The Ultimate East Bay Pizza Guide
They say that pizza is like sex: Even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. Well, that’s not quite good enough for us, so we set out to find the best … pizza, that is. Diablo sent its crack team of foodies out into the field—from the Gourmet Ghetto to mom-and-pop pizzerias to hole-in-the-wall slice spots—on a quest for the perfect pie.
Here in the East Bay—birthplace of California Cuisine—even pizza can be a delicacy. It’s only fitting that some of our restaurants elevate pizza to an art form.
Chez Panisse, 1517 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 548-5049, www.chezpanisse.com
The Panissers refer to them as pizzettas and serve them every day in the upstairs café. The crusts have an airy crunch, and the flavors, depending on the seasonal toppings, can have the belly-filling warmth of winter or the bright-green flush of spring.
Specialty: On a menu that changes subtly by day and dramatically by season, the "special" is whatever comes out of the oven that night.
Best Deal: A pizza for one and a glass of wine are a reasonably priced way to please your palate at the restaurant where it all began.
The Scene: This elegant, earthy restaurant, with its rustic wood tones, attracts the East Bay’s, um, upper crust: the kind of crowd that favors hybrids over Hummers and ingredients grown at farms you can drive to on a single gallon of gas.
Dopo, 4293 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 652-3676
Oliveto veteran Jon Smulewitz oversees the oven at this nook, where the pizzas arrive as the Italians intended: with thin, blistered crusts delicately dressed with traditional toppings. No pineapple and pesto here. Any of the pizzas, with a simple green salad, makes a light meal for two.
Specialty: Pizza Dopo, one of the few constants on an ever-changing menu, gets its fiery flavor from red pepper flakes and anchovies, whose salty bodies lie buried in the molten cheese.
The Scene: A cozy space that gets crowded quickly with neighborhood drop-ins and destination diners who’ve driven from across town—or across the Bay.
Faz Restaurant and Bar, 600 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 838-1320; 5121 Hopyard Rd., Pleasanton, (925) 460-0444, www.fazrestaurants.com
Faz Poursohi makes six different pies in the wood-burning ovens of his restaurants. The crust is slightly thick and soft, the cheese is profuse, but you can’t deny that the pies at Faz are delicious.
Specialty: The mushrooms on the wild mushroom pizza aren’t really wild—they’re cremini—but they arrive in perfectly cooked slices and pair nicely with the caramelized onions and scattering of chili flakes that also top this pie.
The Scene: Faz in Danville has a wonderful shaded redwood patio where you can enjoy the smoky scent of the wood-burning oven.
La Piazza, 15 Moraga Way, Orinda, (925) 253-9191
This bustling Italian trattoria offers eight thin-crusted, wood-fired pizzas each night.
Specialty: Perfectly prepared pies and some exciting topping combos—such as pear and Gorgonzola—will make you forget the words Domino’s delivers forever.
The Scene: With the gorgeous Orinda Theater’s neon marquee twinkling just across the street, this is the East Bay’s most elegant pizza and movie spot.
Lark Creek Walnut Creek, 1360 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 256-1234, www.larkcreek.com
Lark Creek chooses to call its pizza a flatbread. Yeah, yeah, yeah; that’s like calling a mattress a sleep system. It’s thin, it’s crisp, and it’s baked in a brick oven until just the right amount of char becomes a thin and intermittent line of brown lace around the edge.
Specialty: Lark Creek’s flatbread ingredients change seasonally. When we visited, the beautiful disk of loveliness was topped with a combo of pesto, sweet roasted garlic, and niçoise olives—not to mention gooey mozzarella cheese, which was generous but not ridiculously so.
The Scene: The flatbread and a glass of Bunnell Gewürztraminer combine effectively with a downtown shopping spree.
Oliveto Cafe, 5655 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-5356, www.oliveto.com
Pizza in the morning is most commonly consumed cold and congealed, a casualty of a night spent in the fridge. But at this Rockridge standout, they serve it straight from the oven—a light, thin crust with breakfast adornments such as pancetta and eggs. If 8 a.m. is just too early for your pizza fix, the café has pizza with seasonal toppings like fennel and dandelion on the menu for lunch and dinner.
