La Val’s Pizza

1834 Euclid Avenue (Berkeley)

La Val's slice.

Grease is La Val's signature flavor.

La Val’s pizza and I just have philosophical differences.  For example, I contend that pizza is not a vehicle for maximizing your daily grease intake.  La Val’s clearly feels otherwise; their pizza is just grease, grease, grease (and big).  Because the quality of all ingredients is low, the grease dominates the flavor, so that’s what you’ll be tasting – not cheese, tomatoes, or crust.

In the no-cheese land at the edge of the slice, the grease content is lower and the crust manages to decently hold its own.  But that’s a small section of the overall slice.

The interior of La Val’s is not much to speak about, but there is a separate take-out area and seating area for drinks.

I know, I know, you’re poor and it’s not so easy to always take the high road on pizza philosophy.  But trust me, you can do better.

Summary: Greasy! Low quality!

Verdict: Stay away!

Published in: on August 29, 2010 at 9:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Blondie’s Pizza

2340 Telegraph Avenue (Berkeley)

Blondie's pizza slice

Blondie's passable pizza.

I won’t say Blondie’s pizza is good, but it is edible.  It tastes like the pizza you get at street fairs.

The interior of Blondie’s blends in well with the streets outside – it’s loud and hipster-ish.   Most of the wall space is covered by images of various pizza topping incarnations, but one neat feature is the counter area that displays pages of a Rolling Stone at eye level so you can read while you eat.

Anyway, perhaps my standards of the Telegraph area are lowered due to Fat Slice, but at least you can taste all the components of Blondie’s pizza.  The crust is pretty thin and the cheese dominates the slice.  Speaking of the cheese, it (strangely) has a very thin, crisp outer layer on top of its somewhat tough and firm interior.  I guess this is a result of the grease selectively burning the top layer of cheese?  Anyway it works OK, and while the sauce is not great it can be tasted and adds to the slice.

Apart its unquestionable property of being edible, Blondie’s pizza doesn’t really have any truly memorable components.  Unfortunately, selection in the Telegraph area is pretty limited, so this might be the best you can do.

Summary: There’s not much reason to stop by Blondie’s unless you’re patrolling the Telegraph area.

Verdict: Skip it

Published in: on August 29, 2010 at 8:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pizza Rustica

5422 College Avenue (Oakland)

Pizza Rustica slice.

Pizza Rustica's hideous, basil-filled nightmare.

One look at the picture of Rustica’s Margherita pizza should tell you all you need to know.  But in case you want details, here goes:

Pizza Rustica’s red, Cirque du Soleil-ish interior is like somewhere you’d go for a date before surviving the latest Julia Roberts movie.  Also, their pizza is flavorless and their view of proportions is…misconstrued.  The main portion of their Margherita pizza was completely and utterly smothered by basil leaves.  (Did this really happen?)  As if this weren’t enough, Rustica adds an extra layer of shredded cheese on top of the basil.  (Again – really?)  Each member of the army of basil was individually OK to handle, but collectively they were a full-on assault  of basil flavor.   The pizza underneath, by the way, mostly lay lifeless.  The crust was passable, but the only time I felt like I really tasted anything was when I caught a morsel of garlic.

This was not pizza – this was a Frankensteinian monstrosity!

Summary: Cafe Rustica is a good-looking restaurant producing terrible pizza.

Verdict: Stay away!

Published in: on August 29, 2010 at 8:06 pm  Leave a Comment  

Jupiter

2181 Shattuck Ave (Berkeley, CA)

Jupiter Pizza slice

Jupiter's pizza leaves much to be desired.

Jupiter is a fun place to hang out and have drinks.  But it is not a place to eat good pizza.  I ordered their version of the Margherita Pizza (which they’ve renamed the ‘Mercury’) and came away squarely disappointed.

When a pizza doesn’t have tomato sauce, it needs good, rich tomatoes.  Unfortunately, Jupiter’s Roma tomatoes are more like nature’s water balloons.  Jupiter’s cheese and basil are also lacking; you’ll get grease, but not flavor.  Jupiter’s hallmark is their brick oven honey wheat crust, but it all just tastes very homogeneous, bland, and lacking texture.  The service at Jupiter is generally rushed and impersonal; this is understandable when the place gets packed, but it was like this even during my fairly empty visit.

