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First Look: Some Great Pizza at Emilia's Pizzeria in Berkeley, California

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Clockwise from top left: Emilia's Pizzeria during a recent friends-and-family night, owner-pizzaiolo Keith Freilich, a plain pie hot out of the oven. [Photographs: Adam Kuban]

Emilia's Pizzeria

2995 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley CA 94705 (at Ashby Avenue; map); emiliaspizzeria.com
Getting There: By car, it's at the corner of Shattuck and Ashby avenues; closest BART stop is the Ashby Avenue Station
Pizza Style: Thin-crust, New York–coal-oven-esque
Oven Type: A very hot Wolf "Pizza Grande" gas-fired oven
The Skinny: Whether you're a whiny New Yorker looking for familiar-tasting pizza or someone who's never set foot in the Big Apple, the pizza at Emilia's is sure to shut you up and keep you stuffing your face

I was in San Francisco on vacation last week. Before my trip, I made a Bay Area pizza wishlist. I didn't get to visit every pizzeria I wanted to, but I hit some fine places. The highlight of this vacation, though, was a preview visit last Wednesday to soon-to-open Emilia's Pizzeria in Berkeley.

You know how transplanted New Yorkers can never stop yapping about how pizza in other cities just doesn't compare—even though, in places like San Francisco, there's a burst of great new pizzerias opening? Well, if you're in the Bay Area, take them to Emilia's, stuff their piehole with some slices, and tell them to STFU already. If the pies I sampled are any indication of future quality, Emilia's is a dead ringer for any of New York's legendary coal-oven pizzerias. And if you've never eaten at any of those joints, you'll merely find undeniably great pizza there.

Emilia's Pizzeria is a dream realized for Keith Freilich, a former IT professional who has an interesting pizza pedigree that includes stints at Pizza Hut, Grimaldi's Hoboken, Oakland's Pizzaiolo, and the newly opened Flour + Water in San Francisco. Freilich plans to open his pizzeria in the next couple weeks.

I found two things refreshing about Emilia's (which is named for Freilich's daughter): the pizza itself and the unpretentious surroundings.

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In this whole pizza moment we've been experiencing lately it's all Neapolitan-this and artisanal-that. Freilich, though, is not trying to knock you out with claims of Naples-based authenticity, a fancy-pants imported oven, or ultra-chic interior design. Instead, the delicious, down-to-earth pizza speaks for itself amid a tiny store that's more suited for take-out (indeed, it has only two three-seat tables). In fact, it's a sparse sliver of a shop that, Freilich said, has housed a number of pizzerias in the last 30 years. The attic, he noted, is full of signs from the different pizza joints that have come and gone before. (One hopes that Emilia's will stand the test of time.)

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How I Found Myself at Emilia's Friends-and-Family Night

I met Keith Freilich at Pizzaiolo during my first visit to the Bay Area in 2006. As a longtime Slice reader (he goes by f r y on the site), he recognized me in the dining area, and we chatted a bit. We never exchanged contact info, but recent discussion of Sicilian pizza on the site prompted him to send me some pictures of square pies he was working on. "By the way," he wrote, "we met at Pizzaiolo. I was working there at the time."

By chance, this was a couple weeks before I was due to leave for SF. I asked his advice on places I needed to try, and he mentioned that he had just left Flour + Water to open his own place, that he thought he'd be open by the time I visited, and that I could stop by if I wanted to.

As these things go, he wasn't quite ready to open during my visit, but he was having a preview night to help work out some kinks. And so I scored an invitation.

The oven itself, a gas-fueled Wolf commercial pizza oven, was there when he signed the lease. And it's kind of like the nerd girl in a teen movie who takes off her glasses and lets down her hair and ends up being hot—in this case literally hot. Freilich says its heat goes beyond the range of his 800-degree infrared thermometer. Which explains how his pies approximate those cooked in coal-fired ovens.

Such unpretentiousness is not to say that Freilich is unconcerned with the ingredients or the thought that go into the pizzas. Though his menu is not yet set, he's making his own Italian sausage (applied in nice, large, loose chunks) and sourcing cured-meat toppings from San Francisco's Molinari & Sons salumeria. He won't say where the cheese is from, but he's using a mixture of both fresh and aged mozzarella, along with just enough Parmigiano-Reggiano freshly grated onto the pies as they come out of the oven.

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You know, I actually asked Freilich a bunch of questions via email after my visit, and rather than summarize his answers, I'm just going to get out of the way now (after giving you a pizza upskirt shot and some parting words) and let you have at the Q&A with Keith.

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In short—and, once again, given the caveat that this was preview pizza—if the quality I experienced holds up during normal operations, these will be pies worth traveling for. If I lived in San Francisco proper, I would think nothing of heading over the Bay Bridge or of hopping on the BART to eat this pizza.

Freilich has cleared all necessary inspections and hurdles to opening. He says it will likely be a couple more weeks before he's ready to open to the public. When he does, I think that Bay Area pizza- and food-lovers will have yet another great pizzeria to freak out about.

Q&A with Keith Freilich, Emilia's Pizzeria Owner

How long have you been in the pizza biz?

