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Emeryville, CA: Playing Hot or Not with the Pizzas at Hot Italian

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[Photographs: David Kover]

Hot Italian

5959 Shellmound Street, Emeryville, CA 94608 (map); 510-922-1369; hotitalian.net
Pizza style: No one style
Oven type: Electric
Price: $10 to $15 per pie

According to the mission statement for Hot Italian, the owners have constructed the restaurant to, "celebrate Italy's new generation of art, music, design, sport, food, and wine." It appears that they also want to celebrate really, really good-looking people, with each dish on the menu getting named for a famous attractive Italian. (Hence the restaurant's name.)

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Hot Italian's menu also offers up a neat little coding system, with symbols to let you know the different ways a topping combination can be prepared. For instance, you can get a Bellucci—tomato sauce, mozzarella, sausage, ricotta cheese—as a pizza, or as a calzone. The Aquilani—arugula, kabocha squash, pumpkin seeds, walnuts, pomegranate—can be a pizza, or a salad.

This playful menu, along with a sleek design job, can make one wonder whether Hot Italian prizes style over substance, but thankfully the food itself offers some pleasure as well.

The Hot Italian we visited in Emeryville, California, land of shopping malls, IKEA, and other big box stores, represents a second location for owners Andrea Lepore and Fabrizio Cercatore. It's Cercatore's upbringing in the Italian Riviera that provides some of the restaurant's pizza bona fides, at least in the publicity materials. However, despite having an authentic Italian on the management team, Hot Italian's pizza doesn't seem to hew to the ideals of any one pizza doctrine.

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The original Hot Italian, in Sacramento, uses a wood-fired oven, but zoning rules wouldn't allow that at this second location, so the restaurant instead uses a Cuppone electric oven. At least based on pictures, the pies served at the two restaurants nonetheless appear remarkably similar. The crust we tried arrived light and airy, with an attractive crispness to it. The slices, dusted lightly with cornmeal and speckled with char underneath, stand straight out when held from the rim.

The pizzas we chose during our visit might lead you to believe that I have a thing for strapping Italian athletes, but really we just found ourselves inclined towards the more traditional pies on the wide-ranging menu. Among the pies we did not order, Hot Italian offers one with pureed pumpkin and another with smoked salmon.

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The Cannavaro, besides paying homage to an Italian soccer player, is Hot Italian's version of a Margherita. Other than some ribbons of basil on top and a bit of garlic hiding in the sauce, this pie does not offer many bells and whistles. In fact, they employ shredded mozzarella rather than the puddles of cheese we have come to expect on upscale pies. Either way, Hot Italian gets the ratios right on their toppings, creating a layer of intermingled cheese and sauce that strikes that this-is-pizza chord. If you feel the need to spice up this basic offering, Hot Italian provides jars of red pepper oil and rosemary oil to each table.

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On the Bortolami—this time, an Italian rugby player—Hot Italian combines tomato sauce, housemade sausage, cheese, mushrooms, and radicchio. The smokey scamorza cheese wafts to the table well before the rest of the pie. When it actually comes to eating, this pie offers a more riotous amalgamation of flavors than one might expect, with the fennel and heat of the sausage, a slight bitterness from the radicchio, and the smokiness of the cheese.

I admit, I wanted to discount Hot Italian when I was confronted with its carefully packaged facade, but the restaurant doesn't try to get by on just its looks alone. Besides, who am I to get all high and mighty? As I sat there, perusing the menu, I ended up turning the ordering process into a giant game of Hot or Not, staging a referendum on the owners' choices of hot Italians. When the waiter originally came to our table, I realized I had been so busy searching Google for pictures of the different names on the menu, I had no idea what kind of pizza those pretty faces represented.

About the author: David Kover is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and food enthusiast. He likes pizza. A lot. He occasionally gets his tweet on at @pizzakover.

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