Specialty: An egg, cracked at the last minute, gives a sunny face to a pizza topped with cheese and pancetta. The runny yolk adds richness and turns the pie as pretty as a painted sky.
Best Deal: The plain old cheese pizza with a morning pot of tea.
The Scene: A casually upscale corner location where you can sit by the window and watch a well-heeled world walk by.
Pie In the Sky, 2124 Center St., Berkeley, (510) 848-8678, www.pieintheskycafe.com
This new restaurant in Berkeley offers New York pizza with a gourmet twist. The crust has a pinch of whole-wheat flour, the cheese is a blend of mozzarella and white cheddar, and the toppings on the beloved Sky Pie are feta, walnuts, eggplant, spinach, and tomatoes.
Specialty: Unpretentious pizza that
still has integrity.
Best Deal: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evenings, you can opt for the Cook’s Night Off special and get a single-topping pie and a pint of gelato from nearby Gelato Milano for only $25.
Pizzaiolo, 5008 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, (510) 652-4888, www.pizzaiolo.us
Charlie Hallowell made his name at Chez Panisse, but his restaurant gets its name from the Italian word for pizza-maker. It’s an art form in the Old World, and Hallowell adheres to it, pulling pies with crusts that are pillowy around the edges but crisp everywhere else.
Specialty: Pizza Margherita. Tomatoes. Basil. Mozzarella cheese. The Holy Trinity of Italian cooking shines divinely on these pies.
Best Deal: Pizza marinara. Topped with tangy tomato sauce but free of cheese. At $10, it’s a perfect nighttime partner with a glass of wine.
The Scene: The spacious dining room, reworked to resemble a trendy Tuscan
farmhouse, serves as the backdrop for evening bustle. The wood-fired ovens flickering in the open kitchen enliven an already vibrant atmosphere.
Pizza Antica, 3600 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 299-0500, www.pizzaantica.com
Pizza Antica’s black-and-white bistro decor is handsome, and the open kitchen, high ceilings, and tiled floors make for a raucous space. If you’ve got Grandma with you, aim for the quieter outdoor patio. Kids are welcomed here with crayons to color the menus.
Specialty: Pizza Antica serves up cracker-crisp, Neapolitan-style pizzas with characteristically charred edges from the open-hearth oven. Traditional favorites are available here, including a Margherita (with mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil). Executive Chef Gordon Drysdale isn’t afraid to experiment with seasonal ingredients such as grilled radicchio, shaved broccoli, and sweet corn.
Prima Ristorante, 1522 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 935-7780, www.primaristorante.com
The pizza at this Main Street classic is like regular pizza—except better. The thin crust is fresh and a little stretchy, and so delicious you would definitely eat a whole basket of it if it were served to you plain. The tomato sauce is also its own food group.
Specialty: The toppings change with the seasons. We were glad the salami trees were in bloom when we were eating our pizzetta, which also sported fresh mozzarella and green olives.
The Scene: Whether you’re having pizza or a four-course meal, Prima is casual but oh-so-civilized.
These fun-for-the-famiglia pizzerias invite all breeds of pizza lovers—from Sangiovese-pairing foodies to blue-collar beer-and-slice types. To find out which ones really rock, we asked Diablo’s Reader A-list for recommendations (to sign up, go to www.diablomag.com and click the A-list button), then we tossed in a few of our own favorites. Here are a dozen great spots.
Aladino’s Pizza, 1895 Farm Bureau Rd., Ste. G, Concord, (925) 687-6363; 5400 Ygnacio Valley Rd., Concord, (925) 672-6363; 3614 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, (925) 283-6363
After opening two Concord pizzerias, Aladino’s owners added a Lafayette location in November 2005 in the space formerly occupied by landmark Freddie’s Pizzeria. The restaurant’s signature A. P. Supreme (pepperoni, sausage, ham, salami, mushrooms, black olives, red onions, and bell peppers) feeds the family for $21.25.
Best Deal: The all-you-can-eat salad bar is fresh, fully loaded, and only $5.
Amici’s, 4640 Tassajara Rd., Dublin, (925) 875-1600, www.amicis.com
This Bay Area–based chain’s Tri-Valley outlet is in Dublin’s Waterford complex. The pizzas are baked in a brick oven, making the thin crusts extra crisp, even a bit black. A variety of interesting toppings, including clams, are available on the restaurant’s 15 specialty pies.
