The Berkeley culinary scene is renowned for many things. There’s Chez Panisse, the grande dame of Berkeley restaurants, which has spun off a number of talented chefs in its 50-plus years on Shattuck Avenue. There’s the amazing variety of produce available at local purveyors, such as Berkeley Bowl and Monterey Market. And now there’s a new culinary arena about to take off for the city: its pizza scene, which has seen high-profile pizzaiolos open up shop in recent years, adding to the contributions of stalwarts who have held it down for years. There’s no one single reason that’s lured pizza makers to Berkeley, but a diverse mix of styles has established Berkeley as a pizza enclave that rivals San Francisco — and the broader food scene is all the richer for it. Rose Pizzeria co-owner Gerad Gobel puts it this way: “Berkeley has much better pizza than it has any right to have.”
Berkeley isn’t known for a single style of pizza; instead, it’s the sheer variety and options that make it a destination in its own right. Rose Pizzeria opened in 2021 and is among the new class of upstarts who have added to Berkeley’s rich pizza offerings in the last five or so years. State Flour Pizza in Elmwood opened in fall 2022, started by pizzaiolo Derek Lau, who came from PizzaHacker and is now serving East Coast-style pies. Casa Barotti on College Avenue, meanwhile, opened in 2021 as a spizzicheria serving its own version of pizza al trancio from Northern Italy, baked in a pan and taking some dough cues from focaccia (which the shop also sells). Pollara Pizzeria on Fourth Street opened in 2019 with a focus on pizza al taglio, a street food favorite in Rome, earning itself a favorable review from San Francisco Chronicle food critic Soleil Ho in 2021. Looking a little farther back, Lucia’s opened in late 2016, firing up what the East Bay Express dubbed “Brooklyn-style” Neapolitan pizza in downtown Berkeley, close in spirit to East Coast favorites Roberta’s and Paulie Gee’s, the owners told the news outlet.
Gobel doesn’t like to categorize the pizza at Rose, but he knows customers have drawn comparisons to New York- and New Haven-style pies. Instead, he and wife Alexis Rorabaugh make pizzas that are first and foremost guided by their small 115-square-foot kitchen, which forces the couple to be “clever” with their space. “We just buy the best ingredients we can because we don’t have the space to manipulate ingredients and manipulate flavors. So we have to spend a little more on ingredients and let that shine,” Gobel says. But the dough achieves what Gobel says are the hallmarks of great pizza: thin crust that’s chewy, without being floppy, closer to a baguette in that it’s crisp on the outside and soft and bready on the inside. “The Bay Area has a lot of Neapolitan-inspired places and this is why we don’t really consider ourselves an Italian restaurant,” he says. “We definitely went more domestic and more American, if you will.”
Now, there’s a countdown to two new pizza spots in town. Pizzeria da Laura, set to open on March 16, is the first restaurant from award-winning pizzaiola Laura Meyer, who first learned pizzamaking under Tony Gemignani. Meanwhile burgeoning restaurateur Brandon Wilson will open Three.OneFour — the name is a play on the mathematical constant, pi — in late spring. He’s bringing Los Angeles-based chef Mario Vollera of the restaurant South End aboard to serve pizza with what Wilson calls a “traditional sourdough crust,” as well as a gluten-free pizza option. Meyer, in contrast, will focus on pan pies such as Detroit pizza, grandma pies, plus a Sicilian option, though the menu will also include thin-crust New York-style. Meyer isn’t convinced Berkeley is a bona fide pizza region yet, but she’s excited to join the fray. “It’s not quite there yet, but it’s gained more respect in the last couple years,” Meyer says. “Berkeley’s slowly been expanding its pizza and so I’m hoping to be able to show the Bay Area that there’s a lot of diversity and great pizza, not just in San Francisco, but also in the East Bay and elsewhere.”
But the number of pizza offerings in Berkeley hasn’t always been this diverse. Cheese Board has long been the frontrunner since its opening in 1967. It first launched as a cheese shop that later evolved into a co-op bakery and destination pizza spot. Cheese Board’s format of creating one unique (and typically vegetarian) pizza daily became its calling card, later to be co-opted by other shops such as Sliver Pizzeria, Nabolom Bakery, and Arizmendi. Chefs Will and Karen Gioia both have extensive restaurant experience, working at places such as Chez Panisse and the now-shuttered Oliveto, but when the couple opened their own spot, they drew inspiration from the slice shops Will Gioia grew up with in New York. They opened Gioia Pizza on Hopkins Street in May 2004 at a time when, as the couple recalls, pizza felt “totally unrepresented.”
“There was no pizza scene back 18 years ago at all — San Francisco was not known for pizza,” Karen Gioia says. “So back then there was an obvious need.” Will Gioia counts himself and Karen as opening towards the beginning of a wave of pizzerias in the Bay Area, giving nods to Pizzeria Delfina and Pizzaiolo, both of which launched in 2005. While there was a “wave of bona fide Napoletana-style, wood oven-fired style pizza” in San Francisco and the Bay Area, the Gioias feel pizza, especially in the East Bay, has evolved a lot since those early days. “East Bay pizza is just as legit, if not more than San Francisco pizza, just from a quality standpoint,” Will Gioia says. “But I think it goes unnoticed because San Francisco still has more restaurants per capita opening and closing all the time.”
Undoubtedly, it’s an exciting time for Berkeley pizza newcomers like Meyer and Wilson. In the leadup to Three.OneFour’s opening, Wilson had nothing but praise for his pizza-making neighbors in Berkeley, and he’s only looking to enrich the scene further. “It’s just the creativity, the innovation, in the Berkeley proper area when it comes to pizza right now that is so exciting,” he says. “It’s truly invigorating. I love it.”
Update: February 21, 2022, 12:25 p.m.: This story has been updated to reflect that Will and Karen Gioia worked at Chez Panisse and Oliveto.