/American Pie: Bay Area Pizza

American Pie: Bay Area Pizza

Wild nettle and pecorino pizza at Pizzaiolo in Oakland.

Without a geographic specification, the word pizza is completely generic. Of course, it conjures up the notion of sauce and melted cheese on dough. But there are exceptions that defy this definition and the texture of the crust, size and shape of the pie, cooking methods, and toppings can vary wildly from place to place. In Italy, for example, we have the crispy, thin crust Roman style and the thick-crusted, elastic centered Neapolitan variety. There are also untold variations of focaccia and pizzette, which can vary from city to city and region to region.

Wild nettle and pecorino pizza at Zuni Cafe’ in San Francisco.

Things are equally diverse in the States, where major styles include New York, New Haven, Chicago, and California, just to name a few. On a recent trip to the San Francisco Bay area, I tried ten different pizzas, mostly California style, and they ranged from outstanding (Zuni Cafe’) and excellent (Pizzaiolo) to greasy (Cheese Board Collective) and uninspiring (Delfina).

Tomato and ricotta pizza at Zuni Cafe’.

Zuni Cafe’ had the best pizza all-around, offering subtly a raised outer crust that was toasted outside and spongy inside. The texture and flavor are indebted, in large part, to the wood burning oven. The toppings were wild nettles and pecorino and tomato and ricotta. Neither of these would be typical Italian pies, but that is sort of the point. Just like any food, pizza was bound to change to adopt to its surroundings and local customs and at Zuni Cafe’, the pies embody the freshness and seasonal nature of California cuisine.

Sausage pizza at Pizzaiolo.

At Pizzaiolo in Oakland, the pizza is a collision between Neapolitan style pizza and California cuisine. The thick rim evoked memories of Di Matteo or I Decumani, but the toppings were straight off local farms. The blended styles resulted in quite tasty pizzas, though the fiori di zucca starter served with sliced tomatoes and onions was too oily and could have done without the tomatoes and onions, frankly.

Heirloom tomato pizza at The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective in Berkeley.

I suspect this is going to be an unpopular assessment but the two pizzas I tried at The Cheeseboard Pizza Collective in Berkeley were greasy. Both had two types of cheese on them, which brought an unpleasant oiliness and undeniable heaviness to the pizza. The ingredients and philosophy of The Cheeseboard are no doubt admirable, but I couldn’t get past the streams of oil that gushed out when folding a slice.

Cherrystone clam pie at Delfina in San Francisco.

Back in San Francisco, Delfina is a pizzeria with lots of Italy-inspired starters. The mozzarella in carrozza with anchovy butter was oily — fried foods do not have to feel heavy! The pizza had a tasteless swollen rim that didn’t live up to Delfina’s rep as a great pizza destination. Next time, I’ll just head to Zuni Cafe’.

2016-01-09T14:02:01+00:00 September 5th, 2010|Categories: America, California, Carbs, Culture, Food & Wine, Fried Foods, Gastronomic Traditions, Pizza, Restaurants|11 Comments


  1. Mario September 5, 2010 at 11:03 am - Reply

    Thanks. Will try Zuni and Pizzaiolo.

    I too am often disappointed by the amountof oil in restaurant food in the bay area. I thought Californian cuisine was supposed to be healthier and more sophisticated than the rest of America!

  2. Tom September 14, 2010 at 2:53 pm - Reply

    Great post Katie. We will definitely give Zuni Cafe a try when we head out west this December. We’re also going to finally try Chez Panisse based on your other post. Jim is a graduate of Berkeley and we often visit the ‘hood when we visit his parents in CA, but we’ve never been to Chez Panisse. So far you’ve never let us down, so we are looking forward to both places. As always…thanks!

