Sunday, July 05, 2009

Pizzaiolo: beautiful dining room, beautiful people, but the pizza part?

I went to Oakland's Pizzaiolo for dinner recently with old FH friends. We got there around six and the room was hopping, but there were still a couple of tables left so we didn't have to wait.

I absolutely loved the space. The adorable retro touches, like the vintage lights above the line that probably don't offer much in the way of light. The buttery yellow tiles on the wall, the red oval tiles on the pizza oven, the hardy wooden tables. It was clear that the chef, Charlie Hallowell, had put a lot of his time and his self in that room and it was clear watching the cooks on the line that it was a place people--not just customers, but cooks too--wanted to be.

I started with a glass of the housemade vin d'orange, a fortified wine with vanilla, vodka, seville orange and warm spices. The wine was indeed strong, and the seville orange and vanilla dominated the promised black pepper flavor, but overall I was happy with it.

We split two "antipasti" and a pizza:

Star Route lettuces, burrata with olive oil and Acme bread toast, pizza with stinging nettles and pecorino

The lettuces were sweet baby leaves lightly tossed with oil, salt and pepper, simple and refreshing although a couple of whole or nearly-whole peppercorns snuck past the garde manger cook and onto our place.

The burrata was actually my favorite course. Maybe it's almost time to revise that oft-used phrase I utter (you know, the I don't like cheese one). Perfect slices of lightly charred Acme levain and a chunk of burrata drizzled with olive oil. The consistency was strange, sort of like the first spoonfulls of cream-topped yogurt, slighlty resistant but then all creaminess. It was great to have the lettuce and the burrata at the same time for the textural and flavor contrast.
this is the burrata. photo by

Our pizza came streaming hot with a blistering crust. Given that, I would not have expected the center crust to be soggy and slightly wet, which made it impossible to eat out of hand without resulting to all kinds of New Yorker folding strategies. There was something sweet--distracting because I couldn't place it--and there were (unmentioned in the menu listing) slightly crunchy red onions on the pizza. The nettles were wilted nicely and well cooked, except the long stems had ben left on and those were stringy.

I really wanted to like the pizza. I have the feeling if we'd ordered a different (read: nettle-less) pizza, it would have been better (no stringiness). But we were dining with a vegetarian and that was the one that leaped out at all of us. What we ordered was enough food to feed three people comfortably, which was nice. We walked out of there happy and not too full.

We actually didn't get dessert. Fairly full on what we ate. It was clear from the menu items, the menu language, the presentation and the dessert that Pizzaiolo is one of those ex-Chez Panissey places. The servers assemble the desserts themselves, on the restaurant floor side of the line. Drizzle of verbena anglaise, puff square, sauce with apricot compote, dust with 10x. Interestingly, most tables did seem to order dessert and the ice cream was a popular choice.

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