Off and on for about 20 years. I would say that during that time I spent ten in the pizza business, ten doing IT, and four in college. Obviously, there's some overlap in there. Even when I wasn't doing pizza professionally, I was doing experiments at home. I've got a spreadsheet which has various dough calculators and details hundreds of experiments. It neatly sums up my combination of love for pizza and nerdiness. Despite that, I think pizza-making is really more about feel. At Grimaldi's, there were no measurements when making the dough. I measure stuff, but I like to do everything by hand. OK, that's just the first question, I'd better not go off on too many tangents.

Where have you worked before—when and how long? Sounds like you did Pizza Hut in Jersey. When was that?

Back in the late '80s. My pizza bears little resemblance to Pizza Hut's, but I learned a lot of useful stuff there.

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A technique similar to Grimaldi's—cheese first, then sauce.

And how did you go from PH to Grimaldi's? Was it the Grimaldi's in Brooklyn or the one in Hoboken? When and how long were you at Grimaldi's?

I didn't really go from PH to Grimaldi's. I was doing IT stuff and living in Hoboken when Patsy Grimaldi and Sean McHugh opened up their second shop there. Despite the popularity of the original Brooklyn place, Hoboken stayed under the radar for a while (and still does, to some extent). My roommates and I decided we needed to go a lot to make sure they didn't go under. So, after going a couple times a week for a while, I got to know Sean pretty well and offered to put up a website for him. When I decided I wanted to get back into making pizza professionally, they gave me a job. That was around 2000, I think. I never really left—I just moved to California. I still do website stuff for them, and I make some pizzas when I'm in the area. Although, I probably won't be able to go back east much now that I'm opening my own place here.

You moved to the Bay Area about eight years ago? Did you jump into pizza as soon as you arrived? If so, where?

It's always been in my mind to open a place out here, but I didn't work at any places here for a few years. At the time, there weren't many places here that interested me, and IT seemed like the smarter career move. But, after toiling for a while in the post-dot-com world....

How long were you at Charlie Hallowell's Pizzaiolo in Oakland? From the beginning?

Chris Bianco told me that he had given Charlie some advice on opening a place in Oakland, and that I should get in touch with him. So, I actually got the job at Pizzaiolo about seven months before it opened. I left a few days before I signed the lease for Emilia's Pizzeria.

And you said you worked at Flour + Water. I don't think I quite got this when we spoke in person, but did you say that your friend is the pizzaiolo there? I got the impression that you were either there to help him out from the start and/or to sort of get some more practice in before opening Emilia's. Is that correct?

Yes, John Darsky is the pizzaiolo at F+W. We met at Pizzaiolo. We didn't usually work the same shifts, but he's very serious about making great pizza, so we share knowledge and ideas and go check out new places as they open. When F+W opened, he had some staffing issues. He needed someone to work some shifts who knew what to do, could help work out some kinks, and could roll with his intensity. And anything to broaden my experience was good for me. It was a good time, but only lasted few weeks before I got my space. Good thing, too, because I would have been covering for him over Labor Day weekend with no Bay Bridge.

The pizza we had Wednesday night—is that going to be the formula once you open? That is, fresh and aged mozzarella, the sort of New York-Neapolitan/coal-oven-esque style?

Yes. I'm also a big fan of pizza Napoletana, but I think that bandwagon is getting a little crowded. I've often considered offering both, but my place is probably too small for that.

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Cross-section to show the crumb, or hole structure, of Emilia's pizza.

How would you describe your pizza style? It's definitely not Neapolitan-style, and it's not what a lot of people think of when they think "New York style."

I'm no fan of pizza labels. "New York style" doesn't really mean much in New York City, nevermind out here. But, still, when people ask what I'm making, I often find myself using the words "New York." Then I just have to hope they don't think I'm opening a Ray's pizza. When I think "coal-oven-esque," I think about fresh mozzarella, a really fresh-tasting sauce, and char, and those are all part of what I'm going for. That, plus aged mozz and a more open, rustic crumb.

What type of cheese are you grating on after the pie comes out of the oven?

Parmigiano-Reggiano, which comes from the Emilia region of Italy. Even though the pizzeria is named after my daughter and not the region, I still want to incorporate some of the classic items from there, like Parm, prosciutto, balsamic.

Where are you getting the cheese?

I don't want say. Many of my ingredients I found through working at other places or as recommendations from some big-time pizza-makers, and I don't want to break the magicians' code. Plus, who knows—maybe I'll find better ones.

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You mentioned that you're getting the salame from Molinari?

Yes, the milder sopressata is from Molinari.

And were you using a salame or a sopressata Wednesday night? You mentioned that you might do a hot sopressata pie in lieu of pepperoni?

I also was trying out a spicier sopressata as well. Despite both being called sopressata, the two weren't much alike. Typical Italian food-naming problem. I haven't yet decided whether I will do a more Italian-y salame picante instead of or in addition to pepperoni. I want to give the customer more say in what goes on the pizzas than the better places around here do, and pepperoni is what everybody asks for. But, maybe I can gently steer them toward something like a sopressata.

What are you doing with the sauce? Is that a fresh or cooked sauce? Do you season it much?

It's fresh. Beyond that: magicians' code.

Do you plan on doing delivery when you open? Or eat-in and take-out only? (I'd imagine you'll have to do take-out, since the place only seats six.)

Yeah, take-out seems definite. Delivery is likely. I want to stay as focused and uncompromised as possible while still being viable. So, if I don't have to do delivery, I won't.

How It's Made: A Plain Pie from Emilia's

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