1586 Hopkins Street, Berkeley CA 94707; (map); 510-528-4692; gioiapizzeria.com
Pizza style: New York-style with some California-style toppings
Oven type: Gas
The skinny: A solid New York-style crust with toppings that range from traditional to well-composed California-style
Notes: Seating is limited to a few stools and a bench outside
Price: Cheese pizza, $3 slice, $21 pie; Special pizza, $3.50 slice, $25 pie
When Gioia Pizzeria opened in Berkeley in 2004, chef-owner Will Gioia's vision was to create the corner slice shop of his Brooklyn youth. Given that my 9-year-old self might just have been standing down the counter from Gioia (we both grew up in Park Slope), I feel a bit of neighborhood pride when I say that the man makes a solid New York–style slice.
But, to be clear, Gioia Pizzeria isn't going straight Brooklyn style on its Berkeley patrons. When it comes to food, Berkeley is the town that Alice Waters built, and Gioia includes plenty of Chez Panisse–style toppings on its pies. There are always plain and pepperoni slices available, but also slices with radicchio, kale, and asparagus.
Just like your standard Brooklyn slice shop, Gioia Pizzeria does its cooking with gas—a blackened Montague oven sits at the back of the store. Unless you order a whole pie, slices are usually premade, sitting in the display case up front, and go back in the oven for a reheat when you order. Gioia typically manages to avoid drying out their slices in this process. Slices come out browned and crisp on the cornmeal-dusted undercarriage. The end-crust has risen just a bit higher than I typically expect from a New York slice, but it is also quite crisp while still maintaining a nice chew. Altogether, a nice New York-style base for some toppings—whether that means just cheese, or something a little more creative.
The standard toppings at Gioia taste more or less like they should. The plain slice gets a layer of shredded mozzarella over a sparing amount of sauce that almost goes unnoticed. (In fact, red sauce doesn't much factor into the flavor of any of Gioia's slices.) If you order pepperoni, you get extra-large discs of powerfully spicy meat made by Molinari. These slices are a bit salty, but certainly satisfying.
However, though my New York brethren may revoke my membership, I liked the California-style toppings even better. On my recent visit, Gioia was serving an asparagus pizza with spring onions, ricotta cheese, and a bit of mint. The shop applies the just-right amount of creamy ricotta, and as I discovered a few weeks ago at Ristobar, asparagus and mint make a surprisingly nice combination on a pizza. This slice wants a bit of spice, but that's what those red pepper shakers are for.
The Radicchio e Pancetta slice is more mildly flavored than you'd expect from a pizza with radicchio, gorgonzola, red onion, and Fra'Mani pancetta. Still, it works, with the bitterness of the radicchio providing a counterpoint for the richness of the other ingredients.
At this point, you purists may be finding some of these creative pies just a bit precious, but the most adorable is certainly The Julian, a seasonally-rotating pie named after Will and Karen Gioia's son (click for awwwww!). Currently, it's my favorite pie on their menu, with housemade sausage, kale, garlic, and chili. The combination of cooked kale and porky sausage is deliciously funky, and they get extra points for the impressively large chunks of sausage.
The problem with a good neighborhood slice shop is that, at least in the Bay Area, it's not often in your neighborhood. If I find myself in North Berkeley, I'll stop by Gioia for a slice. But the bigger point is that this should be the prototype for a lot more pizzerias in our area. The option for a solid New York-style slice is there, and why leave the bounty of our local farmers to the fancypants sit-down places? Good vegetables, as long as they're thoughtfully applied, go very well on a New York crust.