But, if you’re having a few drinks and enjoying live outdoor music, maybe you won’t notice?

Summary: A good place to hang out, but skip the pizza.

Verdict: Skip it

Published in: on August 29, 2010 at 7:57 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pizzeria Gioia

1586 Hopkins St (Berkeley)

Pizzeria Gioia slice.

Close to great, Pizzeria Gioia is pretty good but way too greasy.

The Yelp-ers are generally crazy about Pizzeria Gioia, and the pizzeria seems to be doing all it can to resemble a typical neighborhood New York pizzeria.  For example, even though it’s located in a dull area of North Berkeley, the bare interior with a few stools could easily have been ripped  from someplace in The Great Pizza City (I decided to invent an alternate nickname for New York).

The good thing about Pizzeria Gioia is that they know how to make good bread, and that’s usually the sign of a good pizzeria.  Pizzeria Gioia comes fairly close to the ideal crust with a crisp exterior with a fluffy, soft, and tearable interior.  But – and I am not one to wipe off pizza grease with a napkin and don’t like my pizza too refined – I had a problem with the grease.  There’s just too much of it.  It’s all over the dough, all over the cheese, and  altogether pools everywhere on the slice.  Greasiness may be a characteristic of New York pizza, but over-greasiness is the hallmark of bad New Jersey pizza.  In addition,  it seems very little effort was taken to produce a flavorful, impactful tomato sauce.  These shortfalls ultimately place Pizzeria Gioia in the second tier of Berkeley pizzas.

So, if you’re hanging around North Berkeley (why?), Pizzzeria Gioia might be a good place to drop by.  With a few improvements, the pizza here could rank amongst the best in Berkeley.  For now, you’ll just have to drain your pizza of grease first.

Summary: Good dough, good cheese, but too greasy with a weak tomato sauce.

Verdict: Maybe stop by.

Published in: on August 27, 2010 at 11:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

North Beach Pizza

1598 University Ave (Berkeley)

North Beach Pizza slice

California-style pizza at North Beach.

Eating at North Beach Pizza is like being whizzed into the early 90s.  Aside from the green furniture aesthetics, I heard multiple Phil Collins singles during my stay, and the place was adorned with cheap film camera snapshots of customers with dated clothing smiling next to pizza.  If the pictures didn’t convince you that the pizza would be amazing, the hundreds of pasted comment cards around each booth surely would (one near my table was from a couple who claimed North Beach pizza was better than anything they had tasted in Italy).

But it’s a farce!  Or maybe I just don’t understand California pizza.  Or both.  But really I didn’t see anything special about North Beach pizza.  The crust was very thin and crispy – more like a cracker than bread. This was interesting even if not particularly my style.  Did I mention it’s greasy?  It is.  But the interesting parts of the pizza stop there.  You see, the cheese basically smothered the entire slice, and it wasn’t particularly flavorful.  There was tomato sauce, but all it contributed was a little bit of wetness to the pizza.  There was basil, too, but it too had been squashed underneath the cheese layer (which was kind of strange) and had surrendered its taste.  The only surviving component of flavor was the sliced Roma tomato, which had managed to escape the cheese and was not bad.

Maybe I just don’t like California pizza.  Maybe it doesn’t like me.  But I could go without North Beach pizza.  That said, it does offer something different than your garden variety pizzeria, so maybe that’s some incentive enough to stop by.

Summary: The flavorless cheese smothers all other components in this 90s time machine of a restaurant.

Verdict: Skip it.

Published in: on August 27, 2010 at 11:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Summer Kitchen Bake Shop

2944 College Avenue (Berkeley)

Summer Kitchen Bake Shop slice

The basil was fresh, but look closer and you'll spot overzealous salting!

Is pizza a particularly fragile dish?  I would vote no, but certainly one wrong move can ruin an entire experience.  Take my latest visit to Summer Kitchen Bake Shop, a tidy shop in a particularly gentrified area of College Ave.  The interior is a spotless white, like you’d expect pizzerias in heaven to be.  So far, so good.