Specialty: Still on Atkins? Amici’s offers a reduced-carb, extra-thin crust available with every pizza. And the Asanté pizza, featuring baby spinach, broccoli, red onions, and soy mozzarella, is low fat and lactose free.
Ascona Pizza Co., 3414 Camino Tassajara, Danville (925) 736-4949
Named for the owners’ favorite vacation spot on the Italian-Swiss border, this Blackhawk hotspot draws customers from far and wide. Diablo reader Lana Reicheck’s sons both worked for pizza places in Lamorinda for years. "But when they wanted to have pizza, they would make the drive to Danville and pay $25 to have Ascona pizza," says Reicheck. "Their cheese pizza is so good, I prefer not to add any other toppings."
Specialty: Franzi’s Favorite features bay shrimp marinated in lemon, basil, and olive oil, and is served with a pesto sauce.
Gay Nineties Pizza Co., 288 Main St., Pleasanton, (925) 846-2520,
This is definitely a birthday-party or post-soccer-game spot. The interior of the historic building is covered T. G. I. Friday’s–style with old-town Pleasanton memorabilia, including road signs and newspaper front pages.
Specialty: Veggie lovers lean toward Suzanne’s Gourmet Vegetarian, which features eggplant, zucchini, feta cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, and summer squash.
Fun Fact: The restaurant is supposedly haunted: A ghostly apparition occasionally appears in the dining room.
Mangia!, 975 Moraga Rd., Lafayette, (925) 284-3081, www.mangialafayette.com
This La Fiesta Square eatery offers a gamut of Italian fare, including doughy, cheesy pizzas. It’s a favorite for regulars, including Lafayette’s Brown family (Cory, Nancy, Kendall, and Evan), who go every Monday. "In fact, we refer to our weekly dinner routine as Mangia Monday," says Nancy Brown.
Specialty: Heaps of fun ingredients, including artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, jalapeños, pancetta, and zucchini, can be ordered in myriad combinations.
Melo’s Pizza & Pasta, 1660 Contra Costa Blvd., Pleasant Hill, (925) 687-1880, www.melospizzapasta.com
This family pizzeria (New York–style) is in a stucco strip mall (California suburb–style). Despite the unpretentious environs, it has been a favorite of Pleasant Hill pizza lovers since opening in 1971.
Specialty: East Coasters will like Melo’s New Yorker (pepperoni, mushrooms, bell peppers, sausage), while native Californians might gravitate toward the West Coast Special (ham, salami, mushrooms, linguica, olives). Either way, you can’t go wrong.
Pinky’s Pizza, 1379 S. California Blvd., Walnut Creek, (925) 932-2728, www.pinkyspizza.com
Pinky’s Pizza is a happy reminder of the way things used to be. The faux-wood-paneled walls and the Ms. Pac Man machine in the corner provide nostalgic pizza parlor kitsch. The secret-recipe pizzas keep generations of regulars coming back for more.
Fun fact: Why are Pinky’s prices for pizza and beer so much lower than any other Walnut Creek restaurant? "I’ve been here for more than 30 years, and my regular customers are my friends," says owner Tom Beisham, who started working at Pinky’s as a teenager when it opened in 1963. He adds, with a laugh, "I have three ex-wives, so if I made any more money, they’re going to get it anyway!"
Primo’s, 298 Hartz Ave., Danville, (925) 838-8214, www.primosdanville.com
Another classic pizza parlor, Primo’s has been a staple on Hartz Avenue since 1979. The big cheesy pizzas will fill you up. Reader Keith Bigelow says, "Primo’s has the tastiest pizza around, and it’s not at all greasy like most other brands."
Fun Fact: The 23rd Primo’s Run for Education—a 5K fun run and half marathon fundraiser—is October 8. Go to www.primosrun.com for information.
Rocco’s Ristorante & Pizzeria, 2909 Ygnacio Valley Rd., Walnut Creek, (925) 947-6105, www.roccospizzeria.com
Rocco’s dining room, with its red-checkered tablecloths and a mural of an Italian village, has a family feel to it. In January, Rocco’s opened a sports bar on the other side of the restaurant, where softball players gather for pitchers of microbrew after their games at nearby Heather Farm Park.
