Be warned: Pizzaiolo, the long-awaited restaurant from local boy Charlie Hollowell is up and firing. Firing up pizza, that is. And the place is busy. There hasn’t been an evening yet that I’ve gone by and not seen a line out the door – singles, couples, groupies, young hipsters, yogis and families alike – all wanting a slice of the pie, Charlie-style. If you like thin crusted, chewy pies cooked in a wood-fired oven just like in Italy, and topped with the best seasonal and house-made ingredients, consider it home.
Charlie hails from Chez Panisse Restaurant, the premiere breeding ground for chefs who take to heart where their food comes from; it shows in his attention to ingredients and in his preparations. He uses mostly organic and local produce and sustainable meats and fish. His culinary lineage and focus on the palate is not lost on diners, who seem to arrive in droves and appreciate equally his reverence to sustainable food, as well as the pizza al forno.
Pizzaiolo is next door to DoÃ±a Tomas, a favorite up-scale Mexican eatery and bar in the thriving Temescal neighborhood – Oakland’s gourmet ghetto – on Telegraph Ave. Housed in a former hardware store, the space is large and open while still managing to be cozy. One wall is made up of partially exposed bricks from the original building, lending a rustic feeling. There are intimate seating arrangements throughout, and a family style table set in back. A prized wood-fired oven anchors the open kitchen on the right side of the room and sets the stage for the uncomplicated, tasty fare. The general atmosphere is warm and quite lively, even a bit noisy when full, but makes you feel like you are actually “out on the town,” even if just in Oakland.
The changing menu is fairly simple and straightforward, emphasizing what’s best about California cuisine – the great food producers – and draws from an Italian repertoire. It features just a handful of antipasti (including salads) and pasta courses, a couple of specials like fish or pork braised in the wood oven, and a longer list of pizzas. There are the additional Tuscan olives and nibbles to be had along with sides of polenta and a seasonal vegetable. The pizza Margherita with mozzarella di bufala on my first visit was nothing less than delicious; the crust was nicely blistered on the bottom, but a little shy of cheese for my taste. The pizza “alla Pizzaiolo” (the chef’s choice) I ordered on my second visit was topped with prosciutto and piled high with a tangle of lightly dressed, young rocket (arugula) and shaved pecorino cheese. It was pure heaven.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to pizza. The wood-fired salmon on the menu in August arrived on a pool of white beans drizzled with olive oil. It was perfectly cooked and justly flavored, as was the roasted calamari I enjoyed on my previous visit. The wine list is an eclectic mix of California and Italian wines with a few others thrown in. The fruity Italian wine suggested by my waiter (for a reasonable $30 a bottle) was excellent, though I sadly can’t recall the name. Overall, prices for food and wine are moderate. Desserts reflect the simplicity of the main menu and a seasonal approach. Although service was spotty both times I ate there, it was never unfriendly, and I imagine with time it will smooth out to match the efforts of the kitchen.