Pizza is like God in that its name is a household word yet in no two minds does it look quite alike. Certain basics recur in both. God is omnipotent. Pizza is flat. But, just as God is a throned man to some and a feathered serpent to others, pizza is in some minds round but others square, in some sauced, others dry. In some it bears cheese, in others — as at a certain London Pizza Hut — potatoes. Like God, it is a meal or a snack, abundant or austere.
Before Renee Thomas Jacobs and Caroline Thomas Jacobs decided to start a pizza business, they knew only that they wanted to sell food — "because Renee has been known as 'Renee Gourmet' to her friends and family for twenty years now, because we love food," says Caroline, "and because we wanted to bring families back to the dinner table. We wondered what we could make using wholesome ingredients that people could buy ahead of time, that would be easy to serve, so they could sit down and eat a good family meal together."
Well, pizza. But they couldn't run a restaurant or a takeout place, because Renee had a day job she wanted to keep, and the El Cerrito couple has two small sons, now ages four and six. Renee's background is in marketing; Caroline, a longtime tech-industry insider, helped launch the Apple retail stores. Basically, they resembled the very customers they hoped to attract. What kind of pizza is quick, easy, readymade but not from restaurants?
Since April, Renee has spent her weekends baking pizza, lasagne, and macaroni and cheese in a rented Richmond kitchen, using old family recipes and her own newer creations. Customers order online and by phone. Caroline drives all over the northern East Bay on weekday evenings making deliveries; customers in Albany, El Cerrito, and Richmond get their pizzas on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays while those in Berkeley and Oakland receive theirs on Tuesdays and Thursdays. So you get the luxury of handmade, individually crafted pizzas plus the familiar convenience of having it delivered to your door — but frozen, snug in a plastic bag, which affords you the other convenience of either eating it at once or stowing it in the freezer to await its twelve minutes in a 425-degree oven. So ... it's like TV dinners and a restaurant rolled into one.
Renee Gourmet offers eight standard combinations, half of them meatless, plus custom pizzas with your choice of toppings. We started with Scarborough Fare, whose name winkingly evinces the fresh parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme sprinkled atop it along with part-low-fat mozzarella, Gruyère, house-made tomato sauce, and pine nuts. Spunky long-leaved rosemary asserts itself against the mild cheeses (which are purchased at Berkeley's Country Cheese) and a very lightly sauced, only slightly puffy crust. The pine nuts pack a smoky protein punch. The Summer Special — available through August before another seasonal combo takes its place — boasts tiny fingernail-size shrimp sautéed in lime and garlic, with fresh papaya and fresh parsley atop tomato sauce for a sweet-salty-seaborne surprise. In texture and taste, especially when enhanced with tropical-fruit flavors, shrimp are among those clever components — along with peas, say, or baba ghanoush, which Renee plans to incorporate into a future pizza recipe — that loom light-years away from conventional concepts of pizza, but which make you pound your fist on the table while hooting, "Heck yeah."
Pine nuts reappeared happily on the sauceless Mediterranean Madness, whose fresh basil and sun-dried tomatoes played cool and elegant against the double saltiness of feta cheese and kalamata olives. Tuffy's custom combo, featuring mushrooms, paper-thin Anaheim pepper slices, and delicious fresh tomato, displayed the borderline parsimony that characterized several of our selections: Yes, the Summer Special was scattered with hearty handfuls of shrimp. And our cheesy, saucy Kiss Me pizza included enough fresh garlic and sweet caramelized onion to make this sneaky, tangy treat our clear favorite — but it doesn't take much garlic and onion, even caramelized, to satisfy. And Tuffy's custom combo bore just one mushroom shard per slice. With this as with some of our other pizzas, the scarcity made us feel as if we were chasing flavors: They were tasty teases, always rushing out of reach.
The toppings are parcelled out carefully, Caroline says, "because don't want to overdo anything. You know how some places cover their whole pizzas with pepperoni? Well, the pepperoni flavor overwhelms everything else." Each slice of their pepperoni pizza — the meat comes from Magnani's — bears precisely two pepperoni half-circles and one quarter-circle.
Made with long cylindrical ziti cooked to a perfect just-past-al-dente doneness, Renee's macaroni and cheese is engagingly rustic, indulgently rich. It's even way light on the salt: In frozen foods, that's a big plus.
Our Summer Special's crust was crispy. Its rim crunched, unlike that of our chewy Scarborough Fare. This inconsistency is not deliberate.
Renee uses the same basic crust recipe — available in white and whole-wheat versions — for all her pizzas. Both versions are earthily flavorful enough to make you notice them, and to contemplate eating them plain. But it's not as if Summer Specials are meant to be crispier than Scarborough Fares. Nor does one fluffy, chewy Scarborough Fare guarantee another. You never know, because these pizzas aren't cranked out in a factory. "They're homemade," Caroline says, "so some get rolled out thinner than others. Each one is unique."
That said, all are thin. Even the fluffy ones are fluffy only on the cookie-height spectrum, which sparks the question of when and why thin-crust pizzas became conqueringly popular. Given a choice, why pick the less substantial one? That with thick-crusted pizzas you get more for your money is not beside the point, not anymore. Are thin crusts popular because they're light, thus Zen, thus inconclusive, thus postmodern, thus pretentious compared to their sloppy, thick-crusted cousins that conjure a bygone time in which pizza was cheap and populist, when it was heaped so high that people called it "pizza pie"? Just wondering. But what they lack in depth and topping quantities, Renee's pizzas make up in spirit, high-quality ingredients, craftswomanship, and convenience. God, for some, is made by hand with products you can trust, and waits — patiently, vacuum-sealed — to be heated, slashed, and devoured.