A slice of Berkeley: unique pizza culture grows locally

PIZZA_MDrummond
Michael Drummond/Senior Staff

In my family, the welcoming of a new baby is always accompanied by a half-baked Zachary’s pizza.  The aroma of cheese and cornmeal crust combined with sweet tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms has a way of piercing the cries of a newborn. While I like to think my cousins and I were loved from birth based on our own merit, I can’t help but think the familiar pizza played a significant role.

Ever since then, my family and half-baked Zachary’s pizzas have been inseparable. I eat Zachary’s with my family, the Cheese Board Collective when my camp friends come to visit, BUILD Pizzeria for birthday dinners and Pieology for a spontaneous celebration. But that doesn’t even cover half of the pizza establishments in Berkeley.

Margherita pizza — sometimes known as Classica — at La Val's. Rachel Feder/Staff

Margherita pizza — sometimes known as Classica — at La Val’s. Rachel Feder/Staff

Our small city hosts more than 30 pizza shops for an ever-growing eclectic audience. From sit-down restaurants to grab-and-go shops, from sleek interiors to barely clean, from slice shops to build-your-own, from endless choices to only one, from bare walls to blaring music — Berkeley has it all.

As I sat down with owners of local pizza shops, one thing became evident: Each owner believes his or her pizza place is unique. Many older establishments believe they don’t face the competition that plagues newer establishments. And to a certain extent, that’s true. Neighborhood fixtures such as La Val’s Pizza, Cheese Board, Zachary’s and Fat Slice Pizza have earned their status by contributing to the development of a style of pizza that is distinctly Californian.

“What Cheese Board did was freshen pizza up by bringing in fresh vegetable ingredients so it wasn’t just cheese and sauce,” said UC Berkeley rhetoric professor Michael Mascuch. After Cheese Board’s breakthrough in the pizza industry, “the idea of something new in pizza became important,” according to Mascuch, an element that Berkeley’s pizza culture thrives on and grows from.

Yet with many new pizza places opening up every year, each hoping to bring something new to the community, there must be more than the lazy connection between college students and their love of pizza. As pizza culture continues to sustain and develop — about two pizza places opened in 2013 and 2014 — it seems absurd that so many shops are able to thrive on variations of a product based on bread, cheese and sauce.

Location, location, location

Much of the pizza scene today is still centered on Telegraph Avenue — a heavily populated area providing a steady flow of pedestrians. Staple shops, such as Blondie’s Pizza and Fat Slice, as well as the recent additions of Pieology, Seniore’s Pizza and Artichoke Basille’s, compete for both students’ attention and loose change.

For Fat Slice manager Chris Pisarra, whose wife, Gail Giffen, opened the shop in 1985, Telegraph Avenue was the perfect place for a slice shop that would rely on hungry students walking by at all hours of the day. Since the late ’80s, Pisarra said, Telegraph was the place where every teenager from 50 or 60 miles around came to hang out.

The founders of Artichoke Basille’s — whose three other locations are all in New York — opened their newest shop near UC Berkeley’s campus specifically because of the student foot traffic.

Meatball pizza at Atrichoke Basille. Rachel Feder/Staff

Meatball pizza at Artichoke Basille. Rachel Feder/Staff

“Being on the corner of Durant and Bowditch is perfect, considering everybody comes and goes from school, and we’re right next to the dorms and fraternities and sororities,” said Bill Trevor, a manager at Artichoke Basille’s.

While some establishments rely on being directly on students’ day-to-day path, many others believe their status as a destination spot allows them to thrive. La Val’s, Cheese Board and Zachary’s find their atmosphere and food make the trek to each location — Northside, Shattuck’s business district and Rockridge, respectively — worth it.

And sometimes the prominence of the location and the business grow together. Cheese Board, Chez Panisse and Peet’s Coffee and Tea, among other local businesses, grew their area into a gourmet district that still thrives today.

“In a small way, we helped create the location,” said Cheese Board manager Steve Manning. “But certainly a lot of it was just really good luck and really wonderful people like Alice (Waters) and Alfred Peet all having similar ideas.”

La Val’s also watched the Northside community grow around its 60-year-old establishment. Despite the change to the neighborhood, La Val’s pizza continues to provide the same New York-style slices. In order to keep the restaurant’s competitive edge, part-owner Izat Eliyan finds that “it’s a combination of three or four things, from the food to the theater to the variety of beers and competitive prices.”

Friendly competition

Even with the desire to be unique, similar designs are inevitable.

Both Fat Slice and Blondie’s — located almost on the same block — share a shockingly long list of similarities, such as low prices, large slices and a low-key interior. Recently, both companies have turned toward an increasingly larger selection of daily specials. Blondie’s has introduced options such as Mediterranean and Mexican-inspired pizzas as well as more gourmet options, including a deep-dish style pizza.

