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Emilia's Pizza: Keith Freilich Opens Up on Ovens, Bad Accountants, and Pizza Miracles in Berkeley, CA

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[Photographs: Adam Kuban]

For the last five years we've been hearing a lot about the Bay Area pizza scene. Mostly that's due to a large swath of legitimately great pizzerias, but the noise has definitely been amplified by big names (and voices) like Mangieri and Gemignani. Nonetheless, one of my favorite pizzas in Berkeley, let alone the the country, is made by someone who consciously flies below the radar. Like Paulie Gee, Keith Freilich was an IT professional who sought out asylum in pizza. A decade later, he's the owner of one of the more impressive resumes in recent memory. He slung pies at Grimaldi's Hoboken, was the opening pizzaiolo at Oakland's acclaimed Neapolitan staple Pizzaiolo, and since 2009, he's owned and operated the outstanding Emilia's Pizzeria.

Emilia's, named for Freilich's daughter, is one of the most unique pizzerias you'll ever visit. It's a one man show with an aging beast of an oven, half a counter, a prep table, and just two tables in a space the size of a USB thumb drive (okay, a smidge bigger). The vast majority of the 18" pies get picked up by rabid local fans who start calling to reserve a pick-up time at 4PM, and the wait times on the weekends often run three to four hours. Emilia's is a cool joint that serves singular pies in a sleepy part of town, and it's definitely worth a trip if you're in town (and if you're not, I'd say it's reason enough to visit).

I recently shot some questions at Keith and he was nice enough to shoot some answers back:

Adam Kuban did a great interview with you (that I advise readers to go back over) just before you opened Emilia's in 2009, covering your stints at Grimaldi's, Pizzaiolo, and Flour + Water (as well as the grand dame herself, Pizza Hut). You've even worked the amazing Del Popolo truck. Not many folks have a pizza background that diverse. Do you consider Neapolitan, New York, and Pan completely different breeds or is it all just pizza to you?

Well, objectively, they are different, but not completely different. I crave them at different times. I try to avoid the semantic argument over what should or should not be considered "pizza," but when people ask me for pizza recommendations, it usually doesn't cross my mind to include pan pizzas in my response, even if there are great pan pizzas in the area.

Emilia's is almost four years old now. How close are the current pies to the ones that you envisioned and opened with? Are there any discoveries or modifications to the pies that you'd like to discuss?

I think the pizzas are essentially the same. I believe that consistency is valuable, but at the same time, I'm a tinkerer and I go through some pizza mood swings. I justify some decisions to tweak or not with regard to the fact that most of EP's business is from regulars. On a conscious level, I want them to get what they are expecting to get, the thing that makes them come back every week or every month. But subconsciously, I don't mind keeping it interesting. Also, tinkering often leads to greater consistency in the end. Hopefully, I'm making the same pizza I was making 4 years ago, but better.

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The Wolf oven at Emilia's Pizzeria. [Photograph: Adam Kuban]

Your Wolf gas oven came with your building, but it ended up being supercharged and burning at 700 degrees or more. Were you planning to adapt your dough to an oven that came with the building, or was the extreme heat from the Wolf a selling point for the space?

No to both. I purchased a different oven before I found a location, assuming that I wasn't going to find a space with a good oven already in place. I didn't try the oven that was there until after we moved in, and I was pretty shocked at what it could do.

Do you think aspiring pizzaiolos should adjust their dough recipe to work with an available oven or hold out (and shell out) for that perfect oven in their mind?

Well, both could work. And necessity is the mother of invention, right? But I wouldn't make the rest of the investment and just assume that whatever oven is available would be capable of making something I would want to make. Also, it's quite possible that I'm abusing the oven by running it over 800F. Both floor stones have cracked, for instance. And, given that parts aren't readily available for it (it was discontinued 25-30 years ago, I was told), I have to be mentally and financially prepared to replace it at some point in the hopefully distant future. And emotionally prepared, as well, because obviously someone will say "the pizza's not as good."

