Rose Pizzeria served my favorite salad of 2021. Co-owners Gerad Gobel and Alexis Rorabaugh also featured it on the menu at their Chicago restaurant Italianette. Although I didn’t eat there before it closed and the couple moved back to the Bay Area, the selection of California lettuce varieties they now have to choose from only enhanced their spicy caesar salad ($12). My friend and I had a brief debate about the amount of chili dressing that laced the little gem and chicory leaves. For me, it was perfectly dressed with plenty of bread crumbs, black pepper and pecorino mixed in. And even though my friend stated her preference for less dressing, we both finished the entire plate.
If I’d written the menu, I’d have described the dish as a little gem salad. The chef, however, who’s more familiar with the list of ingredients, must be aware of some overlap—well-disguised anchovies?—between their spicy dressing and the ones that are in an actual caesar salad. Regardless, I didn’t walk inside Rose Pizzeria expecting to fall in love with a couple of appetizers. We also ordered the other significant starter—barrel-aged feta ($13). When Rorabaugh served the dish, she paused to suggest that we spread a piece of confit garlic across the slices of toasted focaccia before adding the warm feta-and-olive tapenade.
Rorabaugh knows what she’s talking about. Olives, as supporting ingredients, regularly take over the flavor of dishes in which they aren’t meant to be the star. When the thick square of baked sheep’s-milk feta arrived, I looked at the finely diced, black-olive tapenade with a skeptic’s wary glare. But the pungent brininess that black olives usually impart was tamed by garlic and a taste of honey. We quickly, and repeatedly, cut into that delicious brick of feta until the pizza showed up.
I asked Rorabaugh if the focaccia was made in-house. She told us that it was from Berkeley’s Starter Bakery, and that there wasn’t room in the kitchen to accommodate pizza and bread dough. Because it’s a new business with a small kitchen, the menu is smartly limited to a few appetizers, eight pizza choices, two desserts and a robust wine list. But those two starters immediately informed us that the owners had a clear-eyed approach to rustic cooking.
Both dishes were memorable, and satisfying in a way that made us feel like we were being served out of someone’s expertly run, familial home kitchen. They made us want to come back for other dishes that hadn’t yet made it to the printed menu. Until word gets out and they feel more established on that stretch of University Avenue, it might be a few months before they start making other dishes. Italianette served different varieties of pasta. The photos make me hopeful that all those recipes will show up some day in Northern California, after their Midwestern debut.
Gobel and Rorabaugh also decided to encourage diners to eat at the restaurant instead of recommending a to-go approach. The website doesn’t include an online ordering system. While we were there, only one customer ordered a takeaway pizza. Even with an outdoor patio, that business model might benefit from a seasonal adjustment. With Omicron gathering steam, I’m feeling less inclined to linger at a restaurant—at least for the next few weeks—despite the charming atmosphere created by the couple.
Rorabaugh delivered our pizza to our table with its own stand. The menu states that the pizzas are all a uniform 13 inches round, serving six slices. That may read small, but it’s not. We’d discussed the idea of ordering two pizzas and were relieved we hadn’t. The champione—roasted mushroom pizza—we ordered had a truffle cream base instead of a tomato sauce. Rose’s pizzas are thin, crisp and blistered in the oven. Ours arrived hot on the table and on the tongue.
Rose Pizzeria belongs in the same category as Lo Coco’s or the gone-but-not-forgotten Spettro. Gobel and Rorabaugh have built a neighborhood restaurant where people won’t think twice about regularly coming back for return visits.
Rose Pizzeria, open Wednesday to Sunday noon-9pm, 1960 University Ave., Berkeley. 510.859.8645. rosepizzeria.com