Bay Area Bites Guide to the Best Italian-Style Pizzas in Berkeley and Oakland

A16 margherita, side view (Kim Westerman)

How is it that there are so many variations on the theme of flour, water, yeast, tomatoes and cheese? What makes pizza “authentic?” This food with Italian origins is now an American staple, and there are more styles than you can shake a stick at, the most common in the Bay Area being traditional Italian and Californian. The line between the two is perhaps a faint one, but it isn’t arbitrary.

Italian-style pizzas, first and foremost, aren’t overloaded with ingredients, as many Cali-style pizzas tend to be. In Italy, there are no “meat-lover’s” or “everything” options, and the minimalist approach is also honored with modest proportions of sauce and cheese. The sauce is most often made with preserved tomatoes, not tinned paste, and the cheese is almost always fresh mozzarella, rather than the drier block stuff you see vacuum-sealed next to the cheddar in the cheese aisle. And you will rarely, if ever, find fruit on an Italian pizza, unless it is a dessert.

But the crust is the heart of the matter, the biggest distinction between the two styles. California-style pizza crust is often more akin to bread. Whether soft or crisp, it tends toward thickness, and serves more as a vehicle for supporting lots of ingredients, holding up to the weight and soaking up any juices. Italian styles of crust, of which there are several, all skew toward some combination of thin and chewy, and these are always cooked at high heat, the best versions ending up with blistered edges, an al dente texture, and just enough structure to support light toppings. It’s not important that pieces might be picked up as slices; in fact, forks are allowed, as are the customary triangular slices, which tend to droop a tiny bit at the pointed ends.

This guide covers 10 of the best destinations for Italian-style pizza in Berkeley and Oakland, specifically reviewing each restaurant’s margherita— the classic recipe of tomato, sauce, mozzarella and basil, named for Queen Margherita of Savoy. Let me know in the comments section if I’ve missed your favorite.

A16 is the name of the autostrada route through Campania, famous for its buffalo mozzarella and montanara pizza, whose hallmark is fried dough. A16 restaurant, which has long been a San Francisco destination, opened a place in Rockridge a few years ago, where the kitchen turns out the same high quality. The montanara originated in home kitchens that had no ovens or no gas to light them. Instead, dough was fried on the stovetop. Restaurants that picked up on this method, including A16, fry the dough for about 30 seconds, then top it and bake in a hot oven until done, resulting in a much less greasy pizza. A16 also does a beautiful job with the margherita, perfectly spacing dollops of mozzarella on one of the simplest tomato sauces out there, really just tomatoes and salt, cooked to a medium-thick consistency. The crust we enjoyed on our last visit was just short of blistered, but pretty evenly baked. Ask for a side of the housemade chile oil, very hot and very Campanian.

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There’s also an ambitious wine program here that features bottles from Campania. We brought a simple bottle of Dolcetto, and the server insisted on finding the proper glass, which was a nice instinct. But when she came back with Bordeaux glasses, she filled them with no less than 12 ounces each, practically poured out the bottle into two glasses. I wish the thoughtfulness around glassware and food and wine pairings extended to pouring the wine as well. We had to ask for a funnel to return to the bottle the remainder that we wanted to take home.

A16
5336 College Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94618
Ph: (510) 768-8003
Hours: Mon-Wed, 11am-2:30pm 5-10pm; Thurs-Fri, 11am-2:30pm and 5pm-1am; Sat-Sun, 5pm-1am.
Facebook: A16Rockridge
Twitter: @a16rockridge
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)

Boot & Shoe Service, on Grand St. in Oakland, is thought of by many as a “junior” Pizzaiolo. While the menus are similar and the devotion to pizza is central at both, Pizzaiolo takes the slight edge for me because the cooking is more consistent. Still, Boot & Shoe is one of the best spots for pizza in the East Bay. In addition to the margherita, which has a light schmear of tomato sauce, circles of mozzarella organized a bit like a labyrinth, and whole basil leaves added at the end, we tried a special that made use of the heirloom tomatoes that had just arrived at the market. Instead of tomato sauce, the dough was topped with slices of these and baked ever so briefly, interspersed with burrata (wetter than mozzarella, so placed on after cooking).

