This past week I made a trip out to the San Francisco Bay Area to see for the first time one area of the country I’ve never heard a single complaint about. Having failed, during my 3 hour layover in the Philly airport, to find a restaurant/bar that had both a free table by an outlet and decent food, I arrived at San Francisco International 8 hours later having not eaten anything all day. The traveler friend I was meeting there had also not had much and was equally famished. Cradling rumbling stomachs in the car ride over, we both crossed our fingers that by the time we got to the apartment of one of my best friends from college and host for the week he would have some sort of edibles ready. “If he’s a good guy….” she mused aloud with a demanding, Belgian-accented voice.
We got to the house and lugged our suitcases to the front door, where we were greeted by my smily friend, reuniting for the first time in 3 years with a big hug. As he ushered us in, he told us that he had something waiting for us. He had ordered dinner from his favorite pizza place in Berkeley, Zachary’s Chicago Pizza. Obviously very sentimental about this restaurant, he explained that during our college years on the frigid East Coast he would come to miss their pizza so much that each time his parents picked him up at the airport on visits home to sunny California, they would bring him a slice to the airport. Kind of like me and my mom’s spanakopita feta-spinach-phyllo triangles. While he told his story, I took a peak under the covers and was deeply satisfied by what I saw staring back at me. A Chicago-style stuffed pizza with plenty of red, and a thinner cheese with great blisters scattered across it.
Normally, I have quite the aversion to doughy, thick pizzas and prefer, 99% of the time, something more flatbread-like in construction. I also normally don’t go for Prego-y red sauce as it is one of the central pillars of American-Italian cuisine which I don’t have too much faith in anymore. But after an all-day trip, with nothing in my stomach but half digested Bloody Mary Mix, a hearty pie of bread, tomato and cheese was really all I craved. Something to appease the hunger pangs, the ferociously bubbling stomach acids more than ready to digest some stuff. A frosty, hydrating, almost too well carbonated pale ale right from the bottle was the ideal pairing. One look at my travel buddy was enough to know our host had won all sorts of approval.
The stuffed pizza was the Chicken Special, with plump, tender little chunks of baked chicken breast and mushrooms, a healthy amount of gooey, stretchy mozz and a layer of slightly chunky tomato sauce. The latter was definitely one of the better red sauces I’ve had, packed with garlic and a ton of basil; a lively, even slightly spicy flavor, far from the watered down sweetness I’ve come to expect of this layer. If I’m not mistaken, there was actually an additional layer of dough separating this powerful red from the rest of the ingredients. The crust was buttery crisp on the bottom and topped by the cheese, chicken and juicy mushrooms all blended to form the filling, followed by a slightly chewy, thin middle layer of dough and then the sauce over the top. The separation of filling from sauce resulted in each maintaining its own characteristics, instead of the sauce overpowering the more mild chicken and mushrooms. The crust browned to a beautiful buttery gold around the outside of the pie, making it tough to leave behind, even after wolfing down a whole triangle of the hearty pie. Definitely not something I would nosh on during a night out with the ladies but a pretty ideal welcome dinner for a starved traveler.
The Thin Cheese Pizza was also good and I appreciated my friend ordering one of each type of Zachary’s. The ratio of dough to cheese was okay and the quality of the mozzarella-provolone mix was nice, baked to a bubbly, gooey consistency. There was only a very thin layer of their signature tomato sauce which did not overpower the mild flavors of the cheese. As with all cheese pizzas it was a bit too plain for me and the dough could have been just a bit thinner and less tough to chew. It did, however, definitely hit the spot as breakfast the next morning and a late night snack the following night, which are equally important roles of a cheese pizza.
While looking up some fun facts about the Oakland-based Zachary’s later on, I learned that the restaurant is unique in that it implements an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP), whereby employees can acquire stock in the company, motivating them to work as if they were owners (which they technically are). Designed as an alternative way to transfer ownership of the company when founder Zach Zachowski and his wife went into retirement, the program is also a way to ensure a high standard in quality of their pizzas.
Judging by my slices, they’re definitely doing something right. A great intro to a week of good eats in SF and the Bay Area.