Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Menu Review: Pizzaiolo, Oakland

Pizzaiolo is one of my favorite places to eat in Oaktown because of its consistently delicious food, kind service, and, elevating the experience, wonderful ambiance. As you step inside, the glow of the pizza oven, the golden lighting, and the hum of lively conversation wrap you in an embrace of hipster warmth. Somehow, everyone--emo twenty-somethings to retired hippies--looks cool inside Pizzaiolo's intentionally-worn post-industrial brick walls. It's a good feeling, as I'm sure Jake Gyllenhaal agrees. (He was at a nearby table when I dined there once. Not that I actually saw him; I was busy with my chanterelle pizza.)

But we're here to talk about the menu, aren't we? In the grand tradition of Italian ristoranti, the menu is organized by course: Antipasti (apps), Primi (pasta), Secondi (fish and meat), Pizze (obvi), Contorni (veggie sides). Ergo, confusion ensues. When one is actually nell'Italia, this structure makes more sense. We linger over food, one course at a time, relishing il dolce far niente. In America, where we need to move the car, stat, or catch the newest episode of Glee after dinner, it's not usually practical (in the temporal, financial, or stomachal sense) to order five courses per person. Luckily, it is perfectly acceptable to mix and match, to eat pasta but no meat, to order two antipasti and a contorno, or to simply devour a pizza. Also, I think there is something lovely about ordering your side dishes separately from the main course. The menu is all about opportunity, do-it-yourself meal building. And that's a heckuva lot more exciting than choosing between a house salad and steak fries, right? Furthermore, the choose your own adventure menu works exceedingly well in a place like Pizzaiolo, where every single dish has been thoughtfully fitted to the list so that there can be no bad combination.
It's quite liberating, really.

OK, so at my last visit, on a Tuesday evening, the shorter-than-usual wait for a table was almost ruined by the fact that we (a party of three), were seated at possibly the worst table in the place. It was closest to the door, placing us in the middle of some intense traffic flow and a chilly breeze. But with good company, it doesn't really matter, so I just kept my scarf on. We decided to order two pizzas and a contorno to share, which is a great way to go if you're with a small group and you want to taste a variety of dishes and not spend a bundle. Indeed, my main gripe with the place (and that Italian-style menu) is that it gets expensive to put together a diverse meal. In the past, I've had selections from all parts of the menu and have found the best choices to be the ones cooked in the brick oven--like last Tuesday's Swiss chard gratin--but the antipasti add a shot of freshness to an otherwise warm and hearty menu.Very smart.

The menu changes daily, with the exception of perennial favorites, and features seasonal produce. Local producers get a mention here and there but aren't shoved in your face. Overall, descriptions are very simple, usually just lists of ingredients, and there are fewer obscure pasta names/shapes to translate than at, say, Oliveto. Not that that's a negative, necessarily. It's just nice to be able to imagine your food without help. The beverages and wine list are delightful, and I was pleased to discover Pellegrino Sanbitter there, which is like Campari but tastier and non-alcoholic. It likewise comes in an adorable tiny glass bottle, which I insisted on taking home. Pretty sure the waiter thought I was a nut for that, but now I have a darling little bottle to hold flowers. Or a flower.

Summary: Pizzaiolo's menu is well-crafted, thematic but elegant, and consistent in its quality. I suggest including some lower priced primi and secondi or a prix-fixe menu for those of us who can't yet afford to order everything we want. And perhaps lowering the price on antipasti that I'm sure don't cost very much to produce. Then again, they're not hurting for business. Not even mine.

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