The apple doesn’t fall very far from the tree. The tree in this case is Alice Waters' groundbreaking sustainable organic French restaurant Chez Panisse. The apple is Chef and Pizzaiolo owner Charlie Hallowell, who spent eight years cooking with Waters in Berkeley and who has created a daily menu that shares her philosophy of seasonal, simple, and tasty foods that warm the heart.
The ambiance is welcoming with magnificent art, exposed brick walls, and an exposed line kitchen. Being a single guy, I enjoy places where I can spontaneously dine by myself and still feel like I am part of a small, casual, and unpretentious local neighborhood gathering place; where I can relax and experience being part of a family. The dining space has a large main room with a high ceiling divided in half with a small bar and a large sunny outdoor dining patio (replete with heaters) that abuts an intimately sized bocce ball court.
We arrived on time for our 5:30 pm Saturday reservation and were promptly seated. Our server was friendly and kind and asked what type of water we preferred. We munched on tasty bread and butter as we perused the menu. Some of the best bread ever: a European grain, the perfect combination of stiff, earthy crust and fluffy wheat center. The butter was sweet, soft, and organic
We decided to share a few things family style, beginning with an heirloom tomato, hand-stretched mozzarella, and basil antipasti. It was an amazing mix of orange, red, green heirlooms with red and orange cherry tomatoes, resting atop slices of super fresh mozzarella with basil sprigs. The texture of the cheese combined with the basil and olive oil was heavenly and gave us our first big-eyed, "Wow, yum!" moment. Our other antipasti was padrón peppers. I fell in love with these small low heat green peppers when I lived in Spain, and seek them out as my first welcome back to España tapas plate on every trip to Madrid. Pizzaiolo’s version was grilled perfectly, with the tiniest burned edges and rich authentic taste. At this point I exclaimed, “Is there any better peasant food?” Roasted peppers, salt and extra virgin organic olive oil. My friends couldn’t believe the tastiness as I explained that there was only one farmer’s market in all of San Francisco that had these little jewels on the rare occasion. Mid-antipasti, we looked at each other and ordered more bread to soak up the now pepper and tomato-basil infused oils until each plate was bone dry.
Like two kids at a science fair, we gazed at each other wide-eyed as our primi, or first course, arrived: Bellwether Farms ricotta ravioli with salsa di noci (aka walnut pesto fresco). Each bite was simply heavenly. You could taste organic fresh semolina and ricotta cheese in every bite. The pasta was cooked al dente with a generous amount of sauce, so you could combine pasta, sauce and walnut crumbs with every delicious bite.
For our pizze course, we chatted about the history of pizza and my travels through southern Italy. The best pizza comes from Napoli and Charlie has studied the crust, taste, and cooking methods of this thinner, light and crispy recipe quite well. We ordered the Margherita pizza, which many believe is the seminal recipe. It is fresh crushed red tomatoes with mozzarella cheese. The pizza is a good size (we left with extra pizza) and came bubbly hot with the perfect amount of burn around the edges of the rustic crust. As in Napoli, each bite was PERFECTION.
During this course, my friend was full, so I was forced to soldier on to dessert alone. After settling on the flourless chocolate cake with whipped cream and hazelnut praline --I am a cake WITH coffee guy -- I ordered a cappuccino as my friend nursed the last of her wine to a close. The dessert was wondrous with enough cream and praline to spread on each bite. You could taste chocolate, but the cake body was light and neither too moist nor too dry like most flourless cakes. Once again, they have this recipe ROCK SOLID.
Even though we both live in San Francisco, we both would come back to this restaurant and we both rated Pizzaiolo an 11 on a 1 to 10 scale.
PS. While we were there, we saw Charlie (the owner) stop by the table next to us to say hello to a family having dinner. He even worked the pizza oven for a time and actually made our delicious pizza!
Occupation: Event Planner and Floral Designer
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Pork Store Café
Reviewed Pizzaiolo: Wednesday, August 3, 2011
My boyfriend, named Justin, and I traveled across the bridge and into the now-hip neighborhood known as the Temescal to meet my friend, named Stephanie, and eat at Pizzaiolo. Parking was easy, when compared to our San Francisco streets, and the small wooden sign above the door let us know we were in the right place.
