By Ethan Fletcher
To paraphrase Mel Brooks, pizza is like sex: Even when it's bad, it's still pretty good.
Which could be the reason why pizza joints have so often occupied a large middle ground in terms of quality. After all, who needs to shoot for the sublime when the merely good is so easy to reach?
To be fair, attitudes have changed toward pizza in recent years. And the East Bay certainly isn't hurting for good options, where newer spots like The Star, Emilia's, Rotten City, and The Forge joined institutions like The Cheese Board, Arizmendi's, Pizzaiolo, Boot & Shoe Service, and Zachary's in upping the caliber of typical pie.
And while I love the sloppy, hearty comfort of Zachary's, the sturdy New York-style utilitarianism of Emilia's, and the seasonal, veggie-heavy emphasis of The Cheese Board, there's still nothing quite like a properly-made Neapolitan-style thin-crust pizza. Anyone who's had a classic margherita in Italy knows what I'm talking about. There's an elegant simplicity to just a few quality ingredients—mozzarella, tomato sauce, basil, oregano, crust—blending harmoniously into one perfect, soupy bite.
It seems like it should be easy. But of course, it's not. There's a lot of work that goes into that beautiful bite, and at least in Berkeley, I haven't experienced anywhere that's really nailed it—until Lucia's.
The brainchild of Steve Dumain and Alessandro Uccelli, this sweet little pizzeria flew a bit under the radar, launching quietly in the middle of the busy December holiday season in a modest downtown space previously occupied by Belli Osteria. The first-time restaurateurs have very different backgrounds: Dumain is from Vermont and worked as a fashion designer in New York City before moving to Oakland, while Uccelli is from Venice, Italy, and came to the East Bay to work on a research fellowship at UC Berkeley (they were introduced by a mutual friend named Lucia).
But they clearly share a passion for Neapolitan pizza, as evidenced in the back kitchen by the 950-degree-burning imported Stefano Ferrara wood-burning oven from Naples, which serves as the fiery beating heart of the restaurant. Perhaps even more important, explained Dumain, is the fact that they imported veteran Italian pizzaiolo, Saverio Miranda, to work that oven, which fires up pies in roughly 70 seconds.
"Running that thing, you have to be super fast with spinning the pizzas around and getting them out, because three seconds late, and it's overcooked, or if the dough is too cold, then the top gets done before the dough has finished," he said. "It's this really delicate balance, and guys in Italy have been doing it since they were 15 years old; they're geniuses at it. So that was important for us to bring someone in with that kind of experience."
Of utmost importance in any pizza, but perhaps even more so in the delicate thin-crust variety, is the crust. The Lucia's team guards their recipe closely, except to say that it adheres to traditional Neapolitan-style guidelines in that it's made from high-protein flour that's slow-fermented and formed by hand to a thickness of no greater than 3 millimeters. It's a misconception that Neapolitan crust should be crispy like a cracker. In fact, the dough is meant to be fairly soft and moist, while elastic enough to hold up to a soupy topping.
Lucia's crust checks all those boxes—it was chewy and airy with a bit of a yeasty tang and blistered char to provide delicious depth of flavor. It wasn't especially crispy, although Dumain said they actually chose a flour that made for a less floppy crust that is sturdy enough to eat with your hands, versus with a fork and knife as is common in Italy.
When the ingredients atop that crust align, it can be a thing of beauty. That was the case with the Napoletana topped with anchovies, capers, and olives. We added buffalo mozzarella, and when that 850-degree-liquidated creaminess melded with the intensely fishy anchovy, briny capers, chewy, slightly blistered crust, and bright, sweet tomato sauce flecked with bits of oregano . . . well, I actually closed my eyes briefly to savor the moment. The Speck of Love offered similarly transcendent moments, beautifully fusing smoky speck ham with the funky-sharp bite of melted Gorgonzola, plus tomato sauce and bits of chopped walnuts. The Sausage Partay was another favorite. The chopped pieces of broccoli rabe looked to be sautéed with shallots and then roasted in the oven, concentrating the flavor to provide a light, just-slightly bitter vegetal complement to the savory sausage and chewy mozzarella.
As the title of that particular pizza suggests, Lucia's doesn't take itself overly seriously and retains a relaxed vibe. Particularly at night, when diners are bookended by the hearth of the oven in the back and the warm pink glow of the neon "Lucia's" sign on the front window, this is a restaurant that feels wonderfully warm and familiar (the décor is a lovely mix of rusticity with colorful Italian-style design touches). While that certainly translates into its having a family-friendly atmosphere, it's worth noting that Lucia's isn't cheap. Two people would struggle to get out of there for less than $50 (Lucia's adds a mandatory 20 percent tip to the bill), putting it more in line with downtown restaurants like Comal and Revival that are catering more to a crowd with disposable income.
Another thing I appreciated was that Lucia's isn't bound by tradition. It takes the lineage of Neapolitan pizza seriously, but the food isn't just a collection of greatest hits. Sharing space on the menu with the margheritas and Napoletanas are more unorthodox creations like the Lips of Fire with ghost pepper maple syrup, the Squash King with pureed local squash, and a Quattro Formaggi with smoked maple syrup (the syrup obviously a nod to Dumain's Vermont roots).
That being said, I have to say that my favorite pizzas were the more traditional ones. For example, the smoked maple syrup was effectively lost amid the four cheeses in the Quattro Formaggi, which was a little monotone in flavor. And in general I found the red pizzas to be more compelling than the sauce-less whites. Dumain told me they debated between using a lighter, brighter tomato sauce from Italy versus a richer, heartier version made in the United States, ultimately deciding on the Italian. It was a good call, I think, as that brighter acidity does so much to balance and lighten the overall flavor profile.
As for the rest of the menu, the salads were probably the most successful. In particular, the refreshing arugula salad, speckled with pomegranate and shaved ricotta salata cheese, was garden fresh and dressed with zesty lemon vinaigrette. Others items were less successful: A side of broccoli rabe and crimini mushrooms was so basic as to be forgettable. Ditto for the cacio e pepe fritter appetizer, a sort of doughy Italian spin on Brazilian cheese bread that was screaming out for some sort of dipping sauce. The stewed eggplant caponata had the requisite sweet (currants, onions, raisins) and sour (capers, olives, vinegar) elements but was so mildly seasoned as to render it essentially a palate primer for the pizza.
Which is fine. The kitchen is also slowly introducing a few pasta specials and has plans to offer an oven-cooked porchetta pork loin, but pizza will always be the main event. And as long as it keeps churning out Neapolitan pies at the same elevated quality, Lucia's will have no problem bringing in customers.
After all, why settle for the merely good when you can sample the sublime.
2016 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
Open Sun.-Thu. 5-9:15pm
and Fri.-Sat. 5-10:30pm.
Average dinner entrée $18.
Wine and beer only.
Credit cards accepted.
Pep L'Pig pizza at Lucia's Pizzeria features pepperoncino and farm sausage with oregano in Neapolitan style. Photo by Pat Mazzera.