As a cook, I never understood the allure of working the mesquite grill in a restaurant. You might as well be a chimney sweep or a coal miner.
Before you can start to cook, you have to sweep up the ashes from the previous night's dinner service. Then, you drag a 50-pound bag of mesquite charcoal to your work area and dump or scoop some of it into the grill. Despite your best efforts, you inevitably breathe in clouds of the black dust. It is a constant battle to light and then maintain the fire at the ideal temperature throughout the night, while simultaneously cooking and plating dozens of meals. By the end of the night, your fingernails, ears, eyes and snot are encrusted with black soot and you cannot avoid coming home smelling like bacon. What's good for the steak is not necessarily good for the cook!
Wood-burning ovens are a different story. With a degree equal in intensity to my hatred of working the grill, I adore using wood-burning ovens to cook. Enclosed brick ovens are far more efficient than open restaurant grills, using a fraction of the wood. Hardwood logs, usually oak, fuel the fire, so there is no black charcoal soot to fill your lungs. Best of all, the majority of the smoke rises up the oven's flue rather than your nose.
I am not alone here. At those rare restaurants fortunate to be equipped with one, all the line cooks inevitably dream of working the brick oven, especially if there are pizzas on the menu.
Cooks easily become addicted to the tactile pleasure of poking and stretching the delicate, yet playfully elastic dough; sliding and twisting the pies in the oven with a skillful flip of the pizza peel; watching the yeast bubbles blossom and scorch on the crust in the glow of the inferno. You feel a connection to an artisanal tradition, for pizza making is an art, or more accurately, a craft.
It's no wonder, then, that upscale pizzerias are mushrooming all over the Bay Area. Chefs miss the fun of working the pizza station!
It's a boon to Bay Area diners, too, who have suffered for years without a access to a decent slice or pie. On my last visit to New York, I didn't feel compelled to get that fix that, in the past, I have always craved.
Tuesday, N and I visited one of the newest of this wave of pizzerias, Pizzaiolo in the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland. In the interest of complete disclosure, I am acquainted with the chef, Charlie Hallowell, from his days at the Chez Panisse Café where I volunteered once a week for a year while I was sous chef at a nearby restaurant.
Charlie loved working the brick oven so much that his dream was to open his own pizzeria. With the help of investors, he converted a century-old hardware store into a chic pizzeria with exposed brick walls, rustic wood floors and, most importantly, a wood-burning pizza oven. Believe me, it is no easy or inexpensive feat to convert a chunk of real estate in the Bay Area into a restaurant. It required more than a year to navigate the perilous yellow brick road of bureaucratic lions and tigers and bears (aka forms and permits and construction). He named his restaurant Pizzaiolo, which means "pizza maker" in Italian.
As a pizza lover, I am grateful for his perseverance. N and I started our meal with Charlie's riff on a Chez Panisse Café classic, wood-oven baked squid with aïoli (pictured left). Replacing the Café's minimalist garnish of breadcrumbs or a few leaves of arugula, Charlie served his squid on a rib-sticking pile of stewed beans. Although the restaurant draws on Italy for inspiration, I've had this exact dish sitting at the counter of Pinotxo, a tapas bar in la Boqueria market of Barcelona. My glass of Bandol rosé, chosen from Pizzaiolo's excellent wine list, played well with the assertively garlicky aïoli, but my heart yearned for a glass of Cava.
Maybe because we saw that Charlie himself, pizzaiolo extraordinaire, was working the oven, N and I hedonistically chose two pizzas from the list of six or eight, along with a generous side of bitter broccoli rabe. One pizza would have been enough after our hearty appetizer.
I appreciated the properly blistered paper-thin crusts of both of our pizzas. Our first (pictured right) was topped with just the right amount of spicy tomato sauce, thinly sliced red onions, and a scattering of anchovies. As you know, I have a weakness for little fishies. Charlie masterfully cooked a whole egg to just the right degree of doneness in the middle of our pizza, which I've discovered is not an easy trick.
Our second pizza (pictured left), covered with thinly sliced peppers, onions and mozzarella, announced its arrival at the table with an explosion of marjoram. While tasty for a vegetarian pizza, it would have been improved exponentially if I had opted for the addition of smoky speck, which along with anchovies can be added to any pizza. N and I saved most of this pizza for lunch the next day.
Unfortunately, our stomachs were too full to sample any of the desserts. Pizzaiolo only offers a few, and none of them tempted us enough to risk the certain pain that is the constant companion of gluttony. Restraint...an interesting concept. I suppose there's a first for everything.
The daily changing menu also features a selection of salads as antipasti, pastas as primi, and a couple of main courses, which included a tempting braised Hoffman Farm chicken. Pizzaiolo does not accept reservations, so be prepared to wait on the weekends.
I'd rate Pizzaiolo as one of the best of the new wave of pizzerias, just a notch below A16, but slightly better than Pizetta 211, Pizzeria Delfina, or Dopo (the last three suffer from their lack of a wood-burning oven). But honestly, they are all welcome additions to the Bay Area pizza scene.
5008 Telegraph Avenue
Oakland, CA 94609
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 5:30-10 pm