It wasn’t Charlie Hallowell’s intention to open a restaurant that would turn into a coffee shop in the morning. He just wanted a cup of coffee.
The Pizzaiolo restaurant is inconspicuously located on a busy section of Telegraph Avenue, the freshly hip Temescal Alley, your neighbor behind the door. Sometimes the line from the impressively popular Bakesale Betty’s extends from its seat on corner 51st past the small wooden sign that bears Pizzaiolo’s name. As a restaurant, Pizzaiolo is a rare hybrid – a kind of thoughtful, local place that prepares a level of food that is surprisingly not as sophisticated and popular with locals and foodies alike.
When the space opened in 2006, Hallowell – the owner of other local Oakland favorites Penrose and Boot & Shoe Service – wanted coffee in the morning, so he bought an espresso machine. It meant he had coffee within reach as he prepared for the increasingly busy restaurant dinner. After a while, a number of his friends showed up, ostensibly to catch up with busy Hallowell, but increasingly to enjoy a shot from his two-group La Marzocco espresso machine. At some point, as Pizzaiolo Cafe Manager Aviv Gerber told us, “someone had an idea to make donuts on the weekends, and eventually there were enough fans that Charlie wanted to open that morning.” Now, almost ten years later, Pizzaiolo is open and serves four-barrel coffee, as well as freshly baked bread and pastries, six days a week from Monday to Saturday from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m.
The Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, in that very typical way Oakland is, is instantly bustling – the constant rush of cars, the little parade of people marching up and down the sidewalks – yet quiet to live. The commercial hustle and bustle feels more like an extension of the surrounding residential area than anything else. In Pizzaiolo, with its exposed bricks and warm, glowing burnished hardwoods, there is a similar feeling, as if the residual energy of Hallowell and his friends had long ago transformed into a common living room for the neighborhood. Gerber’s dog Maude can be spotted most mornings shyly asking for a pet from one of her favorite customers. “It’s actually a neighborhood place,” says Gerber, and not a pre-made, deliberate mood.
Stand in line for even a minute and it apparently becomes clear. It’s not that the baristas can predict drink orders or which pastries a customer might prefer (they can and do), but that conversations jump back and forth between the baristas and what appears to be each customer. These chats don’t feel like small talk in the service of selling coffee. You feel like a very extended group of friends that is catching up day by day. “It’s organic,” says Gerber, Maude and the others watch. “Its magical.”
If you and should stop by, you may not have time to sit at one of the tables and bask in the rectangles of morning light that falls across the front of the room while you share a few donut holes with a friend. You may be in a hurry and miss the opportunity to sneak up to the bar with a cappuccino and casually speak to one of the baristas huddled behind the counter. You may just have enough time to wait in line, amid the chatter of new and old friends, the smell of freshly baked bread wafting between you and a coffee before heading back to the battle of your busy life go. This place offers quick service, but it is in the lingering moments, in the ongoing, stove-warmed dialogues, that the morning coffee at Pizzaiolo really shines.
In Gerber’s words, “We want to be a sledgehammer of love. We want this to be a soulful place for people to gather. ” And it is.
Noah Sanders (@sandersnoah) is a San Francisco-based Sprudge.com contributor and the author of SF Weekly, Side One Track One, and The Bold Italic. Read more Noah Sanders on Sprudge.
May 29, 2015