pulling out plain slice
Pizzaiolo Keith Freilich owns and runs Emilia’s single-handedly. Photo: Emmeline Chuu
Pizzaiolo Keith Freilich owns and runs Emilia’s single-handedly. Photo: Emmeline Chuu

In Berkeleyside Nosh’s regular “To Die For” column, Kate Williams looks at East Bay’s popular restaurants through the lens of a single, sought-after dish. Is the food is a bunch of hype, or is it in fact “to die for”?  

Pizza. The word inspires at once collective nods of approval and endless nit-picking. New York style or Neapolitan? Hipster or old-school? Coal or wood? Saucy or white? Deep dish or thin? Slices to-go or sliced at the table? One diner’s authentic experience is another’s blasphemy.

But amid the bickering, one thing most folks can agree on is that a well-made pizza (whatever that means) is a deeply satisfying experience. So satisfying, in fact, that many chefs have made it their life’s work to perfect their take on the form. These pizzaiolos create kitchen shrines to the trinity of dough, sauce, and cheese, and then ask customers to bend their own expectations of a pizzeria in order to churn out pies just so.

corner showing charred cornicione
The sopressata is a clear winner at Emilia’s in Berkeley. Photo: Emmeline Chuu
The sopressata is a clear winner at Emilia’s in Berkeley. Photo: Emmeline Chuu

Many of these pizzas are excellent. Think Pepe’s (or Sally’s) in New Haven, Franny’s in New York, Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, and Del Popolo across the bridge in San Francisco. Yet to sample these stellar pies, diners subject themselves to waiting in long lines, braving the weather to eat on the street, or (often) both. The act of tasting, chewing, and swallowing is beyond enjoyable, but the path to these few bites of ecstasy is far from it. To what ends should a hungry pizza eater subject herself in order to eat the best?

Is a place like Emilia’s Pizzeria in South Berkeley worth the schedule-bending effort? Given its strict ordering system and standoffish website, it threatens to fall into a pretentious trap. To order a pizza for take-out or walk-in (they don’t deliver), diners must call the restaurant starting at 4 p.m. on the day they want to eat. After suffering through a cascade of busy signals, pizzaiolo Keith Freilich will take down the order and respond with a very specific pick-up time, hopefully within decent dining hours. Miss putting in your call close to 4 p.m. and you’re looking at a 9 p.m. pizza. And don’t even think about walking in and ordering a pizza on the fly. You probably won’t get one until the next day. If you’re looking to dine in, there are precisely one and a half tables that can be reserved, but you’ll need to act fast.

In spite of (or perhaps because of) this quirky form of service, Emilia’s has been a favorite of locals and pizza nerds since its opening in 2009. Folks as far-flung as Adam Kuban of Serious Eats’ New York-based Slice blog have waxed poetic on Freilich’s pies. Still, all of this hype had this reporter ready for disappointment. I was nervous about landing a coveted table spot, talking to a gruff pizzaiolo, and enduring the awkwardness that could ensue from eating in the shoe-box sized restaurant.

I shouldn’t have worried.

This single-man operation is still serving the pizza to beat in the East Bay. Freilich’s pedigree — stints at Grimaldi’s in Hoboken and Pizzaiolo in Oakland pepper his resume — has certainly influenced his pies, but the pizzas coming out of his hand-me-down gas oven are all his own.

The pies are large — 18 to 19 inches — with a thin crust reminiscent of New York slice joints. Similar to Grimaldi’s, Freilich sprinkles his blend of fresh and aged mozzarella cheese first, followed by a spiral of fresh tomato sauce and a jolt of grated parm when the pizza comes out of the oven. Yet his oven is hot — really hot — so each pizza comes out punctuated with char like the “gourmet” Neapolitan style popular in most restaurants these days. Toppings are limited but chosen with care: Local salami and housemade sausage make the cut, but there’s nothing precious about the list. Seasonality is moot. Freilich clearly chooses toppings based on their ability to withstand the oven temperatures and taste good with his plain base.

On a recent visit, the sopressata was a clear winner, even edging out the slices of perfectly proportioned plain pie. The salami, sliced windowpane-thin, tastes mostly sweet with a glimmer of heat. It adds just enough salt and fat to the pie to intrigue but not overwhelm: a grown-up version of Hormel pepperoni.

But what of the crust supporting such toppings? As befits a cross between New York and Neapolitan pizza, Freilich’s pies have thin crusts with decent chew. They’re far from soupy in the middle, and have enough structure to avoid the awkward fork-and-knife maneuver. The blistered cornicione provides crisp and slightly bitter contrast to the gooey cheese and sauce in the center.

Sitting down and eating this pizza at the only table sized for more than one guest turned out to be the best way to experience Emilia’s. Sure, it was a bit strange to be the only ones in the restaurant besides Freilich. Yet to eat the pizza hot, straight out of the oven, while the scent of many other pizza lovers’ Friday night pies wafted over our table, was a singular experience unrivaled at crowded and loud competitors.

We were alone in a world where nothing matters but simply good pizza — just the way it should be.

The Lowdown:
Restaurant: Emilia’s Pizzeria, 2995 Shattuck Ave. (at Ashby), Berkeley, (510) 704-1794.
Dish: A pizza that effortlessly melds classic New York style with Neapolitan flair.
Cost: Plain pie is $18 after tax. Toppings range from $1 to $4, limit 4 toppings per pizza. No slices. Must call ahead for pizza or reserve a table. BYOB, glasses, and openers. No corkage fee.
Other dishes of note: Emilia’s only serves pizza and canned or bottled beverages.

Kate Williams was raised in Atlanta with an eager appetite. She spent two years as a test cook at America’s Test Kitchen before moving out to Berkeley to write, eat, and escape the winter. She currently writes for Serious Eats and The Oxford American, in addition to her work at Berkeleyside NOSH.

Read previous To Die For restaurant reviews:
Banchan at Casserole House
Kao Kha Moo at Da Nang Krung Thep

Salumi misti at Adesso
A taste of Africa at Room 389
Mun Gai at Hawker Fare

A16 team bring a touch of San Francisco to Rockridge (06.04.13)
Sneak peek: Build, Berkeley’s ambitious new pizzeria (04.05.13)
Thin-crust pizza restaurant to open in Rockridge [01.10.13]
Benchmark: Wood-fired pizza comes to Kensington [12.11.12]
New Roman-style pizzeria to open in downtown Berkeley [11.16.12]
The best pizza in Berkeley? Our readers have decided [06.10.11]

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Kate Williams

Kate Williams has been writing about food since 2009. After spending two years developing recipes for cookbooks at America’s Test Kitchen, she moved to Berkeley and began work as a freelance writer and...