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[Photograph: Keith Freilich]

You had many years of experience working as a pizzaiolo, but Emilia's was your first go-round paying all the bills. Is there anything about being an owner/operator that surprised you? What can you tell enterprising folks looking to strike out on their own that you didn't know back in 2009?

I'd helped get a couple of other pizzerias started, so there wasn't that much left to surprise me. I already knew, for instance, that the bureaucracy of planning, permitting, and inspections can be dangerously capricious. I passed on a couple of locations that could have cost all our capital without us ever being allowed to operate. Also, I made sure I had a good landlord and a fair lease—that's not always easy, especially as a first-time business. One veteran restaurateur gave me this somewhat fanciful advice: "own the building."

One thing that did surprise me was just how bad a mid-sized accounting firm that specializes in the restaurant industry could be. Bookkeeping and accounting are not what attract most restaurateurs to get started. So, naturally, most(?) outsource that. Assuming you don't know or want to know or deal with that stuff, you want to hire someone that comes with recommendations. The tricky part: you want someone who can take care of accounting-ignorant restaurateurs, but how can you trust the recommendations of restaurateurs who are accounting-ignorant? I'd say: quiz anybody whose supposed expertise you might pay for. You might want to do it slyly, as if you were asking earnest questions. But, then again, I'd want to weed out anyone who gets offended by being challenged. If you're going to handle my business, you should be able to act business-like. Here are two questions I wish I had asked: "Should smallwares be deducted or capitalized?" (because it would reveal industry-specific knowledge) and "When is the LLC tax due?" (because, seriously, how could a commercial accountant not know that?).

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[Photograph: Keith Freilich]

Most pizzerias plan to steadily increase their business ad infinitum, but you designed Emilia's to have a cap on the number of pizzas you can produce per day (based on pie/oven size and cook times), and you often sell out your time slots before dinner time. Are the limitations you've imposed more about quality of pizza or quality of life?

I won't really say I designed EP's. Not in any way that comes to mind. I've pretty much gone with the flow. As a for-instance: the previous tenant had the walls painted orange and white shortly before they left so that became our color scheme (one which has become a bit too popular with other businesses, I might add). Maybe the closest I've come to designing the business was the idea to start simple and slow, and only complicate things if I had to. I kinda messed that up from the get-go, however—my pizza making process is complicated, and there was a major increase in demand within a few days of our super-soft opening.

I believe that is why people think I have a cap on the number of pizzas I can produce a day. I mean, like anyone producing any physical product, I do have capacity limitations. And I would consider it rather wasteful to have lots of underutilized capacity (my last desk job was in capacity planning, after all). There's no fixed limit—each night it depends on how fast I'm moving, how much stuff I prepped, what people are ordering, etc. And I rarely reach whatever limit there might be (except for my lack of speed). Most nights I stop making pizzas when there are no more orders to fill, not because I can't make anymore. If I do stop taking orders before I stop making pizzas, it's usually because I messed something up, or because I have someplace I need to be and so I need to close close to closing time. Once, the lights went out.

Anyway, back to the bit about the early demand surge. The first few nights, nobody knew I was there. I didn't have a sign or phone or anything. I would make about 20 dough balls and maybe sell half of them, if there were enough curious people walking by. Then suddenly people started showing up, forming lines and terrible things like that. And, so, for a couple weeks maybe, I ran out of dough each night, until I was able to catch up to demand a bit. Four years later, I still get calls all the time that start with "Do you still have dough?" I'm sometimes a stickler for accuracy, and I try to set the record straight, but the running-out-of-dough thing is actually a useful fallacy. It's a very easy concept for people to understand. It's a lot easier than having to explain to people, especially those who have never been to EP, that I'm shutting it down because I'm not crazy about the third batch of dough, or that there's no bathroom at EP and I don't think I can hold out past 10 o'clock.

I'm starting to get pretty verbose. Haven't even touched the actual question yet. Here goes: obviously, I don't think "imposed" is the right word for it. I can't prevent there being capacity constraints. As for quality of life, I'm making about as many pizzas as my body can handle. I think that answers that part of the question somehow. As for the quality of pizza, yeah, sure, I could make more if I lowered my standards. I could get some frozen preformed dough, one of those conveyor belt ovens, a sauce gun, maybe some of that pre-shredded cheese mixed with sawdust or whatever that stuff is.

