Thursday, January 19, 2012

California's Pizza Kitchen: The Cheese Board Collective

Cheese Board's pizza of the day with gratuitous extra slices

Being a transplant from California to New York, I am often asked to verify New York pizza claims. Is it really that much better? Does it put California pizza to shame? I always respond with the politically calculated answer--they're different. Those who know me know that I don't need to hedge my response to save feelings. If something is objectively better, I'll say it. But pizzas from California and New York really are different. Too often people only make the distinction between Chicago style deep dish and the Neapolitan thin crust as the only two kinds. Yet, my recent trip to Berkeley's famous Cheese Board Collective reaffirmed my conviction that the differences even among thin crust pizzas need to be highlighted and celebrated.


Breaking it down simply, New York pizza is all about simplicity and execution while California pizzas are about complexity and creativity. Both types emphasize the importance of quality ingredients, but the East Coast cares much more about the fundamental building blocks of the pizza--dough, sauce, and cheese. California pizzerias don't cling to tradition; of course they don't, there is no pizza tradition in California. Starting with Wolfgang Puck, the pizza in California has always been innovative and new. The focus is on the ingredients, often a blend of the unexpected. In fact, if you look for a "traditional" pizzeria in California, you're likely to be steered towards New York or Italian transplants.

Just as a personal anecdote, during my first New York pizza experience years ago at Grimaldi's, I had a plain cheese pizza. I hadn't had pizza with no toppings since it was forced on my as a kid at party's thrown by picky eaters. It was then that I realized New York and California pizza just don't compete in the same field. Just as you don't order a pizza with no toppings in California, you don't order a combination pizza in New York.

Long lines, but fast moving customers

The Cheese Board Collective started in 1967 as a cheese shop. In the 1970s, it began baking bread and earned renown for its baked goods. It actually wasn't until 1990 that it began selling pizza, the draw by which I first discovered it. In an informal poll among my friends, any reference to the Cheese Board was always followed by, "the pizza place."

The Cheese Board offers one pizza selection a day with no substitutions. Its emphasis is on fresh, local ingredients, no surprise given the store's location on the other side of the street from Chez Panisse. While many California pizzas strive to impress you with over-the-top exoticism (hello, Jamaican jerk chicken and Peking duck), this pizza was comparatively plain. The pizza was outstanding, with lemon citrus notes and cilantro playing up the garlic and roma tomatoes. Sharp hints of feta gave some variety to the workhorse mozzarella. Best of all, the pizza was accessible, something you think you can make as long as you have the best ingredients.

Live jazz music

The appeal of the Cheese Board is beyond just a solid appreciation for its food. It is a collective, owned and operated by its workers. The open store front and live music play up the atmosphere and it's hard to come out of the experience without a smile. And of course, a healthy amount of civil disobedience was thrown in across the street by patrons without a table at this busy joint. Let's not forget where we are boys and girls.

The Cheese Board Collective
1504 Shattuck Ave.
Berkeley, 94709
(510) 549-3183
$2.50/slice, $20/whole


1 comment:

H. C. said...

to me, the pizza in U.S. debate is about as silly as the BBQ one -- there are lots of different styles, and individuals' mileage will vary depending on their palates and what they grew up with.

Though right now, my current obsession is the white pie in Cosmopolitan Hotel's "secret" pizza shop.

But I digress...

at the risk of steroetyping, everything about the Cheese Board Collective sounds very "Berkeley" -- but I'm definitely curious enough save room for a slice or two.