In a surprising wrinkle to the longstanding, often heated feud between East Coast and West Coast pizza snobs, two New York City pizza chefs recently visited Temescal stalwart Pizzaiolo (5008 Telegraph Ave., Oakland) to shoot the first episode of Pizza Cuz, a new program on the Cooking Channel, and came away from the experience with ... nothing but love for their Bay Area pizza brethren.
Quipped Francis Garcia, one of the show's pizza-slinging co-stars, "I really did leave my heart in San Francisco." Cue rimshot. But when What the Fork caught up with Garcia and Sal Basille — his cousin and co-star — for a quick phone interview, it was clear that the pair's Bay Area pizza love was sincere.
For their debut episode, which focused on accomplished pizza "Masters," Garcia and Basille — Staten Island natives and co-owners of the NYC-based Artichoke Basille pizza mini-empire — spent the better part of a day hanging out with Pizzaiolo chef-owner Charlie Hallowell. They accompanied Hallowell to the farmers' market and watched him handpick the produce the restaurant would be using that day — a process that in itself made a big impression since, according to Basille, it's still virtually unheard of for New York City restaurateurs to take on that responsibility.
Afterward, the cousins paid a visit to the Pizzaiolo kitchen and watched Hallowell put together a pie topped with wild nettles and house-made sausage. Here in the Bay Area, we take a local, seasonal ingredient like wild nettles for granted (I must have seen them on three or four menus in the past week alone). But Garcia said he'd never even heard of nettles before filming the show: "I was thinking to myself, 'Is this some kind of weird Bay Area thing, where you put it in your mouth and your mouth stings?'"
It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone who's spent any time watching food TV that the pizza turned out to be up to snuff. During the episode, Garcia ends up exclaiming, "I was eating weeds, and I was loving them!"
Over the course of six episodes, Pizza Cuz takes the cousins to pizzerias all over the country, where they check out regional specialties, learn new dough recipes, and see the logistics of how different types of pizza restaurants operate. And as much as he loved Pizzaiolo, Garcia said his favorite pizza place that he visited in Northern California was actually another Bay Area institution: Berkeley's Cheese Board Pizza (1512 Shattuck Ave.), which is featured in the show's third episode.
"There was something about The Cheese Board that was electric when you went inside," Garcia said, praising the Berkeley collective's market-driven approach to toppings and its "ingenious" technique of cooking pizzas on upside-down baking trays. Given the shop's infamous lines out the door, Garcia also marveled at the efficiency of the pizza chefs: "I never saw more pizza than was pumped out at the Cheeseboard in my life."
The half-hour-long premiere episode of Pizza Cuz, which includes the segment about Pizzaiolo, debuted on the Cooking Channel on Monday night. It will air again on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and several more times over the course of the week.
Paella at The Frog and Fiddle
The recent death of Soleil Banguid, the beloved chef of Soleil's African Cuisine, which served some of the tastiest West African dishes around in the unlikeliest of locations — a bluegrass and country western bar in Alameda called The Frog and Fiddle (1544 Webster St.) — left a void in that bar's kitchen program. Now comes word that Paul Skrentny, the paella-centric caterer and longtime standby at Oakland's Guest Chef — having logged seven two-week pop-up stints — will be taking over indefinitely.
Skrentny had his first official day of service last Friday, launching a tapas-based menu that mostly consists of dishes that he's served during his various pop-up gigs. In addition to three paellas, he's serving a variety of small plates, none of which are traditional Spanish tapas per se: One is a take on a Scotch egg, that British pub classic — but made with quail eggs instead of chicken eggs. Another is Skrentny's version of chicken and waffles, served as a taco: boneless fried chicken breast served wrapped inside a thin waffle, which serves as the "taco" shell. There's also a burger on the menu, available in a full-sized version or as sliders for diners who want to keep to the small plates theme.
For Skrentny, who previously worked in the publishing industry, it's his first full-time restaurant gig, but the future of the enterprise is still somewhat in the air: He said the owners of The Frog and Fiddle are looking to sell the bar and restaurant, and if they do, that would certainly put his tenure in the kitchen in jeopardy. But if his paella and tapas menu does well? Skrentny said he might consider putting in an offer to buy the place himself.
The kitchen at The Frog and Fiddle serves dinner Wednesday to Sunday, from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.
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