Friday, February 5, 2010


Oakland, February 4, 2010—
IT'S ALMOST ENOUGH to make me want to move back to the East Bay: a truly wonderful restaurant, authentic to its ambition, using the best ingredients, cooking them with intelligence and passion, and serving the food comfortably and knowledgeably. It doesn't hurt that the genre is Italian. Pizzaiolo is as close as you can come, I think, in the San Francisco Bay Area, to eating in Testaccio, that meat-loving workingclass district in Rome.

Well, Pizzaiolo and Incanto, over in San Francisco. They're similar restaurants in many ways: the difference between the two feels to me like the difference between East Bay and The City. We need them both; they make a great pair.
Last night there were six of us at table, and I'm afraid I, at least, pigged out — literally. The waiter mentioned Antipasti di maiale, but my eye'd already landed on it: cottechino (as the menu spelled it) with lentils, pork loin with tonnato (!), ciccioli. I fixed on this for my main course, but we all shared one as an opener. The lentils were imported from Umbria; the cotechino, like the tonnato, was of course made in house. Pizzaiolo is a Slow Food restaurant, and the kitchen proves it.

The cotechino was loose-textured, very spicy, combining with the lentils to a rich depth of flavor that always makes me think I'm reverting to medieval tastes. (Panforte produces the same feeling.) This dish was indescribably good, and the ciccioli paralleled it beautifully — served as a loose paste, closer to the soft French rillettes than what I think of as crisp-textured ciccioli: but I'm not complaining. The pork loin, delicate and almost flowery under its moody tuna-based sauce, may seem an odd complement to these rich companions, but it held its own and provided a fine counterpoise. This one plate alone was truly remarkable, memorable: I'd eat this every Thursday night given the chance.

Most of us went on to puntarelle: who can resist? How often do you see it in this country — or anywhere outside Rome, for that matter? A chicory with very narrow serrated leaves, it's eaten primarily for its white, not-quite-bitter stems, which are split lengthwise and set to curl in ice-water. Pizzaiolo served it with shreds of Jerusalem artichoke and slices of grana, dressed with oil and lemon juice. Delicious.

Most of us also went on to pizze, and tablemates were generous, allowing me to sample three different ones: with tomato sauce, brandade, black olives, hot pepper and mint; with potato, pancetta, fontina and rosemary; and with tomato sauce, sausage, and cream. Charlie Hallowell was pizzaiolo for years upstairs at Chez Panisse and he knows pizzas; I'm far from the only one who thinks his pizzas are the best in the area.

Desserts! A curious, again medieval, extraordinarily buttery walnut-brown butter cake with strawberry preserves and delicious crème fraîche ice cream; chocolate bread pudding with brandy-caramel sauce, recalling the ciccioli; but best of all a plate of soft succulent Barhi dates with some nice fat small almonds alongside and an affogato made with Blue Bottle coffee — Pizzaiolo is where I first tasted this excellent product — and heavily laced with nocino made, again, I'm sure, in house.

This is one of my very favorite restaurants. Unfortunately it's also one of virtually every one else's very favorite restaurants. We didn't have any trouble reserving a table for six, three days in advance; but we sure had trouble hearing ourselves converse!
Greco bianco, Librandi (Campania), 2008; Dolcetto d'Alba, Cavallotto, 2007 (both excellent and, like the restaurant, true to type)
  • Pizzaiolo, 5008 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland; tel. (510) 652-4888
  • Writing this up has led me to Wikipedia a couple of times, and I want to acknowledge the admirable work being done there to gloss such things as ciccioli, cotechino, rillettes, nocino, and the like. Wikipedia also led me to a wonderful site in Italian. (Go to its home page for an idea of the extraordinary range of this site.) And, of course, there's the restaurant's own website. Oh, I'm hungry!

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