Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Impressions: Emilia's

2995 Shattuck Ave
Berkeley, CA 94705
(510) 704-1794

(all photos by Adam Lindsley unless otherwise noted)

With my all-too-brief stay in San Francisco rapidly coming to a close, I had time to squeeze in one more pizzeria before having to say goodbye. Given the amount of praise I'd heard about the place, the choice was simple: Emilia's, the labor of love of owner and pizzaiolo Keith Freilich.

When we showed up about an hour after Emilia's opened, Freilich (doing everything--taking orders, prepping the pies, and cooking them--himself) told us there was an hour-and-a-half wait for pizza (had I read their website more closely, I would have seen that Keith recommends calling ahead well in advance). Hardly discouraged, we placed our order for a half plain/half sausage pie (yes...finally got my meat on this trip!), then spent the next ninety minutes driving around the UC Berkeley campus (Christa's alma mater) and picking up some beverages at the Whole Foods on Telegraph & Ashby. We returned, snagged one of the three tables inside, then waited patiently for the pizza to arrive. Noting the juxtaposition of Frank Sinatra with a stack of pizza boxes helped pass the time.

Once the huge 18-inch pie hit the table, I quickly snapped some photos, then dug into the plain (i.e. Margherita) half first, picking up a large New York-style slice. The crust was crisp and held up nicely under the toppings, which have an interesting placement scheme: instead of adding a layer of sauce and then a layer of cheese, Freilich spreads both fresh and aged mozzarella around the crust, then adds the sauce in dollops around the cheese, creating distinct boundaries between the two.

That cheese combination is great, very flavorful. The fresh mozz in particular melted perfectly in Freilich's high-heat gas oven until it was almost as flat as paper. The weak link on this pie, though was the sauce. It just wasn't my thing. Christa's either. It's very, very tangy, like a spaghetti sauce, and it totally dominates every bite in which it is present. It's pretty distracting, actually, and I found myself wishing there wasn't so much of it. The basil was good, but placed in such a small quantity that it didn't really have the ability to impart much flavor to the rest of the pizza.

Thankfully, I could almost...almost forget the sauce on the sausage half of the pie, which was much, much tastier than the plain half. The sausage was excellent (though Christa found a couple pieces to be a little gristly), seasoned perfectly, and it made me smile. If only I hadn't ordered the plain half of the pie, I'd have had an even wider smile. As it was, the pieces of delicious sausage that had the unfortunate fate of ending up in the sauce portions of the pie tasted more like meatballs in marinara than a sausage pizza.

The crust really is nothing spectacular. The outer rim is so wide and flavorless that I found myself for the first time on this trip discarding the end crusts. By the end of the evening Christa and I had a big pile of what Adam Kuban calls "pizza bones" on the tray.

(photo by Christa Engelskirch)

I really don't mean to sound too harsh with my first impressions of Emilia's, but I won't sugarcoat my experience there, either. I enjoyed the pizza--really enjoyed the sausage half--but it is a definite step down from the four other places I hit on this culinary journey. It's also a different beast than those four; whereas they all serve Neapolitan-style pies, Emilia's is much closer to the pizzas served in New York City. Even so, the sauce and crust at Emilia's doesn't come close to the best sauce and crust I had in New York (Artichoke Basille's and Di Fara, respectively).

But would I order it again? Absolutely. With lots and lots of sausage.


RECOMMENDED: Plain Pie w/Sausage


So to wrap things up, here's how I'd rank the five pizzerias I tried in San Francisco:

1.) Pizzeria Delfina

2.) Pizzeria Picco

3.) Pizzaiolo

4.) Tony's Pizza Napoletana

5.) Emilia's

All offer good-to-great pies for the burgeoning SF pizza scene. Individual criticisms aside (most crusts needed more salt, Tony's charges far too much), I'd eat at any of these places on a return trip. Gladly. Well, I'd only go back to Tony's if someone else was footing the bill.

So a big Thank You to San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Larkspur, and San Carlos (where we stayed with our good friend Erik Meriwether, God Bless him). We'll be seeing you again real soon.

No, we didn't leave by way of the Golden Gate Bridge, but it makes for a more dramatic ending to everything, doesn't it?

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