At the end of June, Jonathan Ruppert was bold enough to open Pizzeria Violetta down the street from Lo Coco’s. Over the years, other competitors in the pizza business have also tried to stake a claim on Piedmont Avenue. Cybelle’s, dependable for a late-night visit, closed after nearly four decades. Dopo lasted 17 years, though its closure was predictable—the quality of the food continued to decline on each of my subsequent visits. Slicer Pizzeria, which somehow entirely escaped my notice, closed a year ago. In its place, Ruppert is serving slices and whole pies that, as one Yelp-user described them, are a tasty hybrid. The pizzas may look and photograph like New York pies, but the chewy dough is closer to that of a Neopolitan.
Lo Coco’s is an intimate, Sicilian sit-down restaurant. It’s possible to order a pizza to go, but that would require forgoing the pleasures of eavesdropping on one’s neighbors’ dinner conversations. Ruppert has taken an entirely different tack with Pizzeria Violetta. To start with, there’s no table service. The chef, with over 30 years experience in the restaurant and hospitality business, decided to lead with pizza slices for lunch.
Kaiser’s nearby, and so are a couple of schools and plenty of apartment buildings. People can drop by on their lunch hour, grab a slice and then amble down to Fenton’s for an ice cream cone. When Ruppert started scouting out a location, the Napa resident wasn’t looking at Piedmont Avenue in particular. “I didn’t want to cross the Bay Bridge, so we were looking at Sacramento, Alameda and Contra Costa counties,” he says. Ruppert wanted to start a business in a place where he could have “a solid foundation of core customers” with whom he could build relationships, rather than “chasing the tourist dollar.”
Six different 18” pizzas are on display at the register. I tried a slice of the “Sweet Little Pig” and one of the “Cali Street Corn Pizza.” Ruppert, who currently cooks at the restaurant every day, puts candied bacon with brown sugar on the “pig” pizza. The sweetness nicely complements the pepperoni, basil and tomato sauce. He reverses that approach with the “corn” pizza. First, he grills the corn, enhancing its natural sweetness. Then the chef adds spice and heat from a smoked chili tomato sauce and a jalapeño lime cream.
Ruppert felt he was less concerned with making a specific type of pie than he was with sourcing local ingredients. “The tomatoes come from Yolo County,” he says. “The flour comes from west of the Rockies.” He buys the dairy products from Petaluma Creamery. “And the vegetables come from the Central Coast all the way up to Sacramento,” he adds.
“There are people in Oakland who do a very good Detroit-style pizza,” Ruppert says. “I felt no reason to compete with them.” Besides, those deep-dish pizzas take forever to cook. “I want to do a rapid, lunchtime business,” he says. “Making everything fresh on a thin crust is a really good way to provide something quick for people.”
Ruppert started his restaurant career in Sacramento, washing dishes and learning to cook. He later applied to and graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. His career includes stints in Utah and Nantucket, but he returned to California in 2015. “I opened a food-and-wine tasting room for B Cellars in Napa,” he says. “We were one of the first wineries to do seated tastings paired with food.” Sondra Bernstein, of Sonoma’s The Girl & The Fig, then hired him as the director of food and beverages. But Ruppert had always thought about opening his own business.
“Once we got into the pandemic, I really started to sharpen my pencil, to look at what I thought a sustainable business would be,” he says. “Also, when I was a cook and a chef, I made a lot of pizza—so it’s great to be back doing something similar.” Since he opened Pizzeria Violetta, named after his daughter, Ruppert says he’s happy working with his employees, creating things with his hands and building relationships with people in the community. And, of course, providing delicious meals.