Grieving the loss of a friend – and remembering, with pizza

ROSA PIZZA: The Rosa pizza from Pizzeria Bianco at the Row in downtown Los Angeles. Jenn Harris/Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES – The week before my friend John Adams was diagnosed with cancer, we ate pizza. We sat at a table at Pizzeria Bianco in downtown Phoenix and talked about our time in graduate school, his dog, and the many holiday dinners he spent with my family. It was my first time visiting him since he'd moved for a job, and we were both excited to try the restaurant. "Did you know Chris Bianco was the first James Beard Award-winning pizzaiolo?" he texted when my plane landed.

It was a great night with a dear friend, spent eating our way through Bianco's menu. The pizza crust was beautifully bubbly, crisp, chewy and a little nutty. The clear favorite was the Rosa, a sauceless pie covered in enough Parmigiano Reggiano to create a visible layer of cheese, slivers of red onion, rosemary and crumbled Arizona pistachios. The pistachios crisped up in the hot oven, the cheese melted and the red onion turned sweet. After sharing more than a few delivery pizzas in school together, we agreed this pizza was nothing short of a revelation.

I went back to Arizona many times to visit, and we always got a Rosa. Eventually, while he was undergoing treatment, dinners at the restaurant turned into takeout at John's home. We ate our favorite pizza and ice cream as we rewatched "Ted Lasso" or YouTube videos of John's favorite comedians.

When he died earlier this year, I was heartbroken. I still am. Thinking about the time we spent together helps, and so does the Rosa. When Bianco started serving the pizza at his new downtown Los Angeles location at the Row, I couldn't wait to go. The L.A. Rosa is pretty much identical to the version in Arizona, only for this pizza, he's getting his pistachios locally.

Memories of the many meals John and I shared have comforted me with each slice.

The teriyaki steak plate from Hansei x JACCC

I grew up eating the chicken teriyaki plate at Kabuki, a casual Japanese American restaurant in Hastings Ranch. The chicken was always a tad dry and the sauce a tad too sweet, but eaten with a dome of white rice, it was one of my favorite dinners.

A teriyaki plate is something Chris Ono knew he wanted to put on the menu at Hansei, the pop-up restaurant that recently opened inside the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center in Little Tokyo. Part of the inspiration for the dinners comes from old Japanese church and community center cookbooks featuring dishes such as tamale pie, Mexican won tons and baked spaghetti.

"These cookbooks were used to preserve Japanese American recipes for the next generation, mainly like first- and second[-generation] Japanese Americans who put all their recipes together," Ono said on a recent call. "I'm still kind of using it as a guideline for future dishes."

Ono's version of a teriyaki plate comes at the end of a tasting menu that starts in the James Irvine garden with a series of small bites such as cornflake-crusted chicken liver bonbons with umeboshi. The teriyaki combo is served on a tray, with a full, sliced Black Hawk Farms New York strip steak. Ono's sauce is actually a cross between a teriyaki and a bordelaise, with the richness and complexity of the classic French red wine sauce and the sweetness of teriyaki.

A spoonful of corn pudding is smeared alongside the steak. On the side, there's a selection of seasonal dishes in addition to a mound of white rice and some yuzu kosho. Recently, there were cucumber pickles and a sardine and tomato salad.

"I grew up in L.A., and there are a lot of these Japanese restaurants that had sushi and teriyaki," Ono said. "The exact teriyaki combination might change eventually, but this is my throwback to those restaurants."

Hilltop Coffee and Kitchen

Most days, I eat at multiple restaurants. This is not a complaint, it's just a fact. Sometimes, though, when I can't fathom another sit-down, multicourse dinner and I can't muster the energy to cook, I eat like a 5-year-old kid on a sleepover at grandma's house. Peanut butter and jelly with the crusts cut off? Yes. A meant-to-be-shared-size bag of Snyder's of Hanover Honey Mustard and Onion pretzel pieces? Absolutely. Half a box of cereal with cold milk? Yes, please. The one thing that's always on that list is grilled cheese, preferably with tomato soup.

The most satisfying version I've found while out and about is from Hilltop Coffee and Kitchen. There are three locations, but the one in View Park-Windsor Hills, with its high ceilings, ample parking, stellar playlist and plenty of space to work on a laptop, is a favorite.

The grilled cheese is decadent in the way a grilled cheese is supposed to be. The slabs of sourdough are buttery and toasted. Between the bread is cheddar, provolone and pimento, creating white, orange and red strata of melted cheese that are sharp and creamy. They're a solid inch of cheese, enough to extrude an impressive, thick, gooey strand that will stretch the length of your arm.

The coffee shop also makes creamy tomato soup for dipping, and dipping is half the fun.

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