Specialty: The house specialties—and most popular pizzas—are named the Dominator (pepperoni, salami, mushrooms, linguica, sausage, and onions) and Dante’s Inferno (sun-dried tomatoes, artichoke hearts, kalamata olives, red onions, feta cheese, and Italian garlic herb sauce) for owner Rocco Biale’s sons, Dominic and Dante.
Skipolini’s, 1033 Diablo St., Clayton, (925) 672-1111; 1535 Giammona Dr., Walnut Creek, (925) 280-1100, www.skipolinispizza.com
The tree-shaded patio at Skip’s has long been a staple of Clayton’s charming downtown. Diablo reader Roy Casstevens says the secret is the dough: "They hand toss the dough, which makes it taste so much better!"
Specialty: Skip’s signature pies are thin crusted, covered in a tangy tomato sauce, and loaded with cheese. If the pizzas are too heavy, try a piadina (an Italian flatbread sans sauce and cheese).
Fun Fact: In 2002, Gourmet magazine reported on owner Kent Ipsen’s claim that his Prego pizza—a smorgasbord of meat toppings with extra garlic and onion—will induce labor in pregnant women.
Tomatina, 1338 Park St., Alameda, (510) 521-1000; 4590 Dublin Blvd., Dublin, (925) 803-9997; 1325 N. Main St., Walnut Creek, (925) 930-9999, www.tomatina.com
The open kitchen at Tomatina makes customers feel right at home, and the pizza crust’s dough is made twice daily, then aged for a full day, allowing the flavors to develop.
Specialties: Time-honored offerings reign supreme here—cooks aren’t afraid to pile on the pepperoni and fennel sausage. But Tomatina also knows how to use fresh ingredients, such as spinach, leeks, and eggplant, to balance an array of cheeses beyond the expected mozzarella.
Fun Fact: Tri-Valley folks can now enjoy Tomatina’s oblong pies: The East Bay–based minichain opened in Dublin in August.
Zachary’s Chicago Pizza, 1853 Solano Ave., Berkeley, (510) 525-5950; 5801 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 655-6385; 3110 Crow Canyon Pl., Ste. D, San Ramon, (925) 244-1222, www.zacharys.com
Diablo readers perennially make this classic Chicago-style pizzeria a Best of the East Bay winner. (It’s also the Best Pizza pick in Zagat’s guide for the entire Bay Area). East-of-the-Caldecott fans will be thrilled to know that Zach’s long-awaited San Ramon location was due to open in mid-September.
Specialty: For their stuffed pizza, Zach’s unique technique bakes all the ingredients except the tomato sauce inside, rather than atop, the pie. Reader Catherine Korman opts for the spinach and mushroom–stuffed pie because "it’s rich but not too heavy."
By the Slice
The ultimate snack. You can actually walk around while eating this undeniably filling and convenient meal. From gourmet to grungy, here are the East Bay’s top slice spots.
Arinell’s, 2109 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 841-4035
Arinell’s has been serving razor-thin, New York–style Neapolitan slices since 1975, when owner Ron Demirdjian moved to Berkeley from the Big Apple. "Arinell’s is absolutely the closest thing I’ve come to Sal’s Pizzeria [in Mamaroneck, New York], which is my standard for New York pizza," says Diablo reader Lori Brooks-Manas, a Westchester County native who now lives in Walnut Creek.
Price: A plain Neapolitan slice runs $2.50. Thicker Sicilian-style slices cost $2.75.
Arizmendi Bakery, 3265 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland, (510) 268-8849; 4301 San Pablo Ave., Emeryville, (510) 547-0550, www.arizmendi-bakery.org
This offspring of the Gourmet Ghetto’s famed Cheeseboard Collective uses organic flour in its sourdough crust and tops it with mostly organic produce and whole-milk mozzarella.
Price: A half pizza, which makes a good lunch for two, is $8; a whole pie is $15. Single slices go for $2.
