I grew up in a pizza parlor. Literally. My father’s best friend, with whom we spent at least one night of every weekend he had my sister and I, owned Granata’s Pizzeria in Berkeley. Dad would take us into the restaurant for dinner at least twice a week. I was so at home in the restaurant, I spent most of my time in the kitchen, where I would hang out and watch Carlo and Mike punch mounds of dough, billowy clouds of flour forming in the air around their hands, as they caressed the snowy dunes into submission. When it was flexible enough, they would begin to spin the dough. My Uncle Frank would sit me up on the counter, so I could get a better look at the guys as they proceeded to turn those powdery orbs of fresh made dough into beautiful, whirling spaceships, no wires attached. Transfixed by their skills, I watched as they stretched the mounds into spheres, first rolling and then kneading the dough over their clenched fists, picking up speed as they went. Soon the discs would be spinning in the air, suspended above their heads, flying up so high they would almost touch the ceiling. After ten or so minutes, they would judge them done, and lay them out for toppings. Handing me container after container, I was allowed to build my own pie. Only the toppings I wanted. I felt like a princess. It was magical.
To this day, I’m fascinated by the process of making a pie. Always excited when a new pizza joint opens up, the first thing I like to check out is their oven. After all, a great pie is all about the oven. It’s there that they transform the soft lifeless dough into that which drives us back for more — the crust. Whether it’s brick, tile, or steel, the heat has to be just right to transform the raw dough into that chewy, crunchy goodness that makes the dish. Whatever your favorite form, thick or thin, good crust is essential to good pizza. The art of crafting the perfect pizza is a ritual that takes skill and patience, one that is handed down through generations. It’s at least a thousand years old, and though no one knows exactly where the dish originated, it is, in my mind, uniquely and forever, Italian.
If a restaurant is to produce great pizza, they have to love making it. They have to care about things like temperature and tradition, or they’ll be handing you a confused and soggy mess. That’s what I love about a great slice. Knowing its origins, what it takes to get all the components to come together. So when a steaming hot platter of melted cheese, herbacious sauces and fresh baked crust arrives in front of me, I show it the respect it deserves and eat it while it’s hot.
On a recent visit to The Forge a new(ish) pizzeria on the waterfront of Oakland’s Jack London Square, I was delighted to discover that they get it. Chef Jeffrey Amber is definitely a kindred spirit, someone to whom pizza matters. Owners Michael Karp and Bob Burke went so far as to hire Jeff Krupman (the Pizza Hacker) and Jeff Hayden (Boot & Shoe Service, another Oakland purveyor of mind-blowingly well-executed pizzas) to craft the perfect American version of this legendary food. They clearly wanted to honor the historical traditions of the pizzeria, while reinventing the toppings to bring it a fresh artisan feel, and they’ve succeeded.
We sampled a few other dishes first, the delectably fascinating Fried Cheese Curds were something I’ve heard much about, but had never yet tried. O.M.G. Right up there with fried Hostess Twinkies. One of those dishes everyone has to try at least once. The outside is hot and crisp, and the interior is creamy, melty, goodness. The Soup of the Day was a mild, delightfully creamy concoction of asparagus and seasonings, drizzled with olive oil and bearing a spot-on consistency. Hubs is a soup fanatic, and he enjoyed it tremendously.
Next up was a lovely bowl of mussels, laden with well-seasoned broth and a heaping pile of perfect french fried pototoes. All of us enjoyed dipping the hot sticks of crispy potato into the steamy broth. The creamy aioli drizzled across the mussels made its way slowly to the bottom of the bowl, further enhancing the flavors of the dish.
The pizza itself, when it arrived, was simplicity and perfection on a platter. The dough at The Forge is done from a Tartine country loaf recipe, and the result is a fluffy chew with a crispy edged perfection. We had a Margherita style pie, which has only tomato sauce, basil, and cheese, which in this case was a house made burrata. These are the perfect ingredients for lovers of crust. The more you add to a pizza, the less you really get a sense of the baked dough itself. We dived into our pie, managing to disappear it faster than David Copperfield vanishes at the end of his Vegas act. I’m assuming that meant my dining companions enjoyed it as much as I did.
Needless to say, everyone has a different favorite style of pizza. Which is the “best” pizza is an argument as old as the dish itself, and has been the source of heated feuds that would make the Hatfields and the McCoys seem like a happy family with minor differences of opinion. I’m not going to get into that here. Thin crust, thick crust, Chicago style, with or without egg, you like what you like. There are just too many variants. For me, good pizza is one that has been crafted with the attention to detail that began somewhere in the villages of Italy a little over a thousand years ago, when some peasant added toppings to the evening’s foccacia bread. How that translates, ultimately, into the final result is up to each participant in the line: from tossing the dough, to ladling it with whatever imaginative toppings inspires the chef, until it is handed off to be artfully paddle tossed into the heat of the chosen oven. Whether the diner finds it enjoyable will depend on what sort of pizza makes that personal connection. But pizza done well, is good pizza, and at The Forge, it is done very well indeed.
So if you want a great time out with family, and are craving the simplicity of a good slice of “pie” by all means stop by The Forge and check it out. Drinks are delicious, and there are a few other fascinating goodies on the menu to round out a meal. Make a memory of your own. Mangia!
66 Franklin St., Ste 100
b/t Jack London Sq & W Embarcadero in Jack London Square
Oakland, CA 94607