We had an option of indoor or outdoor dining, and with the sun being warmer on the east side of the Bay, we decided to soak in the rays and made our way to the patio. With subtle, smart décor and a good-looking staff, the ambiance at Pizzaiolo outweighs the high priced pizza.
The outdoor patio is one of the most welcoming, making me want to bring it home and enjoy it every day. Live chickens, an herb garden, and eclectic décor make it an inviting place to hang out with friends. We quickly noticed the staff were dressed in style choices hard to miss; 70s bell-bottoms and Afro wigs. Lucky us, it was movie night! Foxy Brown would be screened that evening. At sundown the movie was scheduled to start, and the weekly hipster crowd would soon fill the unique theatre style seating on the patio.
Justin, Stephanie, and I decided to start the meal by sharing a salad. The colorful plate of roasted eggplant, yellow and pink watermelon, and subtle cheese was the highlight of the food for me that evening. We followed it with two pizzas that, while tasty and made of farm fresh items, were not worth their $19 price tag. The homemade sausage was the exception as it was very tasty.
Dessert was a must for this warm summer night. We all eyed the ice cram dessert that had been served to the tables on either side of us. Smooth lemon ice cream placed on a meringue cookie drizzled in a fine berry sauce and topped with crunchy toasted almonds made me go "Mmmmm." It was delicious! Justin ordered and shared a flourless chocolate cake. The cake was enjoyable, but the lemon berry paring was out of this world!
I wouldn’t return to Pizzaiolo for the tasty yet over priced pizza. I would make the trip for the perfect patio pleasantry. From the courteous costumed staff, to the rosemary plants, and the bathroom art, Pizzaiolo was a gallery of visual stimulation. Their napkins were even cool!
Location: San Francisco
Favorite Restaurant: Zarsuela
Reviewed Pizzaiolo: Friday, August 5, 2011
From the moment I stepped into Pizzaiolo, my mouth was salivating as the smell of perfection permeated my being. With its exposed brick walls and high ceilings decorated with modern lighting and drapes, this loft-like space felt ultra hip. The wood burning oven in full view was mesmerizing and taunted us as we waited to be seated.
The atmosphere was lively and loud and exactly what I would expect from a popular pizza joint. As the server led us through the winding maze of this sizable restaurant, I was pleasantly surprised to find the patio had a completely different feel: quietly relaxed and laidback.
The wait staff was excellent: quick and pleasant, offering suggestions that were not only helpful but spot on. The meatballs over polenta and rapini were genius and disappeared within minutes. The homemade meatballs were perfectly seasoned and balanced well with the creamy polenta. I loved the added hints of saltiness from the cheesy goodness. The rapini was an interesting addition with notes of bitterness and nuttiness, which were unexpected but added complexity to the dish.
We ordered multiple pizzas, including the Margherita, Hoboken, and Rapini with homemade sausage
Margherita: The first bite was heavenly, and it was truly the best crust I have ever had on a pizza. The almost burnt crust had a crispness and lightness that I have never had before, followed by the expected chewiness that I love in great pizza crusts. It almost reminded me of Indian naan bread which I so crave. The sauce was tangy and fresh, but a little heavy on the salt for my taste.
Hoboken: Pizza was packed with ingredients including red pizza sauce and cheese, sweet and hot peppers, pancetta and red onions. This pizza hits you with everything: salty, sweet, spicy, sour -- all over that exceptional wood burned crust.
Rapini with Homemade Sausage: This was unique but less enjoyable for me. The rapini was overpowering and pungent and left a bitterness that I found unpleasant, especially without any pizza sauce to balance it out. However, I found the sausage to be delicious and light.
The desserts were standouts for my dinner guests and me. The wood oven peaches were perfectly cooked, retaining the familiar wood-burnt taste from the pizza crusts and packed with bursts of sweetness. We did find the crème fraiche ice cream to be a little off. It tasted like frozen butter that some may find addictively appealing.
My dinner guests especially loved the almond tart with plum ice cream, which at first appeared simple and undressed, but the flavors were bold and well balanced. The chewiness of the almond tart, and the flakiness of the crust left a smile on our faces. We also appreciated that it was not overly sweet, but the flavor of almond shined through. The plum ice cream was perfectly tart, but a little icy for my taste.