The first sign of trouble was when I noted that there was no parmesan cheese or red pepper flakes anywhere in sight.  This is usually a bad omen.  Still, the oven looked promising enough (even if it’s exterior label of ‘wood stone’ was a little too noticeable).   I ordered a slice, sat down, and watched as the lone pizza-maker worked at a furious pace.  A new pizza seemed to come out of the oven every minute, when the pizza man would promptly slice it AND deliver it to the tables before quickly preparing the next one.  This was all fun to watch, but the hurriedness would set the stage for the atrocity to come.

In short: the pizza was over-salted.  Well, actually it tasted like it had gone for a swim in the Pacific ocean.  So I will try to describe, as best as I can, what I could taste through the salt.  But , overworked pizza-maker or not, a pizzeria’s job is to deliver good pizza.

Actually, the best part of this pizza was the basil.  It was fresh and flavorful.  The pizza was somewhat undersauced – I saw the chef measure two ladlefuls for each pie; three would have been perfect.  I don’t think I tasted the sauce much – it just provided a liquid film connecting the crust and cheese (the picture over-represents the amount of sauce that was actually there).  I think the cheese and crust would have been above average, but they were hard to taste through the salt.  The crust had some nice heterogeneity from the oven – all parts were cooked well, but there was natural variation in color and flavor.

The oversalting notwithstanding, Summer Kitchen Bake Shop produces above-average pizza (I think).  But be wary – haste can make waste, and pizza can be a fragile dish.

Summary: Probably(?) above-average pizza, but the quickness in the creation led to disastrous levels of salt.

Verdict: Maybe stop by.

Published in: on August 21, 2010 at 11:47 pm  Leave a Comment  

Zachary’s Chicago Pizza

5801 College Avenue (Oakland)

Zachary's Chicago Style pizza

So ugly, yet so satisfying.

Yes, Zachary’s pizza is true Chicago style.  Is it “best this side of the Mississippi, if not this side of the moon” as Zagat Survey suggests?  No – but you still won’t be disappointed.

Let’s get down to it – Chicago-style is not exactly refined pizza.  Maybe it can be, but not in my experience.  That said, Zachary’s delivers the goods – a heaping, ugly mess of a pizza that doesn’t skimp on…well, anything really.  I can’t say it’s all well-proportioned.  I would actually judge it oversauced (a rare feat in the Berkeley pizza world).  None of the ingredients are of particularly high quality.  The sauce tastes too tart, too tangy, and is chunkier than I prefer.  The cheese is fine; it comes as a big, thick planar slab, and there is so much going on with this pizza that it’s hard to isolate it’s taste.  When I tried, I found that besides contributing to the pizza its rubbery texture, it does also add some decent flavor.  The crust is a little too dry and rigid for my taste.  Although I recognize that this is deep dish, and that the crust needs to serve as an architectural support for the stress of all the stuff piled on top, there’s room for improvement here.  Finally, there is probably a little too much salt.  But all in all, many of the flaws are hidden by the sheer mass of food on your plate, and somehow everything comes out pretty much OK in your mouth.  I guess proportions are less sensitive when there’s so much of everything.

The Oakland location (reviewed here – there is also one in North Berkeley) is crowded.  Expect to wait about an hour for a table (but you can order beforehand and have your pizza cooked while you wait).  The interior decoration is somewhat silly, but I like it.  There are dozens of paintings with variations on the theme of Zachary’s being the best (for example, the cookie monster claims he enjoys Zachary’s even more than cookies).  The tables are nice enough, and the service is a little rushed and cold, but given how busy the place was I can’t blame them.

Zachary’s is the pizza equivalent of a bazooka.   Isn’t that something worth trying?

Summary: Not altogether refined, but still a very fun experience and genuinely Chicago-style.

Verdict: Go there!

Published in: on August 21, 2010 at 4:17 pm  Leave a Comment  

Little Caesar’s Pizza

1109 University Avenue, Berkeley

Little Caesar's pizza

Little Caesar's slice in the foreground tastes just like the cardboard box in the background.

I understand.  You have fond memories of visiting Little Caesar’s pizzeria when you were a child, and they are pleasant.  Those memories became less great as Little Caesar’s got cornered into K-marts all over the country (remember K-mart?), but it was still good.  Well, that Little Caesar’s is dead.  In its place is the worst pizza in Berkeley.

