"The creamy mozz, the fresh and not too spicy sauce, and the basil bits spread throughout the pie all coalesced into an unforgettable pizza experience."
5008 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland CA 94609 (map); 510-652-4888; pizzaiolooakland.com
Pizza style: Neapolitan
Oven type: Wood-fired
The skinny: Some of the best Neapolitan pizza in the Bay Area. It definitely should have placed ahead of Delfina in the Rachael Ray pizza brackets
Price: $10 (marinara) to $17 dollars a pie; Margherita, $13
No, this isn't a story ripped from the daily crime blotter. I'm tawkin' about Pizza Madness, the 64-pizzeria, nationwide slice-off conducted by Adam Kuban and Ed Levine, the Huntley & Brinkley (for you youngsters, a TV broadcast news team of the '60s) of the pizza blogosphere, and the indefensible and inexplicable defeat Pizzaiolo of Oakland took at the hands of San Francisco's Delfina.
Now, I've lost enough college basketball betting pools to know that upsets do happen, especially in the first round. Even some of the greatest college coaches, like Jim Boeheim of Syracuse and Bobby Knight of Indiana, have exited the tournament unceremoniously. However, after finally dining at Pizzaiolo earlier this winter, I can only scratch my head in amazement at this unexpected outcome.
Charlie Hallowell's Pizzaiolo reflects the restaurateur's training under the queen of the California local and organic food philosophy, Alice Waters. Hallowell has adapted her sustainability philosophy to Italian food, especially pizzas cooked in his wood-fired oven, here in his Oakland restaurant. Located on a gentrifying stretch of Telegraph Avenue, Pizzaiolo's exterior is so low-key I drove past it twice before I noticed a small group of hungry-looking people queuing up around 5 p.m. I quickly joined the line and was soon seated at a table with an unobstructed view of the fire-breathing beauty.
I ordered three pies, a Margherita with house-made sausage added, a potato-and-pancetta, and a sausage with rapini. The rapini and sausage, which arrived first, was a picture of pizza perfection. Chunks of spicy and juicy sausage and rapini generously adorned the pie, and the creamy Fontina imparted more flavor than the traditional mozzarella. Supporting the exquisite toppings was an elliptical-shaped crust that elevated this pizza to greatness. A puffy, blistered cornicione surrounded the pie while the rest of the crust combined the crisp exterior and chewy interior characteristics that pizzaphiles crave. The potato pie, with plentiful bits of pancetta, was equally delicious. Prior to the artisanal pizza explosion of the last few years, I would've mocked the idea of potato on a pizza, but my experience with this carb heavy pie has invariably been positive.
Finally, the star of the night, the Margherita and sausage was set down in front of me. Being an old-school kinda guy, I most definitely prefer pizzas made with tomato sauce. And I agree with the Slicemeister, AK, that a basic Margherita can become boring when one is eating as much pizza as some of us do. As a result, I almost always add sausage to this most traditional of Neapolitan pies.
One look at this pie transformed me into a ravenous beast. I told my dining partner that we would not be sharing this pizza equally, and he wisely acquiesced. Every bite seemed to contain just the right amount of each element. The meat and cheese may not be a kosher combination, but Jewish orthodox dietary restrictions had no place at this feast. The grainy texture of the chunky sausage made me wonder why so many pizza-makers settle for the industrial sliced style. The creamy mozz, the fresh and not too spicy sauce, and the basil bits spread throughout the pie all coalesced into an unforgettable pizza experience.
The more I look at these photos and relive this pizza extravaganza, the more amazed I am that Delfina upset Pizzaiolo in the tourney. As a former resident of San Francisco and the East Bay, I can't help but wonder if this outcome simply reflected the city's historical arrogance toward its blue collar sister city across the Bay. Not to diminish the pizzas produced by Delfina, but in my humble opinion, Pizzaiolo is the real winner in this matchup.