Chef Mario Christerna has a ritual.
“I’m at the cemetery right now,” he said. “I’m at Evergreen Cemetery. It’s the oldest cemetery in LA. I come here and clean tombstones.”
Suffice it to say, the Boyle Heights native is engaged with his community. Regarding his most recent venture in the neighborhood — Brooklyn Avenue Pizza Company — he’s effusive.
“It’s all about the community. They’ve been receiving us with open arms. It warms my heart that we’re doing this together. It’s beautiful,” he said.
The Brooklyn Avenue Pizza Company formally opened in November and occupies a historical building on Cesar E. Chavez Avenue (formerly known as Brooklyn Avenue, hence the name of the restaurant).
In May 2019, Christerna acquired access to the building, which also houses the legendary Paramount Ballroom and the Boyle Heights Arts Conservatory. The pandemic blunted Christerna’s immediate plan to reactivate the ballroom space as a concert venue and install Poblador, his latest fine dining concept, next door to the pizzeria.
Ultimately, Christerna is cooking up much more than just pizza here. That said, the pizzas and wings on the current menu are uniquely superb. They fully reflect the nuanced invention that Christerna had successfully branded at his acclaimed first restaurant, The Briks, in Downtown’s South Park neighborhood, known for its ingenious mashup of North African and Mexican cuisines.
“After closing Briks (in 2017). I went on a journey. I ended up consulting in Berlin, I was a guest judge on Master Chef Latino,” Christerna said.
“I wanted to come home. I asked the universe to be home and it happened. I came back home and here I am living my dream and being able to be a custodian of this space. I get to be a custodian of my neighborhood, a custodian for all those who came before me.”
Recounting his neighborhood background and local street credentials, Christerna said he was born at USC/County General Hospital on the 100th anniversary of the birth of Emiliano Zapata, the great Mexican revolutionary.
“I was raised in Wyvernwood Gardens. Wyvernwood, we call it ‘the projects,’” he said. “That’s where I grew up, where I played kickball with all my friends, where we ran amok together with all of the homies, (where) I had some of the best summers of my life. This is my neighborhood, my stomping grounds.”
Christerna attended the culinary program at the now-shuttered Cordon Bleu school in Pasadena, where he also began what became a six-year apprenticeship at the Eden Garden Bar & Grill, a Mediterranean bistro a few blocks from campus.
“I was going to school in the daytime and working at the restaurant at night,” Christerna said. “I was eating, breathing, living the restaurant business. I learned everything from busing, serving, bartending, kitchen, prepping. I was so enrapt in this culinary (world). My ultimate goal was to own restaurants and to build an empire and create jobs for people. And so, I wanted to learn everything. I had the chance to do it there and I had a great mentor. He taught me a lot about business. I wanted to own restaurants. I wanted to operate restaurants. I wanted to be a restaurateur.”
As to his extended tenure there, Christerna said he’s not the type of chef who bounces around.
“I like to create a home and learn,” he added. “I found my home. Once you find your home, you’re able to learn, you’re able to grow, you’re able to develop yourself. I had the opportunity to learn the whole business. I’m a restaurateur. I’m not just a chef. It was a wonderful boot camp. This family has been so good to me. I’ll forever be grateful.”
Brooklyn Avenue Pizza Company is already a local sensation. On a random Saturday evening — prior to the recent reopening of outdoor dining — the sidewalk outside the shop was buzzing with guests waiting on takeout orders and perusing the carry-out cocktail options at the tended pushcart liquor bar outside.
The menu is limited to nine styles of individual pizzas, five takes on jumbo wings and three preps under the heading Papas, featuring dressed fries. The pizzas range from The O.G. ($14), a simple pepperoni and mozzarella combo, to the cherry bomb ($18), sporting sopressata picante, spicy piloncillo and pickled cherry peppers. Notably, there’s also a mole pizza ($18), dressed with Oaxacan cheese and curtido. There’s also a long list of additional toppings to customize the choice.
“We make everything in-house: our dough, our hand-stretched mozzarella,” he said. “We make our own sauces. About 95%