.State Flour Pizza Company: Elmwood gets its own dedicated pizza joint

There are any number of reliable restaurants to choose from in the Elmwood neighborhood. The list includes, but is not limited to, Gordo’s burritos, Nabalom’s pastries, King Yen’s lettuce cups and the Middle Eastern plates at La Méditerranée.

While pizzas are on the menus at Summer Kitchen and, during the day, at Nabolom, round pies are the main focus at State Flour Pizza Company. State Flour’s chef and owner, Derek Lau, spent three years running the kitchen at Suppenküche, in addition to a stint at PizzaHacker. 

When asked what type of pizza he decided to make at State Flour, Lau was less interested in coming up with a strict definition. “I was really influenced by the stuff I had in New York and Connecticut,” he said. Lau also said PizzaHacker exerted an influence on his approach, but he doesn’t try to claim any particular style. After trying a couple of them, most diners, and pizza fanatics, would say they have a lot in common with Neapolitan pizza.

Both the Burrata ($22) and the Classic Pep ($22) had thin, blistered crusts with a few, easily identifiable toppings. “I really like the New Haven char. I like Neapolitan cubes of cheese,” Lau explained. “Not all New York slices are thin crust, but I really like thin crust pizza.” And he likes to use fresh California produce. His current menu leads with an arugula, cherry tomato and squash pizza. Another includes roasted cauliflower, garlic confit, pine nuts and parsley. 

Years ago, the space belonged to Locanda Olmo, which eventually gave way to Troy and then to the recently closed Thai restaurant, Gai Barn. Lau’s approach to interior design is decidedly minimal. Where Locanda Olmo went in a maximalist direction, State Flour’s walls are a warm off-white without a single thing hanging on them. “I want to add some plants in the front area,” he said, “but to be honest, like all restaurants, we went a little over budget.” During the restaurant’s first month, getting the food right has been at the forefront of his mind. 

Despite the current low-key interior, the bustling kitchen emanates a warm, welcoming vibe. You can feel it while you’re passing by on the street. Instead of table service, customers order at the front counter before settling in at a table upstairs or downstairs. The vibe is due in part to Lau’s friendly demeanor—he sometimes serves the pizzas himself—and to the pay structure he has implemented. Lau compensates all of his employees with the same hourly wage. Front and back of house positions all share the tips.

“For me, it goes over well being able to balance out wages,” he explained. “Sometimes, the person in the back or the dishwasher gets the least amount of compensation. What I’m trying to do is build camaraderie, where everybody’s making the same. So we’re all in this together and one big team.”

Lau is a father and a family man. “I wanted State Flour to be a family-oriented place where mom and dad can grab pizza and the kids are happy,” he said. There’s a kids-sized pizza ($18) on the menu too. But mom and dad can also have a glass of wine or a salad, so everyone’s happy. “It’s really casual and convenient. That was one of the ideas about the space and the reasoning behind the menu.”  

Last week, Lau posted a photo of a panna cotta topped with fresh blueberries ($7). In person, it tasted as good as it looked online—as did the chocolate mousse ($7). “I think the neighborhood expects us to be just a take-out pizza house,” he said. “But we put a lot of effort into other things, and I don’t think people realize that.” Lau’s idea was that whatever State Flour makes has to meet a certain standard. “Hopefully, if you like the food I’m putting out, you can just close your eyes, point at something and you’ll be happy.”

State Flour Pizza Company, open Tues to Sat 5–9pm. 2985 College Ave., Berkeley. instagram.com/stateflourpizza.

East Bay Express E-edition East Bay Express E-edition