Boot & Shoe Service
3308 Grand Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94610
Ph: (510) 763-2668
Hours: Tues-Thurs, 7am-2pm and 5:30-10pm; Fri, 7am-2pm and 5:30-10:30pm; Sat-Sun, 8am-2pm and 5-10:30pm; Sun, 10am-2pm and 5-10pm.
Facebook: Boot & Shoe Service, Oakland!
Twitter: @bootandshoeoak
Blog: Charlie Hallowell blog
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)

Despite the fact that Dopo’s oven is not wood-burning, it gets hot enough to blister a crust to perfection. These pizzas are more uniform than some, as if the chef is obsessed with the perfection of the circle. In other words, they’re very pretty and symmetrical. Luckily, they taste good, too, both the classic margherita, which has a bit more sauce and cheese than average (but not too much), and the house pizza, which adds anchovy and Pecorino to the margherita concept, and chops the basil finely as opposed to placing it, whole-leaf, on top. The pizzas are on the smaller side, so the crust gets crisp all the way in to the center, good for picking it up with your hands.

Dopo
4293 Piedmont Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94611
Ph: (510) 652-3676
Hours: Mon-Fri, 11:30am-2:30pm and 5:30-10pm; Sat, 5:30-10pm
Instagram: palmento_a_dopo
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)

I recently made my first visit to The Forge, at Jack London Square in Oakland, a bit skeptical because heavy online marketing makes it seem a bit corporate. Not true once you’re inside — or even better, outside on the patio overlooking the bay — and tucking into a simple margherita. This version is quite light on the cheese, but that works because it is a moister cheese than some. The edge of the crust is puffy and appropriately chewy, and the whole leaves of basil are seared on top in the wood-burning oven. We also tried the daily special, with sliced tomatoes and prosciutto with a base layer of mozzarella instead of tomato sauce, all sprinkled with grated Parmigiano. The kitchen takes full advantage of the wood oven, fearlessly leaving each pizza in until the moment just before it burns, which takes a good eye to accomplish consistently.

The Forge
66 Franklin St. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94607
Ph: (510) 268-3200
Hours: Sun-Thurs, 11am-10pm; Fri-Sat, 11am-11pm.
Twitter: @forgepizza
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)

Oliveto has an Italian vibe through and through, but is also thoroughly local. The upstairs restaurant is more formal and, though it has a wood-burning oven, its focus isn’t really pizza, so I turned my attention to the more casual downstairs café, which turns out nice thin-crust pizzas from a high-heat gas oven. The margherita was oddly lacking in salt. I’m not sure if someone forgot to salt the sauce or the saltlessness of the hand-pulled cheese just overtook the pizza, but it was easy to adjust by adding a bit of salt to the whole as I was eating it. The other two we tried — essentially, a margherita with anchovies and another with pancetta and jalapeños — were much better balanced in terms of flavor, and all were lovely in terms of crust, on the slightly less-cooked side of things, but solid. Service can be hurried and harried, so stand your ground and take your time for the best experience.

Oliveto Café
5655 College Ave [Map]
Oakland, CA 94618
Ph: (510) 547-5356
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 7am-9pm; Fri, 7am-10pm; Sat, 8am-10pm; Sun, 8am-9pm.
Facebook:: Oliveto Cafe & Restaurant
Twitter: @olivetooakland
Instagram: oliveto_oakland
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)

My family goes to Paisan a lot because it’s readily kid-friendly and right around the corner from our preschool. When I was thinking about Italian-style pizza, it didn’t come to mind first, but when I visited with a more conscious focus, I realized that these pizzas are some of the best in town. More Neapolitan in style than anything, the crust is slightly thicker than that of Pizzaiolo (my local standard for Roman-style), emphasis on “slightly,” as it is still on the thin side where American pizza vocabulary is concerned. The edge is rounded, and the crust maintains the same thickness to the middle, so it’s easy to handle — even with one had as you’re juggling sippy cups. Toppings are densely spaced, but, thankfully, not densely layered, and the cheese and sauce are nicely blended in the baking, so the margherita, from above, looks like an inviting sea of tomatoes and cheese in equal proportion. My other favorite on the regular menu is the funghi, mushrooms sautéed with garlic and parsley, punctuated with piquant young goat cheese. Good, unprepossessing stuff.

