February 02, 2009

pizzaiolo in oakland

I was in the Bay Area last week for a company event, and I went up to the city for a brief visit afterward. It was sunny and clear and warm and gorgeous the entire time -- unlike last year when it poured rain the entire time -- and I somehow got California cuisine on the brain. Vegetables, salads, new american what-have-you... that's what seemed good to me. So we went to a place that my friend R knew about, which turned out to be the place down the block from Bakesale Betty's that I'd drooled over last year, as i pressed my nose to the glass and read the menu: Pizzaiolo.

Apparently run by one of the horde of ex-Chez Panisse workers, this is a mid-size room done up in low-key but comfortable style, with gorgeous modern bent-wood chairs and really weird art and a wood-burning oven for the pizzas. We figured it would be good: how could it miss, really? But this was one of the best meals any of us had had for a while -- everything was spot-on perfect.

We had two salads, a dungeness crab with shaved fennel, blood oranges and oro blanco grapefruits, and a grilled squid with rich spices, more fennel, meyer lemon and mint.

Then came fluffy-chewy potato gnocchi with a ragu of Berkshire pork -- I expected a tomato base but it was just a pork braise, unadorned and absolutely spectacular -- and ricotta ravioli topped with wild nettles and black trumpet mushrooms, delicate but vibrant in flavor, just enough to complement the remarkable tender, toothsome texture of the pasta.

There was a short rib of beef with big pillowy cannellini and kale and a sparkly green salsa. I kept mistaking that salsa in my mind for gremolata, because it was so perfectly lighting up the savory richness of the beef. This dish was so perfectly executed, it kept blowing my mind: braised short rib can be heavy, even when it's delicious, but this had some quality to it that was light as a feather, and there were nuances of flavor to it that I couldn't pin down.

We finished with two pizzas, since the place is known for its crispy-crust pies. These were indeed excellent, but certainly no more so than anything else we tried. We got a long-cooked-greens & sausage pie, which was a well-balanced and sophisticated rendition of the classic dish, and a wild mushroom-caramelized leek-gremolata pie, which was just insanely good.

They've got a small but useful beer list, and they recommended me a solid choice of red wine (I think it was a Barbera but honestly I'd forgotten what it was within about 30 seconds of ordering it). We skipped dessert because we were full and we knew they'd be wanting the table; service was leisurely, and we heard something about the pizzas being backed up, but we never felt neglected or without something delicious to be eating, so they handle that pressure well. Any other night, we'd have ordered desserts anyway, as they were absolutely compelling in their descriptions: chocolatey something with pistachio praline, persimmon ice cream, and so on.

Should you find yourself anywhere in the East Bay, I'd recommend this place without hesitation. You can be dressed up or down, hungry or just wanting a snack, and you'll be fed with the very best the Northern California breadbasket can provide. Just make sure you get in line by 5:15pm if you've not got a reservation; they open at 5:30, and you do not want to be standing outside being tantalized by the smells wafting forth.

Posted by foodnerd at February 2, 2009 02:04 PM

pizzaiolo is one of my all-time favorites. whoever is making their salads there is a big brilliant genius.

Posted by: cindym at February 3, 2009 01:16 PM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?