Pizza on Two Coasts – L'Industrie and Cheese Board
A little curveball today celebrating Spring Break Round 2 visits to two spots producing some of the best pizza in the country––one from each coast!
New York City is undoubtedly the pizza city in this country, so seeking out the best pizza place in town is a very serious and time-consuming endeavor. There are the tourist trap standbys like Grimaldi's, but a newish by-the-slice spot in Williamsburg, L'Industrie Pizzeria, is capturing the attention of real pizza aficionados throughout the boroughs. Opened in 2017 by a Florentine immigrant, L'Industrie's pizza boasts an impeccable, perfectly charred Roman-style crust made airy and a bit tangy by a long fermentation process and topped with some of the finest imported ingredients from Italy.
The spot occupies two storefronts, so unlike many NYC restaurants, it is long and thin horizontally rather than vertically, with a healthy-sized kitchen and wood burning oven behind the counter and cans of imported tomatoes lining the rafters. You know you're in a NYC pizza joint alright by the sort of aloof, bro-y, northeast machismo attitude exhibited by the staff (both dudes and ladies), but after acquiring my slices I was able to escape the toxic masculinity in their expansive and surprisingly warm street-side covered patio on a nippy but bright spring day.
One of the great things about intermittent fasting is come lunchtime I am ready to dig in to some good food, so I piled my plate high with three slices––a margherita-style pizza with basil and milky, glorious burrata, a spicy salami pizza that will change the way you see every other pepperoni pizza you've eaten, and a highly-recommended white pie with ricotta and mushrooms. All three were killer, but the tomato-based sauce was so good and perfectly glazed atop the slices that I kept returning to the margherita and salami slices.
The char on the crust was perfect and the toppings excellently proportioned, with a fold of the slice revealing just a hint of that good New York pizza grease. It took me an embarrassingly short amount of time to finish them all, washed down with a familiar Italian mineral water, imported, of course. The new quintessential New York slice, methinks.
Don't think I've had better pizza in New York. How does my go-to spot in Northern California compare? (*ignores snickering of New York purists*)
It's unclear to me whether either of my loyal readers are aware that I used to be heavily involved in academic competitive debate, first competing in high school and then coaching in college. The biggest west coast tournament of the year on the national circuit takes place on the UC Berkeley campus, and about a twenty minute walk up Shattuck Avenue from the northwest corner of campus is a restaurant slinging some of the most interesting concepts in the Bay––communist pizza.
That's right, folks––some of the greatest pizza on the west coast is made by a team of communists at the Cheese Board Collective. Well, not communists exactly, but a team that practices one of the most remarkable labor arrangements in business, and in the heart of the perfect city for such a scheme. Back in the early 70s the original owners of the Cheese Board, then just a cheese shop, decided to sell the business to the employees, and consequently created a completely egalitarian, democratic model for the business. There are no "bosses," everyone is paid the same wage and gets an equal split of profits, and all decisions are made with equal say from all members of the "Collective"––it's a truly democratic and refreshingly un-capitalist notion of business, but one that does come with a bit of an attitude at the counter (like being in New York!).
In 1985 they had the idea to make pizzas (vegetarian, of course––this is Berkeley!) with their favorite cheeses from the shop and local produce, and never looked back. It's now a cult favorite place that regularly attracts a significant queue, and when they run out of pizza, they close for the day. When I debated, coached, and judged each year at at Berkeley, an epoch that stretched over ten years, I routinely made a pilgrimage to Cheese Board. Now they're open only a couple of evenings per week, and my later-than-expected return from wine country met me with a significant queue around the block, complete with Berkeley's ubiquitous activists trolling the line for petition signatures.
Each day they make one and only one kind of pizza, and are open until they run out––this evening's selection was made with local zucchini slices, onion, feta cheese, and arugula-hazelnut pesto. Not the most inspired of the pizzas I've eaten here over the years, but still super tasty, especially when dipped in some of their vegetal and spicy "green sauce" that seems to have become a staple in the years since I've visited. They also have added a salad option, also just one per day, which today was mixed greens, winter citrus, and olive-caper vinaigrette. A delicious salad that I had to eat in my hotel later because I couldn't find a fork at the counter and was too terrified to ask for one (as I might have mentioned, the communists are a little intense at the counter).
This pizza, purists might say (probably correctly), isn't really a "pizza" as much as it's a flatbread, with a thin crust that doesn't come to a crusty, charred embankment at the end. It's the hippie-dippy way of doing things atypically, though, that makes Berkeley (and Cheese Board) what it is. After acquiring my two slices, priced exactly proportionally to how much a full pie costs (egalitarian!), and assuming a spot with a local beer at their street-side tables, I chowed down and was amazed by how bright and lifted the slices were. The whole thing almost tasted like a garden––the zucchini was fresh and the feta tangy, while the pesto and their "green sauce" provided an even brighter backdrop. A springtime pizza!
While it can't touch the "Red, White, and Blue" pie I had here one Fourth of July with sun-dried tomatoes, sweet onions, and gorgonzola, this was yet another delicious recipe by the Cheese Board folks, one that I think, despite how different it is, might even please a New York pizza connoisseur. The sense of community here is really remarkable as well. Cal students, families with strollers and kids, and a diverse group of young professionals all made their way out to their neighborhood cult pizza spot to chow down and enjoy some beautiful Friday evening California weather.
L'Industrie is doubtless my new favorite pizza spot in New York City, which likely means it's the best pizza I've had in the country, but the nostalgia I hold for the communists at Cheese Board keeps drawing me back. Two very different pizzas in very different cities on very different coasts, and each with a remarkable story about their environs to tell. What else could you want from food?