Maybe in the past, I would have engaged in this debate, finding my favorite pizza purveyor and staunchly pontificating on its culinary superiority in every discernably critical category. But I think I'm entering into a bit of a mellower, relativist phase with respect to food. Particularly since we're blessed with so much good food around here, it sometimes feels wrong to say one place is somehow objectively "better" than another.
So I'd prefer to reformulate the question: What makes a good pizza?
Seems like it should come down to three simple, but essential categorical standards, which mirror the three simple, but essential components of pizza. We'll limit this discussion to thin-crust neapolitan pizzas.
CRUST: Perhaps the most difficult component, the crust must walk the tightrope between the lightly crispy exterior while maintaining the essential soft, chewy elasticity that gives it body. Thin, but not to thin. The best crusts come from a wood-fired brick oven. Temperature? As hot as possible! A blistering 905 degrees, according to the guidelines from the Italian Agriculture Ministry.
SAUCE: Simplicity and great tomatoes are the key to a profound sauce bursting with well-rounded flavor. Also, the amount is key; oversaucing leads to disaster.
CHEESE: Buffalo mozzarella, made on premises. Low water content.
Well, now that the stage has been set, it would appear that some commentary is needed for this evening's dining adventure.
The Place: Pizzaiolo has been open for over a year now, with chef-owner Charlie Hallowell -- a pizza fanatic by all accounts -- at the helm. Hallowell is an eight-year veteran of Chez Panisse. He and his business partner spent about a year and a half remodeling a former auto parts store themselves, stripping down walls, building booths and tables, and generally converting a utilitarian space into a chic, cozy urban setting in which to showcase their food.
The buzz on the restarant months before it opened has only increased as a loyal and devoted following has latched on religiously to the dishes coming out of the kitchen and its wood-burning oven. The place has been dinged for its service, but we were seated after only a brief wait and had a pleasant and efficient server.
The Pizza: Margherita di bufala
- Crust: Nice lightly chewy elasticity, but could have used a bit more crisping in the 750-degree wood-fired oven. Seemed about 30 seconds underdone -- soggy in the center. Simple flavor, with just a hint of woody smoke.
- Sauce: Fresh tasting and vibrant. The pizza may have been slightly over-sauced, causing the soggy center.
- Cheese: Buffalo mozzarela made on-site. Good depth of flavor. Chewy and rich.
Other Dishes: Fried squash blossoms stuffed with salt cod brandade with romano beans & cherry tomatoes (I love salt cod, but Lav doesn't -- I thought it added a nice depth of flavor, but she found it bland... go figure); Bucatini all' Amatriciana (amazing textural mouthfeel, but a bit salty... fantastic olive oil)
Quote of the Night: "That pork shoulder was so f***ing good!!" -- declared by an apparently well-satisfied customer to the kitchen staff as he violently pounded on the counter with a closed fist 6 times.
5008 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland, CA