Oakland has a lot of pizza options. There are the fancy pizza spots (Pizzaiolo, Boot and Shoe). There are the cheap by-the-slice joints. There’s deep dish. There’s even Indian pizza. But in downtown Oakland, a place with a huge diversity of food options, there’s relatively few choices for pizza--and there definitely isn’t a spot for thin crust, Neapolitan-style pizza.
That’s the niche that Viet Nguyen is trying to fill with his new restaurant, Bare Knuckle Pizza, located on the edge of Oakland’s Chinatown a few blocks from the 12th St. BART station. Nguyen’s pizzas are similar to Pizzaiolo and Boot and Shoe--they’re wood-fired, individual pizzas with local and organic ingredients--but on a smaller, more relaxed scale. Their menu is small, with standard offerings like a Margherita and pepperoni mixed in with creative options like the mushroom-heavy TKO and a specialty pizza whose ingredients change weekly. You order at the counter, then quickly try to claim some of the few seating options, including stools downstairs and a handful of tables upstairs, accessible via a narrow, twisting staircase. Most of the kitchen’s space is taken up by a beautiful wood-fired oven, serving as a cheerful beacon on Wednesday, their rainy opening night.
“I was a kid who messed with fire all the time, maybe that’s why I enjoy making a fire every day,” Nguyen said. “Fire is very archaic. I still have relatives back in Vietnam that cook everything on a wood-fired stove. I think it’s kind of cool to tap into those old school ways.”
Nguyen grew up in a small town in Indiana whose main claim to fame was being the birthplace of John Cougar Mellencamp. If his parents, Vietnamese refugees, wanted to make traditional dishes, they either had to drive four hours to Chicago for ingredients or make it themselves. He grew up watching his mom make her own tofu and noodles, and later, when he traveled to New York, he saw the same dedication to tradition and technique in Brooklyn’s old-school pizzerias. For the next few years, he played with a pizza dough recipe, eventually opening a mobile wood-fired pizza cart in 2012, catering farmers markets and private events around San Jose while also teaching at a local community college.
The name Bare Knuckle comes from his childhood growing up in that small town. “I grew up in the Midwest, with a lot of racism and bigotry and prejudice. I got into a lot of fights, being called chink or gook or all the different types of racist words you can be called as an Asian person in the United States,” he said.
“I was American, but I was Vietnamese American. I didn’t look like the dominant narrative, the dominant group. I always felt like an outsider even though I was born in this country. I got into tons of fights growing up, and it was because of this chip on my shoulder, that I had to prove something.”
Then there’s the more literal interpretation of the name: “You make pizza dough with your bare knuckles and stretch it,” he said with a laugh. “That’s the long winded version and the short version.”
Nguyen’s years of honing his pizza skills have paid off. The pizzas are thin, chewy and intelligently constructed: there’s no ingredient overload or soggy crust. The Margherita pizza was our favorite, with a balanced, fresh-tasting and ever-so-slightly sweet sauce (from locally grown tomatoes) topped with slices of mozzarella.
Those looking for an over-the-top meat lover’s pie won’t find it here--instead, Bare Knuckle pizzas feature one quality meat per pie, in keeping with their traditional, simple inspiration. The salami pie featured thick slices of peppery, San Francisco-made Molinari salami. It was a welcome addition, its savoriness playing off the bright sauce. A runny egg on the top, it’s bright yolk spilling over the pizza, added richness.
The TKO pizza is a carryover from Nguyen’s catering days, a white pie with large slices of meaty portabella mushrooms and a hearty drizzle of truffle oil. A shower of parmesan adds another layer of umami, adding up to a satisfying vegetarian pie.
All the pizzas were very good, emphasizing Nguyen’s flavorful crust and commitment to local, organic ingredients. The only thing I wanted was a crispier crust--while delightfully bubbly, it has less char than the typical Neapolitan pizza.
Nguyen’s inspiration may be Brooklyn pizza joints--he’s cited Grimaldi’s, Lucali’s and Pauly Gee’s as some of his influences--but his shop has one distinctive Bay Area touch. It’s easy for vegetarians to find a pizza they can eat. It’s much harder for vegans. Bare Knuckle offers vegan mozzarella from Berkeley’s The Butcher’s Son, made from cashews and coconut oil. Nguyen was a vegan for a few years, and believes pizza can be part of a healthy diet:
“You can make healthy food, but you can also make it delicious, too,” he said. “When it comes to pizza, people don’t think of that as a healthy food, but I think if you do it with really good ingredients and you don’t overload it with a bunch of cheese and fats, it still can be delicious and healthier than your average pizza.”
Bare Knuckle is a welcome mix of old and new, from its location (it formerly housed another pizza place, Villa York) to its approach: traditional techniques mixed with a modern preference to quality, local ingredients like his locally milled flour. Nguyen isn’t trying to reinvent the pizza wheel--his goal is simpler, to share his love of classic Neapolitan pizza with the East Bay. “My hope for the future? Just to be an Oakland establishment,” he said. “I want to be a part of the growing food community here in Oakland.”