I should preface my statements by saying that an entire large pizza costs $5 at Little Caesar’s.  That’s two slices or less anywhere else.  But, I counter, it tastes like cardboard.  Really – the taste is literally indistinguishable from the cardboard box it is packaged in.  I don’t know what else to say about it.  I had one slice and donated the rest to Berkeley’s homeless (and felt slightly guilty when they thanked me).

There is no interior, just a counter.  So cherish your memories and stay the hell away from Little Caesar’s in Berkeley.  It won’t be hard – it’s literally in the middle of nowhere!

Summary: Bad, bad, bad.

Verdict: Stay away!

Published in: on August 21, 2010 at 10:18 am  Leave a Comment  

Emelia’s Pizzeria

2995 Shattuck Ave. (Berkeley)

Emelia's pizza slice

Some of the best pizza in Berkeley is at this small joint in Ashby.

Emilia’s Pizzeria has quite the intimidating web site: it is basically one big FAQ section telling you to order 3 hours in advance, reserve a table even further ahead, and by the way…don’t be surprised if the pizza runs out and you can’t get any.  Is this place really worth all the trouble?

Yes, yes it is.  Actually, once you get past the initial hurdle of ordering a pizza here, the rest of the experience is pretty friendly.  If you dine in, they’ll do their best to ensure the pizza gets out of the oven right as you arrive  (there’s no ordering at the table; remember, you have to order three hours in advance…) .  If you like hours of table conversation, this is probably not a good thing.  But if you want get down to business and not muck about with appetizer menus then this is a welcome change.  Despite the aura created by their web site, the interior is actually very, very small, with only one small table, one larger table, and one portrait of Frank Sinatra.

Oh, so you’d like me to talk about the pizza.  Well, it is quite superb indeed.  The highlight is definitely the sauce – they don’t skimp on it, it has ‘pop’, and the consistency hits exactly the right note between chunky and smooth.  The crust is thin for the majority of the slice, but thickens up at the edges.  The best feature of the crust is its thin crisp layer which reveals a soft inside.  The crisp layer can be so thin at points that it burns a little – this may be a feature that you enjoy or not.  The cheese, which comes as islands of mozzarella, is very good as well.  A touch of basil rounds out the slice.

Despite having amazing flavor, there is one disappointing aspect of Emelia’s pizza: it is not filling at all.  We had 2 large pizzas between 5 people and came away somewhat hungry afterwards.

Emelia’s is a must-try pizzeria in Berkeley.  But you’ll have to plan the experience in advance and reserve a table – since when did ordering pizza become planning date night at a French restaurant?

Summary: Superb East-coast style pizza, but a little light on the stomach and requires advanced planning.

Verdict: Go there!

Published in: on August 21, 2010 at 10:12 am  Leave a Comment  

Cheese Board Pizza Collective

1512 Shattuck Avenue (Berkeley)

Cheese Board slice

Cheese Board's slice changes daily, but is always delicious.

Ask any twenty-something in Berkeley where to eat, and ‘Cheese Board’ will likely be the next two words out of their mouth.  Owned by its employees, Cheese Board uses fresh ingredients and produces only one type of pizza a day (always vegetarian).  There is always a line (which often wraps to the corner of the curb), but it moves quickly because the pizzas are already made and there is no customization.  Although Cheese Board has nicely decorated interior seating which often features live music, the constant crowd means you’ll more likely picnic on the traffic median (under a large sign prohibiting your presence on said median…whatever, ‘the man’).  Cheese Board’s philosophy and atmosphere symbolize the Berkeley culture well.

Cheese Board’s signature taste relies heavily on its namesake – Cheese Board was first a cheese shop, then a bakery, and then finally expanded to pizza.  By far the best component of their pizza is the cheese, which has a pleasant tartness, stringiness, and complexity.  It’s isn’t too greasy but still packs in taste and density; Cheese Board clearly pays attention to using quality cheeses in all their creations.  The crust is good in the sense that it supports the pizza, but it won’t blow you away.  It has a constant thickness (thin and crunchy) throughout the slice and is also somewhat tart.   Lacking a soft layer, the crust is a little too dense for my liking.  Beyond this description, all bets are off and what you get will depend on the day.  Chances are high that you’ll end up with fresh heirloom tomatoes and cilantro; but don’t be surprised if instead you find garlic, corn, and a fresh lime to squirt over the slice (or maybe curried potato).

