By Josh Solís
Boyle Heights Beat
Every slice comes with a good time at Purgatory Pizza.
The only shop in Boyle Heights where you can get pizza by the slice serves all the classics, plus pies with their own twist – including vegan and gluten-free selections. This slice of life is the creation of Tad Yenawine, a Renaissance man on a quest to bring great pizza to Boyle Heights.
Born in New York and raised in a “split household” between the East and West coasts, Yenawine took many paths, including touring Europe as an actor, before finding his way to Los Angeles. He had his first taste of the pizza business delivering pies as a high school student in Berkeley.
“I thought to myself, this is a great job if you never had to grow up,” said Yenawine, who operated a “pop-up” restaurant in college one day a week out of a friend’s apartment.
“I realized it was really fun and a lot of work and not really a good way to make a living,” says Yamanine, an expressive and energetic 48-year-old.
After opening and closing a cafe in his own Echo Park neighborhood, 17 years ago he looked east to an area he called “Boyle Flats” – not quite downtown and not quite Boyle Heights. In 2000, he leased a building in a section of vacant warehouses near 1st and Mission streets.
He opened a water jet fabrication shop in the back of the building, which he still runs, while he developed his restaurant concept. In 2007 he opened Purgatory Pizza, a name that reflects its “in between” location.
The fun and atypical selection of food, the music and ambiance all reflect Yenawine’s “jack-of-all-trades” lifestyle. He’s created a welcoming environment for free-spirited employees, many of whom are artists or musicians, who sometimes leave on tour and have their jobs waiting for them they come back.
”I think Tad is awesome, he’s a really cool guy to work for,” says Dane Wallace, who manages the website and social media and designs the menus. “Definitely has a pretty strong vision for the restaurant but at the same time is loose enough where we can all play our strengths.”
The restaurant’s indoor walls are decorated with art, including a large framed piece by Luis Cannazaro with the words “Her Beauty Touches Everything.” Out front, a mural painted by a former employee is a tribute to his mother, who died of cancer.
“You could probably look around and tell I like art,” says Yenawine, who early on developed a working relationship with local artists.
The food by no means takes a backseat at Purgatory.
“We just want to make good pizza,” says Yenawine, who rejects the “artisanal” label. “I don’t want to get uppy with people, and have people feel like they’re not ordering the right thing. I just want to make good, solid pizza.”
Many of the menu items play on the Purgatory theme. There’s Dante’s Revenge, described by Yenawine as “kind of a nod to East LA, with the chorizo and the jalapenos and the el diablo sauce. It’s a good spicy pizza.” The “Armageddon” is a balanced vegetarian creation while the “Limbo” has equal parts meat and vegetable toppings.
Yenawine says Purgatory was the first pizza shop to experiment with vegan options such as Dave’s Junkie, which comes with the spicy el diablo sauce, “soyrizo”, bell peppers, mushrooms and jalapenos. “LA is the vegan capital of the world,” the restaurateur says, “so we thought it wasn’t a bad idea. But I wouldn’t serve it unless it was something that I would eat.”
On a recent afternoon visit, as The Cranberries blared from the speakers, the tables at Purgatory were busy with teens chatting and enjoying their slices while the cooking crew danced to the beat in back. In spite of a slow start, Yemanine says business has been booming since the opening of nearby Mendez High School and the Metro Gold Line eastside expansion, both in 2009.
“I take the Metro and I’ve always meant to check it out,” said 45-year-old Boyle Heights resident Juan Rueda, who stepped in for a pie to go. “One day I was coming from my music class and was so hungry, so I came and stopped for the pizza and it was super good.”
Success at the Boyle Heights location prompted Yemanine to attempt an expansion in Silverlake, a partnership with another restaurateur that soon went sour. Just as he does in Echo Park –where he belongs to the Neighborhood Council– he hopes to strengthen his relationship to the Boyle Heights community by contributing to local organizations. One of them is the robotics team at Roosevelt, for which he occasionally provides free fabrication services at his shop.
Yemanine hopes to build on his success as the neighborhood around him continues to change. “When the neighborhood completely turns around,” he says, “I’m hoping [people will] look at this place and say ‘That guy is one of the reasons why this neighborhood is still cool.’”
All photos by Ernesto Orozco for Boyle Heights Beat.