Rotten City Pizza
6613 Hollis Street, Emeryville, CA 94608 (map); 510-655-CITY; rottencitypizza.com
Pizza style: New York
Oven type: Gas
The skinny: These pies have potential, but were undone on our visit by a crust that went soggy
Price: Pies, $22-$27
For most San Franciscans, Emeryville is known as the local home of IKEA, or possibly as the headquarters of Pixar. Well, purchasers of laminate furniture—and probably Buzz Lightyear too—need sustenance. While IKEA does serve pizza, we found ourselves more motivated to check out the offerings at Rotten City Pizza. Not just because it seemed a more likely option for a slice that would satisfy, but also because local mobile pizza entrepreneur Casey Crynes credits Rotten City as playing a small role in the development of his pizza skills.
Rotten City Pizza actually sits a couple miles away from IKEA and the mallscape that surrounds it, in a rather quieter part of town. As the traditional gas deck ovens behind the counter and the Times Square subway sign above the entrance indicate, they specialize in slices of New York-style pizza. You can get a whole pie, but plan to take it out. The restaurant has no tables, only a narrow counter along the wall that's too shallow to comfortably support a whole pizza box (we tried). The kitchen space, where Crynes worked a few shifts in order to refine his dough-stretching technique, takes up more than half the restaurant space.
At Rotten City, the basic plain slice comes with tomato sauce and a blend of shredded mozzarella and provolone cheese, but when we stopped by for a late lunch, it appeared that many of the slices had spent a bit too long in the display case. We wanted to try Rotten City at its best and so made the majority of our meal from a fresh pie, going halvsies so we could get a broader sample of their wares.
On one side of our pie, we upped the ante from the traditional slice by ordering a Margherita, with fresh mozzarella instead of their standard cheese blend. This pie showed off the fact that Rotten City uses better-quality ingredients than your standard small-city pizzeria. They sure don't skimp on quantity of ingredients either. Our sizable pie had been generously covered in a layer of thick tomato sauce. The flavor of the tomato, spiked with garlic, dominated things. It had plenty of oomph, though became just a touch overwhelming by the end of a few slices.
For the second half of our pie, we ordered Rotten City's Calabrian pizza—housemade sausage, Gaeta olives, and Calabrian chilies. They augment the flavors of the nice sausage by sprinkling the pie with roasted fennel seeds. Boosted by the heat from the chilies, it all came together really well. Only olive haters should steer clear of this pie, as sections of briny fruit do dominate certain bites.
Though ordering a single pie limited our explorations at Rotten City, I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't at least describe their Bianco Verde, with mozzarella, ricotta, and a concentric swirl of arugula pesto that tried to hypnotize me from the display case. Another pie, the Acciughe, bears mention because it sounds as if each topping tries to overpower the next. With red onions, chilies, anchovies, and ricotta salata, it's hard to imagine that the marjoram they also toss on this pie gets noticed at all.
The end-crust on Rotten City's pizzas stays crisp throughout. However, the lightly-charred bottom crust, which starts life pliant and foldable, had been stretched extra-thin, resulting in a very short shelf life. After only one slice, the more lightly-topped Calabrian side of the pie had gone limp. Meanwhile, the heavily-sauced Margherita had practically liquified, leaving the tip of the slices to slough off when we picked them up. I shudder to imagine what that crust might have looked like if we'd tried to take it home in the box.
With a creative approach to topping New York-style slices, and a clear interest in producing quality pies, I can find lots of things to like about Rotten City Pizza. If our visit was representative, the calculus seems to be about arriving at the just-right moment to receive a slice from a freshly-baked pie as it exits the oven.
About the author: David Kover is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and food enthusiast. He's willing to try any pizza topping combo at least once, even if it doesn't always leave him with a happy stomach. Follow him on Twitter (@pizzakover).