Thursday, February 15, 2007

Dish on Dining: Pizzaiolo

A pizza worth the wait?

5008 Telegraph Ave., Oakland
Temescal neighborhood
M–Sat., 5:30–10 p.m.
Major credit cards, reservations accepted
Ph: (510) 652-4888

I’ve been dying to try Pizzaiolo for awhile, but I could never get past the idea of waiting up to maybe an hour at times for a slice of pie. When the restaurant recently started taking reservations, the flow of diners reportedly became more manageable. So, table for two?

The restaurant is located on one block of Telegraph Avenue that on its own is trying to revitalize this old Oakland neighborhood with other food favorites like Bakesale Betty and Dona Tomas, the popular Mexican restaurant. But Pizzaiolo (Italian for “pizza maker;” pizzaiolo sounds nicer but doesn’t necessarily roll off the tongue for me) has been the shining star of late, generating buzz and drawing the crowds with its Neopolitan-style pizzas created by Chez Panisse alum Charlie Hallowell.

During my recent visit, I brought with me my co-worker Sue. A New Jersey native, Sue constantly complains about the sad state of pizzas in California. She’s a traditionalist, wanting thin-crust pizza with good sauce and probably that sheen of oil on the top that I always dabbed off with a napkin when living in New York. No broccoli, chicken Caesar, or pineapples can ever touch her pizza. I mean, if you pile on all the stuff ala Wolfgang on your pizza, how can you make the fold?
When we arrived (with no reservations), we didn’t have any problems getting a table, although we were so way in the back I thought we may have to help bring the food out from the kitchen. But hey, no wait!

We were seated against the exposed-brick wall and next to the large table that can serve as a private dining area for a party of 10. Where I sat, I could see an outdoor patio that would be nice for dining when the weather gets warmer.

A sure sign of Hallowell’s Chez Panisse influence, the menu changes daily and he cooks using seasonal ingredients. During our visit, Sue and I started with an avocado citrus salad with fennel. The shaved fennel added a nice crunch to the tender avocado slices and sweet mix of seasonal citrus. But at that small size for $9, Sue could have gotten three slices of pizza instead.

We also ordered the fried polenta with gorgonzola and chestnut honey. It seems that Pizzaiolo is known for many of its fried meals (some foodies still go on and on about Pizzaiolo’s fried chicken on discussion boards). But as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a big fan of fried food, mostly for health reasons. Still, if I had to eat only one fried food, it would be fried polenta. Regular polenta has the texture of gruel to me, or at least what I think gruel would be like when eaten by kids in an orphanage during the 1940s in old London. (Picture it.) So basically what I’m saying is: no polenta for me. But deep-fry them into cakes stuffed with cheese and drizzled with honey, ooh baby! The fried polenta at Pizzaiolo oozed warmth and tasted light and pillowy. It’s the perfect side to any meal.

Finally, for our pizza, we went the traditional route, for Sue’s sake. We ordered the Margherita pizza (tomato sauce, Mozzarella cheese and basil) with sausage added to it. Pizzaiolo lets you add things to your pizza such as sausage, anchovy, egg, and even rocket (that’s the British green that Jamie Oliver loves to use). We initially wanted to just order the Marinara pizza with sausage, but luckily our server pointed out that the Marinara pizza is just that, marinara sauce on a thin crust. No cheese. (I don’t get how a pizza can be complete without cheese.)

The pizza can easily be shared with two, and it had a nice thin crust perfectly crisped by the wood-fire oven. Sue deemed it “good” and pretty close to what she got back east. I thought it was satisfying, but the flavor lacked that extra ooomp that I easily tasted in pizzas from another Oakland favorite, Dopo.

Pizzaiolo also serves a variety of antipasti and a few pasta dishes. But is its pizza worth the wait?

I think if I went a year ago when there was a considerable wait, I’d probably say no. Like I mentioned above, Dopo serves better pizza and I luckily live equidistant between Pizzaiolo and Dopo on Piedmont Avenue. While Pizzaiolo is still very popular, which could mean a wait, there are times you can go to avoid a long wait. Those are the times when its pizza rises to the occasion because it’s surrounded by a comfortable setting and other more interesting menu items.

Side note: For dessert, I ordered tart with lavender ice cream but without the tart. I don’t get excited about baked goods, but I do go crazy about anything lavender. It was heavenly, with a clear sense of lavender. Sue said she could bathe in it, although for me, I love lavender but I don’t love it that much that I’d risk freezing certain body parts, if you know what I mean. Still, this seasonal ice cream is spot on to cleanse your palate and refresh yourself.

Single guy rating: 2.5 stars (perfect for new foodies)

Explanation of the single guy's rating system:
1 star = perfect for college students
2 stars = perfect for new diners
3 stars = perfect for foodies
4 stars = perfect for expense accounts
5 stars = perfect for any guy's dream dinner

Pizzaiolo in Oakland


Anonymous said...

I agree with you that Piaaaiolo is too hard to pronounce and that the wait for a table can be maddening. But having been there from the start I can say this is one restaurant that keeps getting better and better and has really made the Temescal neighborhood a destination for dining. Of course, they make pizza. But the main dishes and sides are great. And their pizza isn't supposed to be New York-style pizza. It's really just good wood-fired pizza. (If you ever see pizza with wild nettles on it, definitely order it!) I've never ordered dessert but the one you ordered sounds like a winner. -- David

Chef Ben said...

Hey David, I probably would have given Pizzaiolo 3 stars because of its other non-pizza offerings. But when I looked back, I realized that I gave Dopo 2.5 stars and I feel Pizzaiolo and Dopo (both having chefs/owners influenced by Chez Panisse) are pretty comparable, so I gave Pizzaiolo the same stars.

I will be on the look out for any dishes in the future with nettles.