  3. Bruce September 21, 2010 at 6:42 pm - Reply

    I live in Berkeley, but am heading over to Rome in October for a trip, so have been perusing your blog for ideas on restaurants. Based, on the Bay Area reviews, I’m not sure what to think about your pizza spots in Rome. I think I’m coming to the conclusion that pizza is almost too personal to believe anyone’s recommendations about anything. Zuni Cafe over Pizzaiolo and Delfina? For me, no way, no how. It’s often burnt, and the sauce is average at best. Also, I’ve never really understood all the raves that people have about New Haven pizza. Tried both the famous ones (Pepe’s, Sally’s). OK, but neither one changed my life in the least. It’s the same with New York and Lombardi’s. If you grew up there, it’s the pinnacle; if not, meh. As I said, pizza seems to be that most personal of foods. Everyone’s got a different perfect pizza. For me, Pizzaiolo, Delfina, and Picco over in Larkspur are the best in the Bay Area. Anyway, liking the blog, and it’s given me a lot of good suggestions for Rome this October. Thanks.

    • Katie September 21, 2010 at 6:48 pm - Reply

      that day, zuni’s pizzas were perfect. i realize it is a bit pointless to compare pizzas because there are so many different varieties and variables. that said, i dont agree that burnt pizza is bad. those ovens get hot and a bit of charring is normal. the sauce being weak, on the other hand, is another story. the tomato and ricotta pizza had great flavor and balance. the nettle pizza had no sauce.

      maybe i went to the wrong delfina location because the 4 pizzas we had there were very lame. for sure pizzaiolo kicked their asses.

      no comment on New Haven pizza not being amazing! 🙂

      You should definitely check out sforno, la gatta mangiona, da remo (pizzerie) and 00100 and pizzarium (both pizza al taglio) in rome and let me know what you think! im curious what you think about the cheeseboard’s pizza.

  4. Bruce September 21, 2010 at 8:16 pm - Reply

    Charring on the edges is not a problem at all. The bottom being burnt is a problem. Strangely enough, both Zuni and Pizzaiolo are run by Chez Pannisse alum, but I don’t find them that similar. The Cheeseboard is not my favorite pizza around. I agree with you about the greasiness (however, it’s nothing compared to epic levels of grease at Gioia, another favored Berkeley spot). Too much cheese, and sometimes the wrong kind of cheese for me. However, sometimes their vegetable combinations are really good. The quality of the veggies used is really high.

    The apartment we have rented is in the Ghetto/Campo dei Fiori. Is it a pain the butt to get out to Testaccio for Da Remo? Was thinking Ai Marni and l’Archetto would be reasonably easy to get to walking.

    • Katie September 21, 2010 at 8:24 pm - Reply

      no they are not similar at all. the dough is completely different, as are the menus. zuni only serves a handful of pizzas and pizzaiolo, as you know, is all about the pizza.

      staying near the ghetto/campo is VERY exciting if you are into pizza. some of rome’s best pizza by the slice is nearby. roscioli is on via de’ chiavari and forno campo de’ fiori is in campo de’ fiori. L’Archetto on Via Germanico may not be worth the trip, though it is not super far from the area. Ai Marmi (Viale di Trastevere) is just a short walk or #8 tram ride from Largo Argentina. You can also reach Gatta Mangiona with the #8 tram. check out atac.roma.it for public transport details. sforno is a bit of a shlep on the Metro A, but Da Remo and 00100 are easy to get to with public transport (take the #30 bus from Largo Argentina to Via Marmorata and walk the few blocks to the pizzerias). the Atac website will come in handy!

  5. Bruce September 21, 2010 at 8:35 pm - Reply

    Sounds like we need to make the effort to get out to Da Remo. Any thoughts on the one or two trattoria we must get to?

  6. Katie September 21, 2010 at 8:44 pm - Reply

    check out some of these places.

    If you want to eat in your hood check out Piperno, Nonna Betta, Cantina Lucifero, and Casa Bleve.

  7. Mario September 25, 2010 at 7:56 am - Reply

    When I went to Rome, I had pizza every day at whichever place I happened to find nearest when it was lunch time.

    Never the same place, never the same pizza, but it didn’t matter. It was always great.

    The same with the wine. That’s the beauty of Rome. Good food is everywhere. In the bay area, you really have to search.

  8. Katie September 26, 2010 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    @mario, funny i feel exactly the opposite. in the bay area there is good food everywhere while in rome you really have to know where to go!

  9. Mario December 26, 2010 at 7:37 am - Reply

    @katie, maybe you need to be my food guide in the bay area and I can be yours in Rome ………….

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