s attention to detail, which put his pizza-eating superpowers to the test. “There was the point when you had eaten so many pieces that nobody could keep eating the crust. At a wine tasting you have the spittoon bowl, but we had the crust bowl,” he says.
A year and half and untold crusts later, Pizzana opened on the busiest stretch of L.A.’s tony Brentwood neighborhood, and since then has been been generating lines out the door. And Uditi’s next-level pies, like pasta-inspired cacio e pepe pizza, seem to be worth the queues: famed Los Angeles Times critic Jonathan Gold reportedly waited hours for his glowing review.
“It’s been so much more than I ever imagined, really,” O’Donnell says. “It’s been fun to be a part of the ride and help out wherever I can.”
“He’s not giving himself enough credit,” Nelson responds. “There [were] really a lot of intensive menu tastings.”
“Well,” O’Donnell replies, “Somebody had to do it.”
Main image: Pizzana’s Candace Nelson and Chris O’Donnell