A Zachary's spinach and mushroom stuffed pie and Caesar salad.
A Zachary’s spinach and mushroom stuffed pie is the restaurant’s “pride and joy” pizza. Photo: Zachary’s Chicago Pizza

When, in late July, 2010, a deep-dish pizza dropped onto the table at a new restaurant at the Albany end of Solano Avenue, it might as well have been a gauntlet. The sultry, Chicago-style pie belonged to the newest location of Little Star Pizza, a then six-year-old San Francisco favorite. But this opening was the outfit’s first brazen foray not only into the East Bay, but onto Solano Avenue: Zachary’s country.

Zachary’s Chicago Pizza has reigned as an East Bay pizza mecca since Zach Zachowski and Barbara Gabel opened the original restaurant in Oakland in 1983. They expanded to Solano Avenue in Berkeley the following year, and by the time they retired and famously sold the business to their employees, Zachary’s boasted four thriving East Bay locations, with diners lined up mainly for the pizzeria’s deep-dish pies.

“When we moved to the East Bay, my husband and I went to Zachary’s so often that ‘Zachary’ made the shortlist of potential names for our baby.”

For the uninitiated, Chicago-style deep-dish pizza is not a thin, flat, typical pizza experience. This is a pizza canyon (or, as New Yorker Jon Stewart once famously ranted, a casserole), a structure shaped more like a cake than a pie, with carefully constructed layers of cheese, toppings and sauce held by a surrounding wall of crust the height of an adult thumb. Because of the pizza’s heft, that crust needs to hold firmly (and tastily) against the weight and juices of its savory contents.

Both Little Star’s and Zachary’s deep-dish pies amass zealous fans, myself included. Once, while waiting for a table outside the original Little Star Pizza in San Francisco, I watched a stranger swaddle a heavy take-out box in her jacket against the summer chill. “I can’t let any heat escape,” she said, looking tense. “It’s too delicious.” I understood perfectly. Then again, when we moved to the East Bay, my husband and I went to Zachary’s so often that “Zachary” made the shortlist of potential names for our baby.

Such pie-partisanship is rare. As soon as Zachary’s and Little Star began sharing East Bay territory, loyalists began proclaiming the superiority of the crust, sauce, toppings and vibe of their chosen piemaker in any available forum, from blogs to Yelp to the conference room. We even know families that can’t agree and dine separately.

The truth is, the endless debate has done neither pizzeria any harm. Zachary’s remains packed as ever, and in 2013, the Little Star brand gained a second East Bay foothold and an enthusiastic Oakland following with sister hotspot, The Star on Grand. Two years later, the Albany Little Star reopened a few doors down on Solano Avenue in a swanky new dining room with twice the capacity. And then, in October 2019, the tables turned yet again, as Zachary’s boldly launched its fifth and arguably most ambitious location, Zachary’s Oakland-Grand Lake. The beautiful new Zachary’s is just two blocks away from The Star, a move that practically dares diners to choose, prompting both this article and a new pair of jeans.

In what we’re calling the Grand-Solano Deep-Dish Double Dare, we visited four locations — Zachary’s and The Star on Grand Avenue, and Zachary’s and Little Star on Solano Avenue — to compare the two beloved brands. At each, we ordered a small deep-dish pizza — plenty for two big eaters (with leftovers) — and the typical kid order of a thin-crust with cheese, along with some extras. We did the work so you don’t have to, but we sure recommend it.

Here’s what we learned.

Though it’s fine to call Zachary’s pies deep dish, they actually identify as stuffed.

As Midwesterners know, there’s deep dish, and then there’s stuffed. Stuffed pizza has a thin, top layer of crust beneath the sauce, almost like a dessert pie; deep dish does not. Zachary’s technique falls somewhere in between. There is a top blanket of dough under the sauce, but it is crafted so thinly as to be almost translucent. As it bakes, the top dough melts into the layers below so that it’s almost imperceptible. Then come the rich, sealed-in toppings and deeper layers of cheese, cupped in Zachary’s flakey, pie-like crust that’s baked to a golden, very buttery brown.

Make no mistake, The Star on Grand is Little Star Pizza in disguise.

Despite the different name and deluxe interior, The Star on Grand’s menu is identical to Little Star’s on Solano. So why not call it a Little Star?

Little Star founders Jon Guhl and Brian Sadigursky amicably split their partnership and properties in 2013, agreeing to cease using the trademarked Little Star Pizza name for new restaurants. Sadigursky kept the original San Francisco Little Star and went on to open the Blue Line Pizza chain in Silicon Valley (where, along with Little Star pizza recipes, diners can enjoy the Colorado-born tradition of dipping deep-dish pizza-crust “bones” in honey).

Guhl kept the second San Francisco Little Star along with the one in Albany, and in 2013, launched his first solo project, The Star on Grand.

The staff at Zachary's on Solano Avenue. All Zachary's locations are owned by its employees.
The staff at Zachary’s on Solano Avenue. All Zachary’s locations are owned by its employees. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

Zachary’s has. it. down.

After nearly four decades, this employee-owned organization has nailed consistency and attention to detail in both cooking and service at each of its five, family-friendly East Bay locations — in part because most employee-owners work at multiple, if not all, locations. Each dining room runs like a friendly, well-oiled machine, from the smaller, enduring Berkeley happy-place that is Zachary’s on Solano, to the grand new restaurant on Grand that seats 115. Even take-out lines are thoughtfully separated by long, low walls, to keep service running smoothly.

