A line snakes out the door and down the sidewalk. Those in it realize that only one item is sold here, always only one — okay, one plus salads, but do salads really count? — although it alters slightly every day. Because all tables here are almost always full, customers tote their lightweight, sauceless fare outside into the road and eat it on the traffic median, beaming as if both grateful and abashed and proud to be observed breathing exhaust. What is this, a factory-workers’ lunch counter in Pyongyang? No, it’s the Cheeseboard Pizza Collective, one of the East Bay’s favorite pizza places, and its devout include not just hordes of locals but also tourists drawn by tales of a worker-owned, bossless bakery in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto where mostly organic vegetables, herbs, and cheeses from around the world compose a different meatless artisanal pizza every day.
Granted, a jazz band plays here now and then. Granted, my Gruyère-and-potato slice tasted of sunshine, as pizza would taste had it been invented in Berkeley or Provence. Granted, I like potatoes and Gruyère. The one-choice policy sucks if you hate yam pizza, say, or pear. Arrive on a day when you like its components, and every bite — just as at the Cheeseboard’s three-shop sister collective, Arizmendi — chortles with flavor.
Even big bites of this pizza are light. Given the thin — if, yes, engorged with golden extra-virgin olive oil — crust and the prim absence of sauce, the experience lies somewhere between thinking about pizza and actually eating pizza.
Another bakery a block away serves house-made pizza too. Available in five varieties, these nine-inch pies are billed as just-for-one but are enough for two. Bel Forno’s name is barely known in its own neighborhood, much less to travelers. Its honey-varnished, ski-lodge knotty walls frame big-sky vistas of the Berkeley Hills. Tables are always free. One need not wait in line or eat this pizza in the road. Mine, with its sweet grilled eggplant slabs, rich cheese, and crimson lake of sauce scored an A-minus for its topping, a C for its half-inch almost-tasteless crust, but hey: I had leftovers, in a doggie bag.
The enigma is this: What do you want from pizza and why do you buy it where you do? No two purveyors make it quite alike. You can’t compare Pizza Rustica’s Thai-chicken or Cajun-sausage pizza on cornmeal-fennel or gluten-free rice-flour crust to Bobby G’s paper-thin pan-fried chipotle, bacon-and-eggs, or Nutella-banana pizzas. Robust, old-school La Val’s and carbo-loaded, fill-a-football-player Fat Slice, although student staples, are not interchangeable. This ostensibly simple food is not simple but spatworthily mutable: depth, toppings, type of flour — let’s talk. To pick a pizza is to reveal your secrets and fears and spill your guts.
To choose Lanesplitter or Zachary’s, for example, is as much a matter of wanting to be amid a pulsing, vibrant crowd as it is a matter of liking jalapeños and anchovies or award-winning deep-dish Chicago-style. To pick Pizzaiolo is as much a matter of aligning with its green values — organic flour and produce, animals bought whole from trusted ranchers — as it is of liking wood-fired squid, arugula, and wild-nettle pies. With options such as “Poultry Geist,” “Mr. Pestato Head,” and hummus-olive “Peace in the Middle East,” Extreme Pizza attracts those who like a joke. Heaped toppings of uneven quality — canned pineapple, eye-poppingly intense sun-dried tomato — compensate the chain-store blandness of its crisp thin crust.
Thin crusts are hot. These days, you might as well admit to kicking Bichon Frises as to preferring thick crusts. It was not always thus. For insight, I consulted Pizza Politana co-owner Joel Baecker, whose imported Neapolitan wood-fired oven was a big hit at this summer’s Eat Real Festival in Oakland.
“If it’s lighter, you can taste everything more,” explained Baecker, who previously worked at Chez Panisse. “If it’s too thick and has too much cheese, you’re like, ‘Ugggh.’ It’s a gut-bomb.”
Wait, so there’s such a thing as “too much cheese”?
They never got that message at Fat Slice — or goofy, unassuming, cartoon-plastered Bowzer’s, whose deep-dish pizza yields soft spicy satisfying mouthfuls of surprisingly high-quality components.
Pizza is political. Offered a hefty meal and its lightweight counterpart for the same price, who — besides weight watchers — picks the lesser one? Those for whom filling up is not a top priority. And those who don’t mind paying double to fill up. To choose sparsely topped sauceless thin-crust pizza is to say: I’m not a famished waif or laborer. If I feel hungry again in an hour, I can buy more. In a region whose trendsetters tend to proclaim a kind of politics that makes them ashamed of their privilege and relative wealth, this causes inner conflict and a circumstance by which some of the East Bay’s favorite pizza hubs feature an element of punishment. Gioia, for instance, is tiny and cramped. Yet patrons pack the place and throng the sidewalk, chins uptilted as they devour stylishly thin, agreeably hand-hewn slices topped with fennel sausage, hot chiles, and baby spinach that goes magically creamy between the teeth.
Within days of its September opening, word on the street spread like wildfire about Emilia’s, named for the daughter of ex-Pizzaiolo guy Keith Freilich, who makes his own sausage and smiled shyly as if surprised when I said folks were calling his New York-style pies the next big thing. We arrived early, knowing that Freilich often sells out before 8 p.m. This place is minuscule, so we ordered our pie to go. The box was so light that we peeked into it halfway home to make sure something was inside. It was: clamshell-thin crust, rim an air-bubble shrine, breathing the manic perfume of überfresh bread. Fresh herbs, fresh mozzarella, red onion fresh if sliced microfinely and strewn so sparsely as to evade detection. The pizza version of meringue, it melts in your mouth. Then you think: Three Emilia’s pies probably weigh less than one Bowzer’s pie. Which would you pick?
Not that I’m judging you or anything.