I'm not sure Pizzaiolo needs a review. "It'll be an hour," the host said, so I joined the twenty people milling around on Telegraph near 51st St., an ever-replenishing crowd that had barely begun to dwindle by the time I left three hours later.
Before chef-owner Charlie Hallowell had even thrown his first log into the wood-fired oven, Pizzaiolo had generated plenty of buzz. It doesn't take a freakonomics expert to see why: A chef-owner with eight years of Chez Panisse experience. A neighborhood awhirl with remodeling projects and renewal-versus-gentrification debates. And pizza.
For eighteen months, half of Oakland and Berkeley, it seems, passed by the paper-covered windows of what used to be a hardware store, peering in to see when Pizzaiolo would open. Inside, Hallowell and his partner, Omar White (another CP vet), were stripping the walls to brick and plaster, building their own tables and booths, hanging oval-shaped glass lamps blown by a friend, and installing everything a restaurant needs, down to the plumbing. When word finally went out that the restaurant had opened, the lines began to form.
The Bay Area's resurgence of interest in pizzas -- specifically thin-crust New York- and Neapolitan-style pies done up in the finest of California ingredients -- has merited comment in national food rags. From Wolfgang Puck's crackle-crust confections and Chez Panisse's wood-fired oven pies to Viccolo's cornmeal-crust versions, the artful pizza has been a staple of Californian restaurants since this year's graduating class of culinary school students were spitting up their puréed peas. But the disparity here between the $12 duck-sausage-and-caramelized-onion appetizer and the mozzarella-fest two-footer has been stark, and New Yorkers could always claim that a great cheap slice was their birthright alone. Until recently. A new crop of restaurateurs, many of them pedigreed at Chez Panisse and Oliveto, have ushered in a surge of restaurants that put the nation's favorite dish back at the forefront: an elegantly conceived, ethically assembled, affordable meal. Pizza is the meatloaf of the new millennium.
Just this month, the San Francisco restaurant Delfina opened a pizzeria next door, and Pie in the Sky on Center St. in Berkeley has begun competing against nearby Arinell's, Ristorante Raphael, and the Bake Shop. Heck, a couple months ago Lanesplitter opened up a new branch one block over from Pizzaiolo, and on Friday nights it draws just as big a crowd, heavy on the indie boys in their mariner's caps and tattooed indie girls in tight striped T-shirts knocking back craft ales.
Hallowell's love for pizza borders on the religious. "It's incredible to cook in an oven that's 750 degrees," he says. "It's like alchemy. You throw something in there and it tastes so good, it's primal."
Pizza, of course, is only a third of the draw at Pizzaiolo. Hallowell's menu, evolving in daily increments, also includes salads, appetizers, pastas, and a couple of meat-based main courses. Its wine list is of the moment -- heavy on Italian wines and obscure varietals, nothing over $50. It's as much fun to drink through as the menu is to eat.
Chez Panisse is writ over every dish, from one night's julienned green bean and gypsy pepper salad with toasted almonds, all flash and snap, to the three extra-topping choices for the pizzas: rocket salad, anchovies, and prosciutto. True to his training, Hallowell treats his ingredients like the seasoned host of a party. He doesn't stage elaborate get-to-know-you games; he just brings together the right mix of people and lets them make their own conversation.
And the conversation is smart. A discreet, lemony vinaigrette united one night's salad of frisée, all hint of bitterness snipped off the curly green, with cucumber half-moons, a salt-rush of anchovy here and there, and crumbled soft-boiled egg whites with the consistency of clotted cream. The salty oiliness of fresh sardines, baked till the flesh turned to velvet, was cut by the cool heat of a cucumber-chile relish.
Groups of three or more should start with the antipasto platter, a mosaic of small tastes. Some were as simple as a split radish, the leaves still attached, or lightly pickled beets and crumbled goat cheese. Others, such as a slice of prosciutto rolled around sautéed greens or a funkified cauliflower-anchovy purée, were dense and potent.
Sometimes Hallowell, like so many other Chez Panisse alumni, is too much in awe of his organic, locally farmed ingredients to do enough to them. A warm salad of farro -- nutty wholegrain spelt -- with juicy prawns and wilted arugula and mint was all perfume and innuendo, but didn't quite pull off its seduction. Beautifully soft potato gnocchi tossed in a no-frills butter sauce with fresh chickpeas and English peas, their flavors much closer than you might expect, wanted for something. Specifically, mint -- the cooks had listed it on the menu but forgot to toss the herb into the pan, and it was missed.
But there's a winning modesty about Hallowell's food that doesn't feel forced or overly simplified. My tablemates one night melted into a bowl of polenta, unmasked by heavy doses of cream and butter, with a little Gorgonzola crumbled over. Eating it was like spotting a snapshot of your childhood home in a museum exhibition. Even more mothering was a baked penne, still al dente, slathered in a swirls of meaty bolognese sauce and unctuous béchamel. The casserole looked as if it had just stopped bubbling as the waiter carried it to the table.
Generally, every night Pizzaiolo lists six or seven varieties of pizza, the perennials being marinara and margherita. I'm not as in love with Hallowell's pizza crust as I am with A16's or Will Gioia's -- the puffy-edged rounds are more sturdy than ethereally crisp -- but oh, the toppings. In the most beautiful combination I tried, sautéed collard greens fused with fennel-laced housemade pork sausage, supported by a confetti of pink torpedo onion and the thinnest cover of cheese. Hallowell sometimes offers the "Alla Pizzaiolo: at the whim of the Pizza Maker." On the evening we risked it he rewarded us with tomato sauce, salami, and a few red onions, with a few Italian parsley sprigs dressed in a little vinaigrette laid across the top.
The hourlong wait outside the restaurant -- Pizzaiolo doesn't take reservations, so everyone waits -- is a real drag, even after you've tripped down the block to Bakesale Betty to peer at her cookies and walked away with samples. If you finally make it to a table, though, the restaurant doesn't feel rushed and overcrowded. Part of that is due to the kitchen, which you can watch working away. Despite the perennial rush the staff don't appear to be steaming in their own sweat, and the plates come out of the kitchen whenever they're ready. The servers look as if they have been culled from casting-call lines, and by and large, they deliver the goods when and how you want them, though it can be hard to catch a server's eye through the milling crowds.
What's most reassuring is that Pizzaiolo has more going for it than buzz. Hallowell's food is as polished as it is populist, the vibe he fosters as casual as it is stylish. It's about pizza, after all. Everybody loves pizza.