Recommended Zachary’s order: The Spinach and Mushroom, Zachary’s “pride and joy.”
Cost & wait time: Small $23.95, medium $28.80, large $33.40. 25-35 minutes.
The dish: This is considered Zachary’s standout pie for good reason. The fresh but compressed and tender vegetables add big flavor but no aftertaste or extra juices that might sodden or distract. Zachary’s consistently balanced sauce is bright and fresh with small bites of tomato; it’s sweet but never cloying, and there is just enough of it topping the pie. The mighty, 2 1/8”-high crust is golden and buttery. Layered provolone and mozzarella add salt, creaminess and bite. It’s a rich, generous, cohesive pie to the last crumb, and for any deep-dish fan, it’s a must order — before exploring the rest of the menu.

The Little Star deep dish at Little Star on Solano Avenue.
Little Star and The Star’s deep-dish pies are known for their crunchy, savory, cornmeal-rich crust, seen here at Little Star on Solano Avenue. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

Everything you’ve heard about Little Star/The Star on Grand’s crust is true, plus they make an exceptional meat pie.

Little Star’s savory, unstuffed deep-dish pies have merits of their own, including a bold sauce and distinctive cornmeal-rich crust. We tried the small Little Star pie, a juicy medley of spinach, mushrooms, onions and whole roasted garlic, and though overall it lacked the wow factor of the other pies we sampled, it was saved by that crunchy, savory crust. And when that shell is met with the meatier contents of the All-Star… my oh my, is that a good pizza pie.

Recommended Little Star/The Star on Grand order: The All-Star, with bacon, meatballs, sausage, pepperoni and provolone.
Cost & wait time: Small, $23, large $31. Our server said the wait at peak times can hit 45 minutes; we waited 25 at 6 p.m.
The dish: Meaty, melded, somehow greaseless. Little Star’s robust sauce is made all the better here thanks to flavors from bacon, sausage, melted provolone and small hunks of meatball. Each bite is met with that toasty cornmeal crust, but perhaps best of all, the pie is topped with delicately crisped pepperoni, the tastiest this reviewer has personally ever sampled. The All-Star is an exceptional and harmonious deep-dish pie.

The moods of the two brands are very different.

Zachary’s on Solano Avenue is a well-lit, well-run, casual classic, decorated in large, colorful fan art crafted by both kids and adults. The dining room, with seating for 60, is often crowded, but a bevy of servers moves attentively through the busy space.

Meanwhile, at Little Star on Solano Avenue, a swank, modern vibe permeates the spacious, upscale room that features low lighting, high windows and wrought chandeliers. Even the server’s first question upon being seated — sparkling or still? — lends sophistication, though the many kids here offset the more mature atmosphere. Televisions seem like unnecessary distractions, but add to the appeal of the popular full bar area. After Zachary’s, service seems less efficient and caring, though to be fair at 6 p.m. on a Thursday, the room was packed (and loud).

The Star on Grand boasts ultra-low, date-night lighting and a dressed-up vibe.

The sparkling new dining room at the new Zachary’s on Grand Avenue, in what was once Camino, is the group’s most sizable interior, and its molded ceiling and handsome wooden tables and chairs lend a slight mid-century modern feel to the otherwise familiar decor. We saw families and hipsters dining in happy tandem; the cheerfully lit space is great for larger gatherings. A small, full bar marks the entrance, a first for the group, that we’d love to see gather more momentum (there are even mocktails for the kids).

Just down the street, The Star on Grand boasts ultra-low, date-night lighting and a dressed-up vibe. The dining room features chandeliers, an Art Deco-inspired mural and a busy, 25-seat marble full bar that anchors the room. The space feels like a handsome treat, even on a casual Tuesday. Service, as at Little Star on Solano, blends family-friendly approachability with a cooler touch.

Zachary’s extras

Frequent diners should look into the Zachary’s Rewards Club, launched in November 2019, that earns points towards pizza purchases.

Little Star/The Star extras

A happy hour menu from 3-6 p.m. offers great value: Draft beer and house wines are $5, as are small plates such as a good meatball appetizer, and a nicely composed Greek salad.

A thin crust cheese pizza from Zachary's Pizza on Solano Avenue.
A thin crust cheese pizza from Zachary’s Pizza on Solano Avenue. Photo: Joanna Della Penna

What about the thin-crust? I’d rather not eat the pizza equivalent of a lasagna.

Zachary’s thin-crust pizza is substantial, crunchy and ever-so cheesy, brightened by that balanced sauce and backed by a light dusting of cornmeal. A small, 10-inch, thin-crust cheese costs $12.15.

Thin-crust pies at Little Star and The Star on Grand are cracker-thin, nicely salty and crispy, with a duskier sauce, just a smattering of cornmeal and a good amount of cheese. Ask for double-cut pies for kids, resulting in child-sized slices. A small, 12-inch, thin-crust cheese costs $16.

Of note: Every last sliver of thin-crust was cashed at all four locations we visited. There were no leftovers.

So really, Nosh. Which is better? Zachary’s? Or Little Star?

Sorry folks, but we’re taking the pie road on this one. After dipping into four pizza havens in as many weeks and packing down side-by-side pies from both brands, we’re here to tell you: They’re both good. And though complicated, the pies for both are cooked impressively to spec from location to location, so your order at one Zachary’s or Little Star gives the same pleasure at another.

For those who relish promoting their favorite based on personal preference, great, but in the spirit of a little less divisiveness in 2020, we suggest you don’t dismiss the other sublime choice down the avenue. If anything, we should be grateful some benevolent Chicago-style wind blew us an embarrassment of pizza riches. In short, East Bay, can’t we have both?

Joanna Della Penna

Freelancer Joanna Della Penna has written about food, people and the arts in the Bay Area since moving here from the East Coast in 2001, and was Gayot's Northern California regional restaurant editor for...