5655 College Avenue, Oakland, CA 94618 (map); 510-547-5356; oliveto.com
Pizza style: Café style pizza with California toppings
Oven type: Wood-fired
The skinny: Fancy-ish, good enough pies with creative, seasonal toppings plus a valiant attempt at a whole wheat crust
Price: Pies, $14.50 to $16
Given all the wood-fired ovens that have been installed in Bay Area restaurants over the past two years (yep, we just got another one), it can be easy to forget that a few local places have been cooking this way for years. At the newer places, someone on the floor can always rattle off the specs of the kitchen's shiny new toy, but when I started asking questions about the oven at Oakland's Oliveto, no one really had much to say because it's always just... been there. Only when Owner Bob Klein made his way onto the floor did I find out that Oliveto cooks its pizzas in a Mugnaini oven, one of the first to move into the area.
With apologies to Adam's grand pizza taxonomy, Oliveto offers what I like to call "café" pizzas. You know, those fancy-ish pies that don't steal the show, but do well enough alongside a menu of other light fare. (Fittingly, Oliveto only serves its pizza in its downstairs café space.) However, Oliveto does turn out these pies with some panache, tricking out their pizzas with seasonal, California-style toppings and even making a worthy attempt at creating a serviceable whole wheat crust.
For their traditional, white flour pies, twelve minutes in the oven produces a crust with buttery flavor and decent chew. It doesn't have a lot of char though, and I wished it had been able to offer either a bit more bready tenderness or a bit more crispness in the skin.
That day's version of a bianca came topped with cauliflower and brussels sprouts over Fontina cheese and garlic. The creamy-tangy cheese made this pie, and if it took me a moment to get used to the idea of cauliflower on my pizza, I'd do this combo again.
Visually, their Pancetta Pizza had the look of something that had been haphazardly thrown together from the depths of someone's fridge. But we really enjoyed the way the pickled cayenne peppers spiked the flavor of the deep, sweet tomato sauce, and no one complains about thick, crisped up slices of pancetta. With this pie, however, we felt less positively inclined towards cruciferous vegetables, and wished they'd omitted the slices of broccoli.
As for the whole wheat crust, what are your expectations when I tell you that it's made with 100% whole wheat flour?
Well, it's better than that, much lighter. But it's still a whole wheat crust. The rim offered less rise, and a less well-developed hole structure than the white flour pies we'd tried. It also didn't want to quite get crisp around the edges, and threatened to turn a bit pasty underneath once it sat for a little while. The flavor reminded us of a Wasa cracker, something that will please the folks that value the wholesomeness of whole grains, but likely dissuade those that want a subtler array of flavors from their pizza crust.
Not content to court a strong response only with the crust, Oliveto topped the whole wheat pie we tried with anchovies, hot pepper, oregano, and Parmesan cheese. The powerfully fishy flavor played well with the spice, but only if anchovies are your kind of thing.
Oliveto's long history with its oven does not mean it turns out better pies than its competition. In fact, their traditional crust certainly comes up short of the best the Bay Area has to offer. But if you're the kind of pizza eater that aches for a whole grain crust badly enough to make the requisite allowances, Oliveto may just have you covered.