Paisan
2514 San Pablo Ave. [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94704
Ph: (510) 649-1031
Hours: Sun-Thurs, 8:30am-9pm; Fri-Sat, 8:30am-10pm; Sun, 10am-4pm
Facebook: Paisan
Twitter: @PaisanBerkeley
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)

You will hardly ever find me recommending standing-room-only food of any kind, but the pizza at the Pizza Politana stand at the Temescal farmers' market on Sundays is a worthy exception. These folks roll a wood-burning oven right up into the parking lot and, in five minutes or so, produce some of the best pizza you’ll have anywhere. They’re small and inexpensive (by local standards). The crust is precisely between crispy and chewy, charred to a tee around the edges. The margherita is a nice blend of slightly salty tomato sauce and shredded mozzarella that melts evenly, with torn pieces of basil embedded throughout. And the pepperoni is a kid’s (heck, anyone’s) dream: little coins of cured meat on top of the basic margherita model. If you can’t get one of the few ramshackle tables over by the live music, then head for the grassy embankment on the creek. And if it’s past noon, or so, go ahead and BYO sparkling wine. No one will blink.

Pizza Politana
Temescal Farmers' Market (and various other Bay Area locations)
5300 Claremont Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94618
Ph: (510) 207-2409
Hours: Sundays, 9am-1pm
Facebook:: Pizza Politana
Twitter: @PizzaPolitana
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)
Cash only

Parlour is the newest restaurant on this list, and it almost didn’t’ make the cut because the sauce is a bit too pasty. But the wood-fired cooking ensures lots of potential development as this place finds its final form. The proportions on both pizzas we ordered — the margherita and the pepperoni — were just right, and the crust is a respectable (even competitive) base to start from. Even though they weren’t busy the night we went, they forgot to give us our (considerable portion of) leftovers to take home, which was a rookie mistake, and a bummer for us. A place to watch, especially for wood-fired recipes of all kinds.

Parlour
357 19th St. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94612
Ph: (510) 451-1357
Hours: Tues-Thurs, 5-10pm; Fri, 5-11pm; Sat., 5:30-11pm; Sun, 5:30-10pm; closed Mon.
Facebook: Parlour Oakland
Instagram: parlour_oakland
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)

PIQ (Pane Italiano Qualitá), in downtown Berkeley, reminds me of places near the main train station, Termini, in Rome: cheap and delicious. This is the one place on the list that doesn’t serve whole pizzas, per se, rather bakes up large sheets and puts them on display with other baked goods, including breads and pastries, and cuts and reheats them to order. It works, especially with the classic margherita, lightly topped with halved sweet cherry tomatoes, in addition to the sauce, cheese and basil. The substantial serving is light as a feather. And the espresso here is spot on.

PIQ
91 Shattuck Square [Map]
Berkeley, CA 94704
Ph: (510) 540-7700
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 7am-9pm; Fri, 7am-9:30pm; Sat., 8:30am-9:30pm; Sun, 8:30am-8pm.
Facebook: PIQ Bakery
Twitter: @PIQBakery
Price range: $ (Entrees under $10)

Rarely does the best come last, alphabetically speaking, but in this case, it does. Pizzaiolo is the East Bay standard for Italian-style pizza: wood-fired, crust charred all around (but not uniformly, in a cookie-cutter way), crispy, chewy, and lightly topped with (mostly) locally sourced Italian ingredients. The margherita is pizza-perfection incarnate, the sauce all tomato flavor, lightly salted, and the cheese just melted so that it makes a series of islands on the roughly round base. Basil is hand-torn and strewn at the end. The other destination pizza here has the same splendid crust topped with nettles, sliced red onions and mozzarella. It has to be darn good for me to recommend a sauceless pizza, and it is.

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Pizzaiolo
5008 Telegraph Ave. [Map]
Oakland, CA 94604
Ph: (510) 652-4888
Hours: Mon-Thurs, 8am-12pm and 5:30-10pm; Fri-Sat, 8am-12pm and 5:30-10:30pm; closed Sun.
Facebook: Pizzaiolo
Twitter: @pizzaioloakland
Instagram: pizzaiolooakland
Price range: $$ (Entrees $11-$17)

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