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  

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  

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