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One of the two tables available at Emilia's. [Photograph: Keith Freilich]

Do you think the exclusivity that a finite number of pies creates a buzz or hinders a business? And for the record, I know creating exclusivity wasn't a concern or thought when you set up Emilia's.

For me, exclusivity, real or imagined, and buzz are mostly annoyance. I think they probably hurt our sales. Having a 3 hour wait doesn't mean we sell more pizzas then when we have a 20 minute wait. However, when we have windows in which there's no wait and people are automatically assuming it's a long wait, everybody loses. But that's us. On the other hand, two of the most successfully promoted pizza makers are here in the Bay Area, and they aren't shy about telling you that they run out of dough.

I'm not going to argue that there isn't a heavy New York influence on your pizza, but the softer crust, heavy char, and distinctive cheese blend always strike me as something more...unique. Closer to a NY-Neapolitan hybrid. I know you don't like labels, but is there any other phrase I can use to describe Emilia's to friends besides "New York" or "coal oven-esque?"

I dunno. The combination of elements is unique, as far as I know, but the elements themselves probably aren't. There are some methods I use that I don't think anyone else does, but I bet someone has at some point in the long history of bread making. So as for a label...I guess one of those "Neo NY" kind of labels is reasonable. But maybe it's really some kind of retro-NY, like something that might have been around in the possibly fictional heydey of NYC pizza of my particular imagination. Early on, I jokingly called it "Emilia's-style" pizza to acknowledge the fact that I wasn't trying to conform to any other style of pizza (even to the limited extent to which such things really exist). But, I thought someone might infer that I believed Emilia's-style pizza was going to sweep the nation, so I stopped calling it anything.

Why does the order that labels produce scare you?

False premise. Number one, I'm a man's man's man. Nothing scares me. Except for the twins in The Shining. Number two, pizza labels don't produce order. They can be semi-useful for people trying to find pizza they might like. But, I'd rather people come to EP with no preconceptions than with incorrect preconceptions. And, in general, labels bolster the tyranny of authenticity over originality.

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The Wolf at Emilia's Pizzeria. [Photograph: Keith Freilich]

Fair enough. Back to that unique (and delicious) cheese blend. Any chance you're going to tell you're using this time around?

Ah, it's not really unique, at least not on paper, or whatever this is. I use fresh mozz, dry mozz, and parm. As for the particular cheeses...hmmm, I should go see how I dodged that question in the past. Doesn't really matter, though, because there's no one answer to that. I change it up every few months. Not to taste different, but to taste the same (or possibly better), given that individual cheeses don't, over time. Fresh cheeses seem particularly sensitive to seasonal changes. Sometimes I can't find the right combination with 3 cheeses, so I'll add a second kind of fresh or dry mozz.

A trend seems to be doing everything in-house now. You know, "We grow our own mushrooms, we cure our own meet, our cheese is made from breast milk." Sometimes that's awesome, sometimes it seems like a waste (I can't comment on the cheese I mentioned). On the other hand, you've made your own sausage since you opened, and it seems very much worth it based on taste. What's your take on DIY? When do you think it leads to better quality and when do you think it's a timesuck or an upsell?

It depends a lot on the restaurant, especially the size. You didn't mention dough and sauce—DIY is pretty much a given there. Sausage could go either way for a small to medium place. For me, not only do I get to make it just how I like it, it's also cost effective, convenient, and doesn't take that much time. Curing whole cuts like pancetta and guanciale isn't much work, but takes the right kind of storage. DIY salami is an unlikely option for most. I'm glad to see more and more people curing meats, but especially people that only cure meats. Also, and IANAL, curing meats, like making ice cream and flavoring alcohol, could get you into trouble with the man. Check your local ordinances.

You worked for ten years in IT and many of the folks making career detours into pizza seem to come from engineering or IT backgrounds. Any idea why? Do you think it's because pizza is so process-oriented? Or is it just because it tastes so damn good?

