By Omar Mamoon
By Kate Williams
By Pete Kane
By Molly Gore
By Lou Bustamante
By Anna Roth
This is what it takes to get me excited about a restaurant: eating something that makes me want to eat it again. I recently had the dizzying and fairly uncommon experience of dining at two new restaurants where I would happily order almost everything I had again -- and when that happens, I know that I'd like the other dishes on the menu, too -- even if I'm drawn to repeat the familiar ones. (Echoing the problem I have with travel, when I'm torn between returning to places I love and trying a new destination.)
As it happens, both restaurants are in the East Bay, one in Oakland, the other in Berkeley, and both names, I find, are on the tips of the tongues of foodies: Lots of people on both sides of the bay have asked me about Pizzaiolo (and, if they've eaten there, the question is accompanied by a rushed recital of what they had), whereas those who mention Sea Salt are mostly East Bay residents. (Pizzaiolo, opened by veterans of Chez Panisse, has been in the works for a long time, however, but Sea Salt's opening was so quick and under the radar that one of its owners was herself unaware of the plans for a while -- read the charming tale about how her husband secretly got the ball rolling at www.seasaltrestaurant.com).
Pizzaiolo doesn't take any reservations, and the sagas my friends related to me inevitably involved how long they waited (scarcely any time at all, it seems, if you arrive soon after the 5:30 opening hour on a weeknight). Tom and I got there close to 7 on a Wednesday, and we were told it'd be 20 minutes to half an hour, time we passed pleasantly at the bar, being served wine by the gregarious and affable Omar and admiring the casual-but-hip setting, featuring wooden booths down the sides of the wide storefront and simple wooden tables and chairs. There's some art on the walls, but the most artful touch is the big wood-fired oven, clad in blue and burgundy tiles reminiscent of vintage California pottery (the kind you might find down the street at Porchlight Antiques; the whole block is full of shopping and dining treats, including Article Pract, a hip knitting shop [yes, there is such a thing], Doña Tomás, the wonderful Mexican restaurant, and the just-opened Bakeshop Betty, featuring homey scones, cookies, and sticky date pudding. And the excellent Genova Delicatessen is located in the minimall right across the street).
Antipasto misto $16
Sausage and onion pizza $14
Roasted salmon with corn and aioli $16
Roasted peach in cream $8
Clam chowder $8.25
Lobster roll $18
Grilled squid with pumpkin seeds $10
Fish and chips $16
Pizzaiolo, 5008 Telegraph (at 51st Street), Oakland, (510) 652-4888. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Sunday and Monday. No reservations. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: moderately difficult. Noise level: moderate to high.
Sea Salt, 2512 San Pablo (at Dwight), Berkeley, (510) 883-1720. Open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more. Wheelchair accessible. Parking: easy. Noise level: moderate.
We were joined by Gary and Cathy and given a comfortable table, just when the hostess had predicted. At first the menu, printed on one page (with a carefully edited wine list on the back), looked short: half a dozen antipasti, four pastas, five pizzas, one special, and two contorni (vegetable sides). But, even minimally described ("garden lettuces" for a salad, "Tagliatelle Bolognese" for a pasta), I soon realized I wanted to eat everything on the list. I wonder now how we managed to skip sardines with sweet and sour beet relish, or arancini with saffron, fontina cheese, and gremolata, but this is what we ordered: an antipasto misto della casa, two pizzas, two pastas, one of the specials (roasted local wild king salmon), and a bowl of polenta with Gorgonzola, all to share.
The antipasto came on a big oval platter; the contents change daily, according to the whim of the kitchen, and one ingredient on ours had changed between the server's description of it and the plate arriving at our table: the prosciutto wrapped around bitter greens was now speck. Anyway, it was excellent. We also received a pile of assorted olives, slices of fresh mozzarella, a heap of cubed beet salad, some pickled green beans, and adorable hot little green and red peppers.
Everything else arrived soon after. The pizzas, thin-crust beauties charred in spots from the hot wood fire, were a classic margherita (tomato sauce and mozzarella, with a bufala mozzarella option for an extra $2), which they always have on offer, and a daily-changing version topped with tomato sauce, house-made sausage, and red onion. (You can add a topping of rocket, aka arugula, salad, for $2.50, or prosciutto and anchovies, each $3.50, to any pizza. We chose to add the fresh, peppery greens to our margherita.)
The pizza, the raison d'être for the place (check not only the name, but the Web site heading, which is "Really Great Wood-Fired Pizza in Oakland"), was swell, reminiscent of wonderful pizzas consumed at Pizzetta 211 and A16 across the bay, as well as at Chez Panisse, but I liked the other things we ate even more, especially the creamy polenta blended with pungent Gorgonzola (you can also choose sharp parmigiano or creamy mascarpone), and the sweet salmon, which peeled off in big, soft flakes, accompanied by fluffy, toothy farro, simply cooked corn cut off the cob, bright-tasting julienned basil, and topped with a slick of fragrant aioli. I would have liked a little more sauce, but then I could have eaten more of everything on the plate.
And the desserts were superb: a bowl of virginal white panna cotta, the tiniest bit more resilient than I like, but topped with scarlet, fat, juicy, carefully chosen Ella Bella raspberries, each one a jewel; a perfumey nectarine tart with delicate brown sugar and sour cream ice cream; and the simplest, a Riverdog peach cut in half, roasted in the oven, and served swimming in hot sweetened cream -- one of the best things I have ever eaten. (Really. I have already duplicated this dish at home, with a peach of lesser provenance, to good if not quite as good effect.) I suggested ordering a second immediately, but my companions, possibly fearing an insurrection from the hopeful clientele now grouped on the sidewalk right outside the big plate-glass windows, declined.