I do miss the lack of tomato sauce in Cheese Board’s pizza.  But, all the other components are of such high quality (at a low price) that I just can’t complain for long.  The next time someone asks me where to eat in Berkeley, I may just have to give in to the crowd.

Pro tip: Cheese Board’s pricing system, turnover, and ‘extra slice’ policy make it possible to game the system to get more pizza when ordering.  Cheese Board has a uniform price per slice – 2.50 per slice, $10 for a half pie (4 slices), or $20 for a full pie.  There is no discount.  In addition, every individual order comes with a bonus ‘half-slice’.  So, if you order one slice, you actually get 1.5 slices (this is pretty awesome), but if you order 3 slices you still just get one bonus ‘half-slice’.  If you order a full pie, you get  bumped to two bonus half-slices, but it’s not nearly as much pizza as if you ordered 8 slices individually (which would net you 8 bonus half-slices).   Long story short – never order the pies.  If you’re with 4 friends and want 2 slices each, then order 2 slices each (and get a bonus half-slice per person) rather than the full pie.  If you’re feeling extra devious, order your slices ‘to go’.  Often, ‘to go’ slices are individually pre-wrapped with bonus half-slices.  Thus, ordering two slices ‘to go’ will often get you two bonus half-slices even though it’s just one order.  Note that because the turnover at Cheese Board is lightning fast, there is no difference in the freshness of ordering a pie versus slices.  So – go with the slices and enjoy your bonus!

Summary: Cheese Board is a Berkeley institution as much as a great pizzeria – you should go.

Verdict: Go there!

Published in: on August 3, 2010 at 11:22 pm  Leave a Comment  

Fat Slice Pizza

2375 Telegraph Avenue (Berkeley)

Fat Slice

Fat Slice's Monstrosity.

I’ll get right to it: Fat Slice probably ranks among the worst pizza in Berkeley.  In its defense, however, I don’t think it even tries to be good.

The style of pizza is (as you can imagine from the name) large, dough-y, and doesn’t skimp on the cheese.  Therefore, if you are trying to optimize calories per dollar, then Fat Slice may be right up your alley.  However, if you also like food to taste good, then you might want to reconsider.  Fat Slice’s dough, which is like a hybrid between a cheap Neopolitan and Sicilian style, is not my style – too large and soft – but others might find it OK.  The cheese – well it just tastes ‘fake’.  I don’t really know what gives cheap cheese this taste (or lack of it), but Fat Slice falls squarely into this category.  There is sauce, but it might as well have been red food coloring – I saw it, but I didn’t taste it.

By the way, although the place has a decent amount of seats, it’s pretty dirty overall and certain areas have a pungent smell.  All in all, eating at Fat Slice was just unpleasant; but, judging from the afternoon crowd (people really come back here?), I don’t imagine the place changing anytime soon.

Summary: On the short list for worst pizza in Berkeley, Fat Slice only succeeds in terms of sheer mass of pizza per slice.

Verdict: Stay away!

Published in: on August 3, 2010 at 10:33 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bobby G’s Pizzeria

2072 University Ave. (Berkeley)

Bobby G's slice

The tart-yet-bland pizza at Bobby G's.

I wish I could give Bobby G’s a better rating.  The ambiance sports a comfortable, spacious interior with nice wood furniture, tasteful artwork, and a bar area.  Each table comes set up with the proper pizza condiments (parmesan cheese, crushed red pepper) and the service is friendly.  The interior is nice enough that if, for whatever reason, you are going to a pizzeria to just hang out and not really taste the pizza, then Bobby G’s is a good choice.  But, alas, I just can’t recommend the place.  The pizza is just too bad.

The cheese is the only acceptable component – it’s really stringy which is interesting, but the flavor is a little empty and can come off as what I can only describe as tart.  The sauce job, on the other hand, is just strange.  It comes as land mines littered about the slice.  Most of the time, your bite will yield no sauce.  Every once in a while, you will catch a large pocket of it, but – like the cheese – the sauce’s flavor seems to have somehow been drained and replaced with tartness.  The crust would be nice if it were fluffier, but it seems almost squished and lacks any softness in the interior. It is crisp – a little too crisp – and again fairly flavorless.