Maybe it's because nerds eat so much pizza. I was fortunate to be able to order in Lombardi's on the clients dime a LOT, back in the tech bubble days.

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[Photograph: Keith Freilich]

Are you still making all the pies yourself?

Yes, though Emilia has helped on a few pizzas that were for friends and family. She could stretch 12" pies when she was 4, but, at 8, she's still not big enough to work the 18" pies.

I believe you were considering hiring some help so you could get home to see your family a little more. Also, you must have had more than a couple thoughts about expanding. Care to share any?

I have more than a couple of thoughts about a great many things. Expanding, work-life balance, improving the ordering process, zombie apocalypse, the chronology of Arrested Development season 4, fostering some kind of improved international language. I spend about 12 hours a day working alone, when the pizzeria isn't open. Being able to think about stuff is one of the good things about soloing. Probably the most interesting thought I have on expanding is that in doing so, anything from hiring people into the tiny spot I have now to opening multiple pizzerias would involve a drastic change in what my actual job is. I'm not anxious to make that change, but someday I'll have to, regardless. To paraphrase Chris Bianco: "Pizza is a young man's game." I hope Emilia gets to be old enough before I get to be too old.

I have a strange obsession with identifying the single most important step in the pizzamaking process. Each phase (recipe/conception, prep, dough making/management, stretching/topping, cooking) is crucial, but is there one step that you deem more important than the rest? You're welcome (and encouraged) to indulge me by assigning arbitrary percentages to each step based on the best guess you can pull out of your ass.

First off, I would differentiate between conception and execution. Conception isn't necessary at all to making good pizza—you could make authentic VPN pizza just by following the rules. But, if you want to do something different, then it can be the biggest thing. Once you move on to execution, then it's hard to say one step is more important than the others, because if you mess any step up, the pizzas not going to be what you wanted it to be. However, I think making & managing the dough is the most challenging part.

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[Photograph: Adam Kuban]

You already had a sense that the craft Neapolitan scene was getting overcrowded in 2009, and four years later it's practically being mass-produced...

There are definitely places trying to mass produce it, except that they seem to completely disregard the craft.

Do you have any ideas on what the next craze will be?

I could never share that with a non-producer. (Arrested Development Season 4 reference. Anyone?)

Where do you see pizza going in the next ten years?

The first wave of great pizza in this country (mid-century, predominantly NY) was followed by ubiquitous cheap imitations. In the last decade or so we've seen what I would call the second wave (predominantly wood-fired), and we're already seeing quite a few cheap imitations of that. There are still areas where there's no good pizza (IMO), and that will probably improve, but I think the excitement will be diluted by the those who seek to commoditize "artisan" pizza. We'll probably be like the Campagna Paulie Gee described: wood-fired pizza everywhere, but most of it not worth writing home about. If that happens, then hopefully the new-ish places that I love today will be the Totonno's, DiFara's, Pepe's, and da Micheles of 50 years from now.

Now, on a more positive note, I think we'll see some more places doing "new" styles of pizza. But it won't be as big a thing as wood-fired pizza has been recently.

The last time I was in Emilia's, a guy in his 20's walked in alone to pick up an 18-inch pie and proceeded to eat the entire thing. Quickly. In one sitting. Then he walked out without another word. It was pretty freaking amazing. Have you been witness to any other pizza miracles in Berkeley?

That must have been Chris-with-the-deep-voice-who-gets-his-pizzas-with-roasted-peppers-mostly-at-the-end-of-the-night. The only other person to eat a whole pie at the pizzeria (I'm pretty sure) was Paul M, but that was a while ago, and he's not real taciturn.

Let's see...there was a guy who came in and, in a seemingly-intoxicated fashion, unscrewed the cap off a shaker of chili flakes (and not some weak 6 month old cayenne flakes, either), dumped the whole thing on his to-go pizza, and left. I joked with another witness about how that guy was going to regret it. But he comes back once in a while and does the same thing every time. Seeing it, it's more disturbing than miraculous, but that's the best I can come up with right now.

Editor's Note: Keith Freilich is currently on vacation until August 29, 2013.

About the author: Lance Roberts is a writer in Los Angeles.

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