Chez Panisse Café
1517 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley, CA 94709 (map); 510-548-5525; chezpanisse.com
Pizza style: Neapolitan-inspired meets California-style
Oven type: Wood-fired
The skinny: The restaurant founded by the queen of California cooking creates stand-out toppings, but the crust is slightly uninspired
Notes: Two pizzas with rotating seasonal toppings appear on the menu daily at the upstairs cafe
Price: Pies typically cost $13 to $19
This past August, Chez Panisse celebrated its fortieth anniversary, prompting much reflection on Alice Waters' seminal role in the creation of California Cuisine and its ethos of cooking with local, fresh ingredients. But as we celebrate Chez Panisse's broader food legacy, let's not forget its pizza legacy.
Though credit for California-style pizza mostly goes to Ed LaDou, Waters and her Chez Panisse staff also deserve a little recognition. Pizza with non-traditional toppings that highlighted California produce started coming out of the wood-fired oven at Chez Panisse Café in 1980, two years before LaDou started firing pies at Spago. Though I'm guessing dear Alice likely cringes at the idea of a pizza covered in sickly-sweet barbecue sauce, pizzas topped with leeks, potato, or even duck confit have all appeared on Chez Panisse's menu.
Chez Panisse's influence on local San Francisco Bay Area pizza-craft is also quite clear. The area brims with restaurants cooking pizzas in wood-fired ovens, many of these—Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service, Oliveto, Zuni, Cotogna—founded by a chef who worked some time in the Chez Panisse kitchen. Though the Neapolitan pizza craze has national roots, it may be the branching of the Chez Panisse family tree that has allowed it to take off so thoroughly in and around San Francisco.
So, as a pizza geek, I wasn't about to let this anniversary pass without going in for a pie or two.
These days, the pizzas at Chez Panisse—stretched and fired in the open kitchen of their upstairs Café—continue to feature ingredient-driven toppings. Two pies always appear on the Café menu, and during our visit, both came sauceless with toppings you certainly wouldn't expect at your corner slice shop.
The appetizer pizzetta, with sweet and hot peppers, capers, and marjoram practically mesmerized with its kaleidoscopic colors. The satisfying sweet-spicy combination got a note of added surprise from the brine of the capers.
However, the flavors on our "main course" pizza firmly stole the show. Topped with nettles, artichoke, and sheep's milk ricotta, this pie didn't boast any pyrotechnics, but rather a rich and vegetal flavor that had us going back for bite after bite.
Yet, if the toppings on these pizzas still sport the ingredient-driven excellence that helped to create Chez Panisse's legend, the crust has certainly been surpassed by some of newer kids on the block. When Serious Eats Overlord Ed Levine visited Chez Panisse back in 2005 for his pizza book, he called the crust "thin, chewy, and pliable, if a little wan." During our recent lunch, the crust had the char-spots that Ed found lacking, but the giant blisters flaked away leaving behind an emptiness. Though crisp on the exterior, the insubstantial cornicione simply didn't require any muscle to bite off and chew.
There are those who might wish that California-style pizza never found its way into the game, who feel that nettles and artichokes are simply taking up space that should be reserved for pepperoni and sausage*. I'm not one of those people. I'm very happy to celebrate the flexibility of pizza to support an endless variety of delicious combinations—if it's done well. Even if I'd put it on a more inspired crust, the rotating menu of toppings at Chez Panisse could keep me interested for some time to come. Shall we check back again in, say, forty years?
*And let's be honest, all of Alice Waters' culinary contributions and crusades have met with their share of backlash.