If I were to somehow lose my sense of taste, Bobby G’s is the pizzeria I would frequent.  Until then, though, there are better pizza adventures to be had.

Summary: Great atmosphere, bad pizza.

Verdict: Skip it.

Published in: on July 17, 2010 at 2:38 pm  Leave a Comment  

Extreme Pizza

2352 Shattuck Avenue (Berkeley)

Extreme Pizza slice

One slice (not two) at Extreme Pizza.

When you order a slice at Extreme Pizza, it’s actually two slices (extreme!).  Actually, they take extreme-ness quite seriously around here; the walls are adorned with sports paraphernalia (surfboards, skis) as well as photography of extreme athletes in action.  There’s a good chance you’ll find your ears blanketed by hard rock.  Order a small soda, and you’ll get something akin to a large at other places.  While it’s probably (ok,  certainly) too much, it does give the place a different vibe than your typical garden-variety pizzeria.

My favorite thing about Extreme Pizza is the amount of sauce they put on the slice.  To me, this is the perfect amount – heavy enough that it really competes with the cheese for dominance in flavor.  Unfortunately, the particular sauce Extreme Pizza employs tastes like Prego, but I applaud the effort.

I think Extreme Pizza blends cheddar into their mozzarella.  This can give a bit of a macaroni-and-cheese spin to the flavor.  Personally, I like that it gives the taste an added dimension and blends in fine with the overall lack of sophistication in the flavor.

The crust is flat, and it feels like a hybrid between pita bread and pizza dough.  It feels soft and undercooked, and is my least favorite component of Extreme Pizza.

Extreme Pizza certainly lives up to its name in terms of decor and quantity, but falls short with cheap tasting ingredients and a lackluster crust.

Overall: Although Extreme Pizza throws in plenty of ingredients and has a unique atmosphere, it lacks any manner of sophistication and just tastes cheap.

Verdict: Skip it.

Published in: on June 19, 2010 at 5:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Tomatina

2132 Center St (Berkeley)

Tomatina slice

The (basil-filled) slice at Tomatina.

At first glance, Tomatina appears to be a cut above your average pizzeria.  The restaurant interior, for example, is well put-together and a courteous wait staff takes your order.  From there it’s all downhill.

I ordered a Margherita pizza,  so the slice came with basil on top.  A lot of basil.  Way too much basil.

Other than that, the worst thing about Tomatina’s pizza was the crust, which had the consistency of a pillow without any compensating crispness.  Biting into it was like punching air.  In addition, the top of the crust was burnt – an impressive feat considering that the rest of it seemed undercooked.

The cheese had a nice stretchiness to it but came with only a light flavor.

Finally, the tomato sauce (I imagine that Tomatina’s specialty would be the tomatoes) was altogether too tart.  To their credit, they did add a decent amount of it, but it could not save the slice.

The service was friendly, but tipping adds to the already expensive pizza ($9.50 for personal, $11 for medium-sized).  It’s just not worth it.

Overall: Tomatina’s pizza fails in numerous ways, and there is no reason to eat here other than the friendly service.

Verdict: Skip it

Published in: on June 12, 2010 at 10:11 pm  Leave a Comment  

Pie in the Sky

2124 Center Street (Berkeley)

Pie in the Sky slice

Pie in the Sky's middle-of-the-road pizza.

Pie in the Sky has a friendly staff, but that’s probably the best reason to stop by here.  The interior is about as typical as you can imagine – neutrally lit with a few tables by the window, a soda fountain, and a fairly significant section behind the counter for the employees.

While the pizza isn’t bad, it certainly isn’t inspired either.  There looks to be a good amount of sauce on the slice, but it’s hard to taste.  Rather, the flavor and texture are dominated by the cheese, which can be likened to frozen Mystic Pizza.  At times it’s too chewy.

The crust is medium thin, but not at all crispy.  You won’t have any complaints about it, but that’s because you won’t really notice it.

Finally – and this is more annoying than you think – the straws are made of cardboard.  While this is probably(?) a little more environmentally friendly, you’ll taste cardboard in your mouth.  Just saying.

In the end, Pie in the Sky is decent pizza without a personality.

