Food That's Worth the Wait Food lovers, families flock to Oakland restaurant of former Chez Panisse chef - Michael Bauer Sunday, September 11, 2005
Shortly after 6 on most nights, all 83 seats at Pizzaiolo are filled. People begin to line up at the door and loiter under the large maple trees outside on Telegraph Avenue in Oakland, waiting to get into this 3-month-old pizza parlor.
The predominantly young crowd is peppered with Chez Panisse customers and staff, including Alice Waters, who was sitting at a booth enjoying pizza one night. Chef-owner Charlie Hallowell, who lives above the business with his family, spent eight years cooking for Waters and has crafted a menu that shares her philosophy. The bowls of Gypsy peppers that decorate the counter in front of the kitchen and the one-page, daily changing menu are testaments to Hallowell's vision of seasonality and simplicity.
The menu generally features seven antipasti such as melon and prosciutto ($10), Little Gem Caesar ($8), poached shrimp with cucumbers and black olives ($12), and corn and squash soup with basil ($6); four primi, which are mostly pastas; six pizzas; one to three large plates; and a couple of side dishes such as sauteed spinach ($5), broccoli rabe with hot peppers and garlic ($5), and polenta with mascarpone and Gorgonzola ($5).
In fact, Pizzaiolo may well be the Chez Panisse of the new generation of diners who go for lusty flavors and casual surroundings. Thick plaster has been chiseled away in some places to reveal the 136-year-old brick walls. The marred wood floor looks as if it has seen a few dropped hammers in its former life as a hardware store.
Chairs have a found look, and are gathered around bare wood tables. A communal table in back adds to the warm, convivial spirit. The area around the open kitchen, including a detached dining counter, is covered in shiny tile, adding a dramatic contrast to the rustic elements.
The staff looks as if it stepped from behind the counter at Amoeba records. One waiter has an elaborate tattoo covering his arm, a billy goat tuft of wiry hair on his chin and thick black disks the size of quarters in his ear lobes. Another has words tattooed across her lower back; they came into view every time she bent down, but I couldn't make out what they said.
Servers are allowed to wear just about anything they want -- mostly faded T-shirts and jeans -- and they blend right in with the crowd, a smattering of the natural-fiber Berkeley set, older patrons who are clearly familiar with the restaurant's lineage and a surprising number of young families.
As diners work their way to the back of the dining room, they're likely to maneuver around infant seats and walkers. On one visit, a woman who looked to be about 80 opened a purple parasol covered with Japanese cartoons so she could shade her eyes from the sun beaming through the storefront windows, where the restaurant's name is spelled out across the ledges in various styles of Scrabble blocks.
Pizzaiolo proves that good food, particularly pizza, bridges generations. Hallowell's thin-crusted pies, often blistered around the edges from the 750-degree oven, are simply topped with items such as marinara ($10), greens and sausage ($14), or wild arugula, speck and grana ($14).
Each night there's a pizza alla Pizzaiolo. When I asked the waiter what was on top, he couldn't answer. "The chef just does whatever he likes at the moment,'' he said. We took a chance, and as the waiter brought our surprise pizza to the table he exclaimed, "Oh, you've really got a good one.''
With the first bite we had to agree. The crust was perfectly cooked and stood up to the thin glaze of nutty cheese, yellow coins of crisp-roasted potatoes, bits of salty bacon and thin ropes of still-crunchy red onions.
While pizza is at the core of the menu, Pizzaiolo is so much more than a pizza parlor. The 31-year-old chef often creates polpette alla Pizzaiolo ($13), meatballs that may change daily -- chicken with tomato sauce on one occasion, pork and ricotta braised in milk on another.
Pastas also change nightly. On one visit we ordered orecchiette with chunks of fennel sausage, broccoli rabe and olive oil ($14); unfortunately, the elements didn't come together and left a greasy impression, one of the few failures in the 25 dishes we tried.
On another night the pasta was paired with beans in a simple sauce with olive oil where the starches from the beans thickened the juices ($14). Other combinations might include spaghetti al pesto ($14) or farro with North Carolina shrimp, spinach and hot peppers ($15).
The nightly main course specials are exciting in their rustic minimalism. One night Hallowell offered oxtail braised in balsamic ($18), a preparation that concentrates the muscular flavor and caramelizes the exterior, setting up an alluring contrast. On the same night he baked wild salmon in the wood oven ($18), arranging the fillet on a cranberry beans ragout. Another time he featured long-cooked pork shoulder ($18) draped over a mound of creamy mashed potatoes served with a few slender green Romano beans.
I was initially disappointed when the bollito misto -- a pale boiled chicken leg, hunk of oxtail and a gray slice of pork shoulder floating in a broth studded with celery and carrots -- came out on a luncheon-size plate; it seemed drab and overpriced for $21. One bite was all it took to change my mind. The chicken might have looked anemic, but the flavors were as vivid as sunflowers in a Van Gogh painting. The oxtail and pork left a similar impression, especially when enhanced with one of the condiments: balsamic, horseradish, Dijon mustard, an herb sauce and red pepper sauce.
The bollito misto is a dish that's meant to be savored, but it was difficult to enjoy because the service and the timing were so disjointed. We waited 30 minutes for the shrimp and squid appetizer ($10), in which the the seafood was bathed in a lemony dressing enhanced with the crunch of fennel and celery. It was worth the wait, yet it was difficult to sustain our enthusiasm as we killed time waiting for another 30 minutes for the next dish.
When it came, so did everything else: pizza with tomato sauce and mozzarella ($14); tender chicken meatballs ($14); the bollito misto; and a side dish of wood-oven roasted escarole ($5). Tables are small, and it was impossible to juggle everything in a civilized manner. We hurried through dishes so we could make room. While service is designed to be casual, it needn't be as disorganized as it appears on some evenings.
Still, I left thinking about the wonders of the pudding-like panna cotta ($8) on one night, and the buttery nectarine and raspberry tart ($8) on another. I also remembered the marvelous squid and shrimp dish; the lush carpaccio ($13) topped with pungent wild arugula and shavings of Parmigiano cheese; and the refreshing bean and pepper salad ($8).
All these items, along with the quirky spirit fostered by Hallowell, will draw me back. Like Chez Panisse, Pizzaiolo is a very personal restaurant -- a place that seems destined to build a devoted, cult-like following.
The menu at Pizzaiolo is simple, as is the appropriately short wine list. It's filled with fewer than 30 selections that are designed to be quaffed and enjoyed.
Most of the wines are from Italy and the rest of Europe, with a few California entries such as the 2001 Bannister Russian River Pinot Noir ($45) and the 2001 Sky Napa Valley Zinfandel ($42).
Many aren't household names, but they're listed by weight so diners have at least a hint of what they're getting. For example, "fuller" whites include the 2004 Bergerie L'Hortus ($7 glass/$26 bottle) and the 2003 Jermann Chardonnay ($45).
The list also has three rosé wines; they're a great option in warm weather and go well with just about everything on the one-page menu.
In red wines, the 2002 Anna Maria Abbona Dolcetto Di Dogliani ($7/$25) is a good choice in the lighter style; the 2003 Macchialupa Irpinia Aglianico ($33) in the medium; and the 2001 Gulfi Nerojbleo Nero d'Avola ($35) in the earthier category.
More than half the wines are offered by the glass, ranging from $6.25 to $12, but overall markups tend to be high. There's beer on tap as well as aperitifs such as Lillet ($5) or sweet or dry vermouth ($5).
If you bring your own wine, corkage is $15.
Michael Bauer is The Chronicle's restaurant critic. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.