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Kissed by Fire

Braving the heat of the kitchen with the Pizzaiolo crew

The kitchen was brimming with excitement and activity. Five chefs, sharing a space barely large enough to turn around in, were preparing dishes at whirlwind speeds. Every few seconds, a vibrant and colorful dish would appear on the open bar separating the kitchen from the seating area. One plate was adorned with a tempting array of shaved carrots, marinated beets, artichokes, peppercress, and green olives. Moments later, a ceramic bowl bubbling with wild mushroom lasagna, winter greens, fresh ricotta and grana emerged from the brick oven and was rushed to an awaiting table. The next presentations featured local swordfish with blood oranges, red beets, black olives, and walnut oil; Anson Mills polenta with gorgonzola, grana and mascarpone; and brick oven pizza topped with potato, pancetta, fontina, and rosemary. Despite the kitchen’s tight fit, the chefs churned out their assigned dishes while exchanging jokes and occasionally wiping sweat from their brows. With 127 reservations booked for the evening, there was hardly time for a break, but the crew at Pizzaiolo wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Chris and I had heard about Pizzaiolo through one of our favorite publications, Civil Eats, an online source for the sustainable food movement in the United States. After a series of fortunate events, which included an opportunity to help Civil Eats reach its financial goal to implement new projects and expand its scope, we found ourselves making dinner reservations with three incredible women: Naomi Starkman, Editor-in-Chief and a founder of Civil Eats; Paula Crossfield, Editor-at-large and a Civil Eats founder; and Anna Lappé, author of several books on the US food system and founder of Small Planet Institute. Needless to say, we couldn’t have been more excited and the restaurant in which we would be having this incredible meeting was none other than Oakland’s favorite Italian joint, Pizzaiolo.

Nestled in Oakland’s Temescal neighborhood, Pizzaiolo didn’t seem like much from the outside; just a small restaurant with large windows and a carved wooden sign hanging in front of the door. Once inside however, it was easy to see why so many locals have a hard time staying away. The open interior was filled with comfortable tables and chairs, a coffee bar, and the main attraction: the kitchen. With its rustic wood-burning brick oven and polished surfaces, the kitchen was the ideal setting for serving dishes made from local, organic and sustainable ingredients.

“One thing that sets Pizzaiolo apart from other restaurants is that its menu changes every day depending on which ingredients are fresh and available,” said Adan Gutierrez-Gallegos, the restaurant’s manager. “Changing up the menu like this keeps things interesting and really keeps us on our toes.” We also learned that special attention is paid to what patrons may be in the mood for each day. For example, the menu for the day included oven baked dishes with mashed potatoes for those patrons craving comfort food after a day of frigid weather.

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by Clare Hancock