Overall: While Pie in the Sky is OK, there really isn’t much reason for stopping by.

Verdict: Skip it.

Published in: on June 10, 2010 at 6:56 pm  Leave a Comment  

Arinell Pizza

2119 Shattuck Ave (Berkeley)

 

Arinelli slice

Berkeley's version of New York at Arinell.

Don’t expect a smile when you walk into Arinell Pizza.  While you’re at it, don’t expect a plate either (you get a piece of wax paper instead).  I’m surprised this place invested in stools and doesn’t expect you to sit on the floor.

Arinell Pizza specializes in New York style – and it actually succeeds, although it’s closer to a caricature of New York pizza than the real thing.  Still, the essential features are instantly recognizable.  The crust is thin, the sauce is robust, the cheese is gooey, and the grease all over you by the time you finish.  But the resemblance goes beyond superficialities – Arinell’s taste backs up the looks.

The first thing you’ll notice is the cheese – there is a lot of it.  The cheese isn’t just greasy; it’s actually really good, having a melt-in-your-mouth liquid-like consistency.  Sprinkling a little Parmesan on top only enhanced the flavor, although it quickly melts into the hot grease puddles.

Depending on the day, you might catch a pie that is well-sauced or one that is a unfortunately low.  You’ll know when you caught a good day: when you bite into the slice, the sauce will jump out at you.  It has zest.   Whatever they put in the sauce complements the cheese well, and it can be deliciously heterogeneous; some bites will surprise you with a reprise of the base flavor.

The crust is thin, foldable, and mainly stays out of the way flavor-wise.  I suspect this is because they don’t add any extra sugar or salt to the dough.  However, the quality of the crust is excellent; it’s highly tearable and has a nice fluffiness on the inside.

My main complaint about Arinell is that it’s unpredictable; on a bad day, the pizza can be pretty mundane.  You will have to go a few times to get the slice I describe here.  However, when it succeeds Arinell Pizza is a fun experience, especially if you imagine the uncaring atmosphere as yet another exaggerated version of New York.

Overall: Arinell pizza might not transport you to New York, but it will certainly bring back memories.  A must-try in Berkeley, although you may have to go a few times to get a good slice.

Verdict: Go there!

 

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 9:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Bowzer’s Pizza

Note: As of 6/11/2010, Bowzer’s Pizza appears to be closed, to be replaced by a Papa John’s.

2222 Shattuck Ave (Berkeley)

 

Bowzer's Pizza slice

The super cheesy Bowzer's slice

In Berkeley, even the homeless have canine companions.  If there were ever a list of best places to open a dog-themed pizzeria, Berkeley would surely rank among the top.

Bowzer’s pizza – an easily-missed aside on Shattuck Ave. – fills just that niche.   The inside has the feel of a lower-grade Italian restaurant, not the hole-in-the-wall pizza joint that its exterior and pit bull logo implies.  Actually, the dog-related flair is restricted to one wall, where you’ll find a ‘Dog of Fame’ with pictures of famous canines from Lassi to Family Guy’s Bryan.

On to the pizza.  It’s not very good.

The crust itself is not bad – an interesting medium ground between crispy and foldable.  It’s nothing to write home about, but the dough has a pleasant sweetness to it.

The sauce is meek, overpowered by the cheese and dough.  This is largely because there isn’t enough of it, but I suspect it also doesn’t have much flavor.

The cheese is like when you were a kid making homemade pizza and mom looked away and you decided that this was going to be the cheesiest pizza ever.  Viewed in profile, the cheese on a Bowzer’s slice easily consumes 2/3 of its thickness.  Worse – it’s not particularly good cheese.  It tastes like the stuff they put in frozen pizza.  And because it dominates the slice, it’s basically all you taste.

The atmosphere in the place is not bad – the guy behind the counter was friendly, and the mood is warm.  That is, if you can ignore the stern signs prohibiting refills, free water, loitering, and using the restroom by non-customers.  Finally, the price point is very reasonable – when I stopped in 2 slices and a soda were $5.50.

Overall: Despite a pleasant crust, the overabundance of bad cheese and the lack of a robust sauce to balance it out makes this a slice you can miss.

Verdict: Skip it.

Published in: on June 7, 2010 at 10:17 pm  Leave a Comment