In the city of Raleigh, North Carolina, a friend once informed me, one of the more popular snack items is something called California pizza. What is it? “Pizza with a lotta weird stuff on it,” she said. That’s a fair assessment of California cuisine in general, and of the nationwide bemusement with Left Coast pizza in particular. Émigrés from New York search in vain for the simple, skinny-crusted slices of their homeland; Chicagoans are rightfully horrified by the relative dearth of deep-dish. The local affection for pizzas accented with green tomatoes and asparagus, meanwhile, is regarded with a mixture of awe and disdain. Yet regardless of one’s affiliation, the best criterion, as always, remains basic: Does it taste good?
The pizza tastes exceptionally good at Boot and Shoe Service, one of the Bay Area’s many outstanding contributions to the nouveau-pizza movement. Open since mid-December, it’s the brainchild of owner-chef Charlie Hallowell, who spent eight years perfecting his craft at Chez Panisse before opening his own place, Pizzaiolo, in 2005. Located in an old brick-and-timber hardware store, this revered Telegraph Avenue hotspot employs organic and sustainably farmed ingredients in thin-crusted, wood-fired pizzas topped with sorrel, rapini, green garlic, guanciale and other ingredients not usually encountered at your local Round Table. Boot and Shoe Service is built along the same lines, but in a setting that’s more intimate and with a menu that’s both simpler and more adventurous.
It’s located in a former shoe-repair shop on Grand Avenue a block from the Grand Lake Theater. Beyond the handsomely dormered old storefront is a smallish industrial-chic dining room in exposed brick, rough timbers, slate floors, and high ceilings. There’s a long communal table in the center, several smaller tables scattered here and there, and a convivial brick bar in a room out back. A rusty chain hoist dangles from an open loft, a skylight illuminates surreal wall art of legs, lips, and slabs of pizza, and dominating the room is a busy open kitchen and its striking wood-fired tile oven.
Hallowell’s antipasti are the perfect introduction to an evening of starchy entrées: Despite their generous proportions, they’re light and simple enough to stimulate the appetite rather than sate it. Take the house fritto misto, a dish that’s usually about as stimulating as a deep-fried Twinkie. Boot and Shoe Service’s rendition was like a really feathery tempura, with tender stalks of asparagus and strips of fennel and red onion wrapped in a light-as-air nimbus of steam and crunch that didn’t detract from the veggies’ sweet flavors. Another exceptional starter featured delicately flavored fresh ricotta from Bellwether Farms served atop rounds of sourdough toast with a bouquet of spring greens. Our favorite appetizer was the seared sea scallops, four plump, tender mollusks in a creamy lemon-chervil sauce that didn’t detract from the smoky sweetness of the seafood.
There are usually eight kinds of pizza available on a given night. All begin with a wonderfully light, tender crust you can observe in the act of creation as the chef stands in the open kitchen beside the glowing oven, kneading and massaging and letting the dough’s weight stretch itself into the proper consistency. The Monterey Bay squid pizza was terrific: an abundance of tender, almost buttery, subtly briny calamari sharing the crust with a peppery tomato sauce, a drizzle of aioli, and minced sweet onion and fresh marjoram. The wild nettle pizza sounds exciting, but the flowering herb was too subtly flavored to carry a whole pie; happily it got some tasty backup from a layer of creamy mozzarella curd and a puckery ricotta salata. We loved the spicy tomato sauce and the lusty house-made sausage on the relatively prosaic tomato-sausage pizza, but there wasn’t enough of either. No quibbles, though, about the egg-potato-pancetta pizza; with its tender, wafer-thin sliced spuds; smoky, chewy bacon; fragrant rosemary; and creamy egg yolk bringing it all together, it was one of the more delicious evening breakfasts we’d ever had.
Boot and Shoe Service’s star dessert is a good, old-fashioned soft serve made from Straus Organic vanilla bean ice cream. It was rich, gooey, and luscious all on its own, but what sent the bowlful of velvety sweetness over the top was a sprinkling of crunchy sea salt and a healthy drizzle of thick, fragrant olive oil. By comparison, the crunchy, ricotta-stuffed cannoli was on the bland side, although the candied pistachios and blood orange segments provided tasty little accents. But the house pot de crème was delectable on every level. Crafted from Tcho artisanal chocolate (manufactured just across the bay in San Francisco), it was dense, dark, rich, and mood-enhancing, with a cushioning dollop of whipped cream on top.
Vegetarians can generally assemble a satisfying meal at Boot and Shoe Service, depending on the pizzas of the day. The antipasti usually include three flesh-free salads, the vegetable fritto misto, and the ricotta-topped toasts with fresh greens. Pizzas marinara (topped with a garlicky tomato sauce) and margherita (tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil) are menu standbys; other recurring favorites include the wild-nettle-ricotta pizza and others topped with chanterelles, red onion, and gremolata, or with scallions, sorrel, and black olives.
The wine list features two dozen primarily Italian, pizza-friendly varietals helpfully subcategorized as “bright and juicy,” “subtly earthy,” “ripe, mature, and firmly structured,” and so on. Most bottles are priced in the $30 to $40 range; fifteen are available by the glass. There are also four beers (including Berkeley’s Trumer pilsner) and an impressive array of cocktails featuring things like crema de mezcal, house-made orgeat, and Black Maple Hill’s 23-year-old rye. (We were especially taken with the Fata Morgana, a bittersweet concoction of bourbon, blood orange juice, Amaro Nonino bitters, and a touch of cardamom.) Nonalcoholic options include house-made lemonade and tonic water, Boylan’s sugarcane cola, and everyone’s favorite legal narcotic, Blue Bottle espresso. Service is friendly and attentive, the vibe cheerful, and why not? Edge-of-the-continent pizza is alive and well.