Blondie’s, 1035 Contra Costa Blvd., Ste. A, Pleasant Hill, (925) 682-7979
Want to experience the authentic taste of Telegraph Avenue? Seriously? Well, this Contra Costa satellite of the classic Berkeley and San Francisco slice joint is a haven for the pierced and tattooed, so embrace your inner Sid Vicious, and check it out.
Price: You can probably scrounge the $3 for the massive, bready slice of cheese pizza by selling back all your Britney Spears albums next door at Rasputin Records.
Cheeseboard Collective, 1512 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 549-3055, www.cheeseboardcollective.coop
This quintessential Gourmet Ghetto institution is across the street from Chez Panisse, and hipster students and upper-class North Berkeleyites line up on the sidewalk out front each day for the gourmet pizza produced by this co-op. There are only a couple of tables inside and outside; many diners stake out a piece of sidewalk or a spot on the grassy median in the middle of Shattuck Avenue. There is one variety of pizza available each day.
Price: A slice—which is actually more like two-and-a-half slices—is $2.25.
Costco, 2400 Monument Blvd., Concord, (925) 566-4003; 3150 Fostoria Way, Danville, (925) 277-0407; 2800 Independence Dr., Livermore, (925) 443-6306, www.costco.com
All right, foodies, it’s not our first choice. But, damn it, you need sustenance to push a cart filled with 10 pounds of frozen salmon and 200 rolls of toilet paper. A massive slice of actually decent pepperoni pizza hits the spot.
Price: $2.15 per slice.
Extreme Pizza, 1630 Cypress St., Walnut Creek, (925) 930-6100, www.extremepizza.com
Going along with this five-state franchise’s extreme sports theme, the Walnut Creek outlet is decorated with surfboards and snowboards. The pizza’s crust is a nice thickness and accommodates such varied toppings as hummus, pineapple, mandarin oranges, and walnuts. The Peace in the Middle East is a nice surprise: Hummus is a great base for tomatoes, olives, feta, and pepperoncini.
Price: $2.75 for a cheese slice, 50 cents for each additional topping.
Gioia Pizzeria, 1586 Hopkins St., Berkeley, (510) 528-4692
Will Gioia, a Brooklyn native who has worked as a chef at Oliveto and Zuni Cafe, opened this pizzeria in a small brick storefront around the corner from the Monterey Market in 2004. It has developed a loyal following for its synthesis of simple New York and gourmet California pizza styles.
Price: A cheese slice is $2.50; slices with toppings are $3.
Me-n-Ed’s, 4930 Dublin Blvd., Dublin, (925) 479-0963, www.meneds.com
It’s a chain restaurant. In a strip mall. But, surprisingly, Me-n-Ed’s does it right, with fresh ingredients and a great selection of ready-to-go slices. The generous slice makes a great tummy-filler before going to whatever blockbuster movie is playing 100 yards away at the Regal Cinemas 20.
Price: The enormous signature slice goes for $3.59. A cheese slice is $2.59.
Spin Ultra Lounge Gourmet Pizza, 1411 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 934-9490
OK. We admit that it’s cheating to throw seven-time World Champion Pizza Dough Thrower Tony Gemignani into the slices section. But Gemignani’s new restaurant in Walnut Creek, which took over the downtown nightclub formerly known as Groove (and Echo, and Abernathy’s) does serve slices to go to the lunchtime crowd as well as to club-hoppers on Wednesday–Saturday nights from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Gemignani’s Cal Italia pie so wowed judges at the Food Network’s Pizza Challenge that they awarded him Best Pizza in the United States 2006. Dollops of fig jam melt over strips of salty prosciutto and chunks of tangy Gorgonzola; balsamic vinegar adds a zesty finish. (Go to www.diablomag.com for the recipe.)
Price: $4 for a cheese slice, $4.50 for combination slices.
Z Pizza, 95 Railroad Ave., Danville, (925) 362-4010; 3141-D Crow Canyon Pl., San Ramon, (925) 328-0525
These petite pizza franchises serve slices all day, adding interesting ingredients like barbecued chicken, artichoke hearts, and peanut sauce into the array of typical toppings. Judging by the massive line of San Ramon Valley High School students lined up at the Danville location at recess, Z provides a solid lunchtime snack.
Price: $2.25 for a slice of cheese pizza, $2.75 for the daily specials with toppings.