“We are real similar to Blondie’s, and Blondie’s is real similar to us,” Pisarra said. “There’s long been a myth in Berkeley that we are the same company. It is a myth. It is not true.”

For Pisarra, it has long been the company’s practice to go out about once every six weeks and buy a slice from Blondie’s. Pisarra then puts the the slice down on a plate next to a slice of Fat Slice’s pizza to see how they compare. And every time, Pisarra said, “I like ours. And the day that I don’t like ours, we’ll change something.”

Even with such similar products and practices, the two shops work together to encapsulate the vibe of Berkeley. If Fat Slice runs out of pepperoni, Blondie’s will come to the rescue. If Blondie’s mixer breaks, its staff members know they can borrow Fat Slice’s.

At BUILD and Pieology — two new restaurants in the last year that provide a build-your-own pizza experience — the design is also strikingly similar. They both serve thin-crust pizzas with a seemingly endless selection of meats, cheeses, sauces and vegetables to add to the creation. At BUILD, each add-on is an additional charge, while Pieology charges only one flat rate.

The typically higher price point as well as the presence of alcohol are two defining factors at BUILD. This proves a problem for college students looking for both booze and a deal. Yet both pizzas, as well as Pizzuh’s create-your-own pizzas, are large enough to be eaten for multiple meals but light enough that they could also be devoured all in one sitting.

Cheese pizza at Seniore's. Rachel Feder/Staff

Cheese pizza at Seniore’s. Rachel Feder/Staff

These options give customers “the choices of chains like Domino’s, but with the quality of well-sourced ingredients we’ve come to expect in Berkeley,” says Shifra de Benedictis-Kessner, the marketing manager at the Downtown Berkeley Association.

The pizza practices of Cheese Board, which has been around since the ’80s, and Sliver, which was opened just last year by three former Cheese Board employees, are also very similar. Both restaurants serve only one type of pizza per day; both make specialty pizzas with fresh ingredients and no sauce; both have live music; and both care deeply about giving back to their communities.

Cheese Board typically gives back by supporting other cooperatives, local schools, environmental education programs and music and arts programs within schools, according to a manager. Sliver focuses its time and profits on fighting human sex trafficking. Written into the partners’ agreement is that 10 percent of the company’s after tax profits at the end of each year will be donated. Sliver donated about $20,000 in 2013.

The success of Sliver came from a simple and ambitious dream to have a “business that could help people, empower people,” said one of the three owners, Willy Perez. The restaurant also holds quarterly staff meetings to raise awareness about the issues the company supports, which it hopes will inspire its staff members to spread information to their own communities.

The cooperative-owned style

A unique element to the Berkeley pizza culture is the cooperative style of ownership that Zachary’s and Cheese Board have embraced for years. Through this style of ownership, each employee has a share in the company.

This system allows the employees of Cheese Board and Zachary’s to have stable careers due to shared success between the employees and the founders. “There are days when our whole kitchen (will be) people … here for 15, 20 years each,” said Zachary’s manager Kevin Suto.

The reason for this retention, according to Suto, has to do with the fact that money from the profit of the company goes into the employee stock ownership plan account of the employees, which allows them to buy stock in the company as well as provide for their retirement. This has compelled many of the UC Berkeley students who have found jobs at Zachary’s to stay well past their graduation.

Italian Special Pizza of the Day at La Val's. Rachel Feder/Staff

Italian Special Pizza of the Day at La Val’s. Rachel Feder/Staff

“We have certainly benefited from the pool of talent that UCB has provided over the years,” said Suto, whose company is always pleased to provide jobs to students. When the employees are connected and invested in their work, a sense of community is created around the establishment.

Such feelings manifest in the overall atmosphere of the restaurant, as well as in the food itself. “People really like to have their food made by happy people,” Manning, Cheese Board’s manager, said about the cooperative system that has made Cheese Board so successful.

Conclusion

Though times have changed since Fat Slice opened 28 years ago with a price of $1 per slice, the connection between this college town and its pizza cannot be underestimated. No sorority function is complete without West Coast Pizza’s Cheesy Sticks. You can’t have an all-nighter without Extreme Pizza at 2 a.m. Arinell is a classic, Gioia is where you go when you want kale on your pizza and Emilia’s is the one-man shop that’s been stealing hearts despite being a hole in the wall.

Yet even within the spot on a college student’s food pyramid allotted specifically for pizza, there are countless variations, leaving room to be unique (and maybe even a little bit strange). From providing upscale options to satisfying a quick craving, it’s clear that UC Berkeley students love their pizza, enabling us to sustain such a massive pizza culture.

We in Berkeley pride ourselves on the “huge foodie and artisan culture here, both as consumers and producers,” says de Benedictis-Kessner. The food we eat plays a large factor in our lives and our community, a fact ever-so-evident in Berkeley’s pizza scene.

Contact Rachel Feder at [email protected].

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