Like most college towns, Berkeley does not hurt for pizza. Much of it comes in slice form, satisfying in that way that only excess cheese and pepperoni really can be. Of course, there is also the Cheese Board, and Cheese Board siblings, serving thicker crust, sauceless seasonal pies; and there’s takeout champion Emilia’s, selling New Jersey-style pies one at a time out of its tiny slip of a pizzeria. For fancier, local ingredient-topped pies, we can always turn to Gather or Pizza Moda.
But Berkeley restaurateurs have yet to throw down in the Neapolitan category that has proved ever popular in just about every other major food city in the country. BUILD Pizzeria tried and failed. Paisan and Cugini Manzone offer the closest approximation, but it is currently impossible to find pizzas with the soupy center and wood-blistered crust that is a signature of the Neapolitan style within our city limits.
When Lucia’s opens on Wednesday in downtown Berkeley, that will all change.
Co-owner Steve Dumain grew up in Vermont, and he came to the Bay Area by way of Brooklyn, where he worked in restaurants and, later, the fashion business, with stints at Tory Burch and Diane Von Furstenberg. After leaving fashion behind, he and his husband George made the leap to Oakland. “I really wanted to move here,” he said.
He met his future business partner, Alessandro Uccelli on a trip back to New York City. Uccelli moved from Venice, Italy to the Bay Area in 2007 to do a postdoctoral research fellowship at UC Berkeley. An art curator named Lucia introduced the two. Lucia, who would go on to inspire the name of the Berkeley restaurant, has a taste that mixes both classic and modern, just like, according to Dumain, he and Uccelli. Dumain’s seemingly boundless energy was also a fine foil to Uccelli’s stoicism, and the two hit it off.
They began looking for a restaurant space in Oakland. “We couldn’t find anything,” said Dumain. “This space [in the former Belli Osteria location at 2016 Shattuck, at University], came up through a friend of a friend.” The future Lucia’s location doesn’t offer everything Dumain was looking for — it lacks a backyard, for example — but it does have convenience in spades. It’s a block from the new BART plaza and is a stone’s throw from UC Berkeley campus. Plus, Dumain said, “It will be good to be Comal’s neighbor. We already have a good built-in customer base.”
And the downtown Berkeley restaurant and nightlife scene is just going to continue to grow.
Dumain hopes that Lucia’s will stand out from the pack not only by virtue of its pizzas, but also its playful, casual vibe. He wants Lucia’s to be just as much of a community gathering spot as a restaurant, and he and Uccelli both plan to be heavily involved in the day-to-day running of the restaurant. “We believe in family, in human contact,” he said. “We’re all going to be in there working and we want to be very involved with our customers.” Later, Dumain added: “We are really focused on bringing people into an experience and have them leave with that special feeling you get after a wonderful meal surrounded by good friends.”
He also hopes to be open on the later end to give downtown Berkeley customers another late-evening eating and drinking option. As of now, Lucia’s will only serve beer and wine, but Dumain and Uccelli are currently applying for a full liquor license. “We’ll have traditional cocktails to start, but we want to eventually do things like kombucha cocktails,” said Dumain. “We want to twist it up a bit.”
Until then, wine and beer will be mostly local, but with old-world, Italian style. “We’ll serve Italian varietals grown here in California,” said Uccelli. “We might have Italian craft beer as well, but we want to ship as little as possible so we’re as sustainable as possible.”
Dumain said he plans to host wine events and pairings with vintners and other wine specialists “as often as we can.”
Uccelli’s wife, Elisabetta Volpe, studied wine at the North American Sommelier Association, and is leading the wine program at Lucia’s. “Her love of the whole process started so many years ago,” said Dumain. “She grew up in the Veneto region of Prosecco, and as a child, her grandfather and uncles were making wine constantly.” Later, she lived in Florence and “discovered more fully her passion for wine while working in restaurants and trattorias,” he said.
Not to be left out, Dumain’s husband is also involved in the restaurant; he is photographer, and his artwork adorns the walls, along with comic-book art from another friend, which lines the bathrooms. The rest of the restaurant is what Dumain calls “comfy mid-century industrial” — wood accents, cushions, pops of color, and vintage school chairs at the dining tables.
But the centerpiece of the restaurant is the wood-fired pizza oven Dumain and Uccelli have brought in from Naples. It will be manned by a Salerno, Italy-born pizzaiolo, Saverio Miranda, who is in charge of the lineup of pizzas that Dumain is calling “neo-Neapolitan.” While the pizza’s crust and style will follow the strict rules required for Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) Neapolitan status, Miranda will be making use of the abundant local ingredients in the East Bay, including those grown in Dumain’s own backyard.
“We’re making the pizzas relevant for modern times,” said Dumain. Lucia’s pizzas will, like the restaurant concept itself, take a playful approach to authenticity. “We [are] working at staying true to the tradition while struggling to find that door that leads us somewhere new, … adventurous, [and] also delicious,” he later added. “At the same time [we want our food to leave] you with that memory of authentic cuisine.”
Translation? You’ll find both traditionally-topped pizzas like a margherita and a prosciutto and arugula pie alongside distinctively modern offerings like “Lips of Fire” (tomato, mozzarella, spicy salami and Vermont maple syrup infused with ghost peppers) and “Deep Forest” (tomato mozzarella, wild mushrooms, speck, gorgonzola and walnuts).
Alongside the pizzas will be salads, charcuterie, soft-serve buffalo milk gelato (from Petaluma’s Double 8 dairy) and small plates borrowed from other regions of Italy. Like the pizzas, the small plates will have a little twist made possible by local ingredients and modern touches.
Those modern touches are not only evident in the sriracha-lemon dressing that will grace the kale salad. Dumain said Lucia’s will also offer both gluten-free and vegan pizzas, the later of which will likely be topped with vegan mozzarella and Parmesan courtesy of vegan deli The Butcher’s Son, which is just down the street.
Developing the menu hasn’t been easy, said Dumain. “Achieving this playful approach has been a struggle, because [Uccelli and I] worked to combine our backgrounds,” he said. “We learned that even in Italy, [people in] each region will tell you, ‘No, that’s not how it’s made. This is the real version.’ So I’m always laughing with my partners, [even] when we can argue about this for days.”
“The great thing is that we finally come up with an end product we are all super proud of,” said Dumain. We “often even surprise ourselves at how our taste buds can grow and adapt.”