Zachary's Chicago Pizza
5801 College Avenue, Oakland CA 94618; (map); 510-655-6385; zacharys.com; other locations in Berkeley and Solano
Getting there: Rockridge BART
Pizza style: Stuffed pizza
Oven type: Gas
The skinny: Famous East Bay spot for Chicago-style stuffed pizza
Notes: Half-baked pizzas available for pick-up. Expect long waits unless you come well before or after dinnertime
Price: 10-inch, $19.50; 12-inch, $24.55; 14-inch, $27.75
Zachary's Pizza is an East Bay icon and one of the most popular local spots for Chicago-style pizza. The lines are legendary, partly due to the fact that the pizzas take 30-40 minutes to bake, ruling out a quick turnaround.
Zachary's specializes in stuffed pizza: the pan starts with a layer of dough, followed by a hefty layer of mozzarella and toppings. Another thin layer of dough is added on top of the cheese and goodies before the thick, robust sauce covers it all. While the cheese is hearty and the sauce is rich, I found the crust at Zachary's to be a bit disappointing.
Zachary's pride and joy is the spinach and mushroom pie. Usually spinach cooks down to nothing and its presence, while nutritionally beneficial, tends to be more sparse than other toppings. Zachary's solves this problem by cramming the pizza full of spinach. The mushrooms were comparatively rare, which is too bad. When I did score one, I noticed the texture more than the taste.
The cheese was legitimately luscious. Zachary's gets high marks for the stringy "pull factor" that when achieved, makes pizza eating a joy for all the senses.
And Zachary's truly shined in the sauce department. Thick and hearty, the beautifully rich sauce was a little peppery, a tad tangy and a majorly awesome. Its robust presence dominated the pizza, in a good way. With stuffed pizza, all one sees is an ocean of sauce, surrounded be a narrow barrier of crust peeking above the sea. Deep red in color, it had a commendable presence that could not be ignored.
Sadly, the crust was unremarkable. The top part that ringed the pizza was pretty crispy, but the part supporting the mass of the pizza got lost in the shuffle. While it held its consistency fairly well, there was plenty of droopage. It seemed like the crust was merely a vehicle for the rest of the pizza, and I felt that this was a significant missed opportunity.
We also ordered a Zachary's Special, with sausage, green pepper, onion, and mushroom. A full layer of tasty sausage lined the bottom of the pie. It was rich and sweet; full-flavored. The onions got a little lost in the sauce, and the mushrooms didn't quite hold their own. But the green peppers were fresh-tasting and delicious. They added a bit of firmness that balanced out the pizza's texture. This pie was a worthy specimen.
Zachary's scores bonus points for spirit. It became employee-owned after founders Zach and Barbara retired, which makes the employees care more about the end result than they otherwise might. The walls are adorned with art created by loyal customers. Every couple of years they have an art contest, and people create works that incorporate Zachary's pizza and/or logo. The collection distracts one from the hunger that can occur while waiting for pizza.
There is significant debate on Slice about which element is most crucial to pizza-making: crust, sauce, or cheese. If you're a crust-lover like me, Zachary's may disappoint. If you view crust as simply a medium for sauce, cheese, and toppings, chances are you'll love Zachary's. I found that the lackluster crust didn't justify the huge wait or the hype. Judging by the crowds, I'm in the minority.