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Oakland’s Pizza Philosopher

Pizzaiolo's Charlie Hallowell is a markedly philosophical pizza-maker. His casual, wood-fired pizza restaurant in the Temescal neighborhood serves pies topped with seasonal ingredients like wild nettles or Monterey Bay squid, crisp well-made salads, and great drinks. He chatted with us about how an ideal restaurant vibe transcends commerce and just feels like a party, how pizza-making is a metaphor for life, and how young'uns who want to open a restaurant better sit down and have a clear vision for every aspect of it if they want to be successful.

How did Pizzaiolo come to be?
I cooked at Chez Panisse for five years, and then decided to go back to school. So I was working nights at the [Chez Panisse] café and going to school, and I had a fantasy of a restaurant, this vision that kept plaguing me. I was like, "All right, I'm going to give myself six months, and if I can at least get the ball rolling, then I'm going to do it. If I can't, then I'm going to do whatever it is English majors do." The vision just kept getting clearer. This is part of the big deal with narrative: construction of reality through it. In my experience the more clearly I envision a space, it's much more likely that it will actually become a place in the material world.

So many people I know come to me and say, "I want your advice on starting a restaurant. How do you write your business plan? How did you find your investors? Blah blah blah." I say, "Dude, you need to sit down and you need to write a 20-page essay that totally articulates what your vision is. What's it going to smell like? What music are you going to play? What are the benches going to look like that people sit on? What's the floor going to be? Totally articulate the space and it will become a real space."

How close is Pizzaiolo to the 20-page essay you had in your head about it?
I didn't understand this before, but once you manifest the thing and it starts to take shape in the world, it becomes an autonomous thing. I wanted Pizzaiolo to be 4 employees, 30 seats, a big wood-fired oven. And I wanted to make pizza five nights a week, hang out with my kids, and live in the building the restaurant was in. A lot of these things came to pass at Pizzaiolo. But this space was bigger than I wanted. I had been looking for locations for a year, and it was instant. There was so much mojo here. It had been a neglected hardware store for 80 years. Right away you could just tell it was magical.

People often credit Pizzaiolo with revitalizing the neighborhood. Is that true?
No, it wasn't us. It was Doña Tomás. There was nothing here when they opened; [owners] Tom [Schnetz] and Dona [Savitsky] were brave. I remember all the Chez Panisse cooks came down to check it out, and we were all like, "Whoa, expensive Mexican food on Telegraph in Oakland? That's not going to work." But that place is awesome.

What do you want people to experience when eating at Pizzaiolo?
It's hard in the world we are in now to remember to just shut up and sit down, and actually serve and be served by other human beings. The restaurant is a space where there is still an opportunity for these really raw human interactions.

For me, the only way I can actually serve someone properly is for them to get to a place where they relinquish control of the experience to me—which means I have to put them at ease. I just want them to be like, "Yeah, this is incredible, this place feels so good, serve me whatever you want, play whatever music you want, I just want to sit here and let you take care of me." The minute you achieve that there is so much room for connection. There is so much room to smother that person with love, to give them great service, to wine and dine them, to let them experience a kind of united expansion.

Is it easier to do that in Oakland since it already has a great sense of community?
There are remarkable people in Oakland. I love Oakland. I have lived in the Bay Area for almost 20 years, and for the longest time I felt this lack of a kind of united movement. And I feel like that's changing, in Oakland especially. It's one of the only places in the country where you can go out and there is this authentically diverse—racially diverse, socioeconomically diverse—unity. Of course, it's not always unity—there is still a ton of racism in Oakland and a ton of segregation, there is no getting around that. But you go to downtown Oakland on a Friday night and you feel like you are in a Benetton ad. There's so many beautiful people of every color, you can't believe it. And they are all partying together.

Why do you think pizza makers are often so philosophical?
There's a lot of pizza philosophers; they go hand in hand. Pizza is a completely dynamic process. There is no static element. I think we live in a society where people are dead set on finding as many static resting places as possible because we've been convinced the dynamic experience is exhausting. It is harder. I make the same dough every day, and every day it's different. The fire is never the same. You work with it.

We heard you also do some charitable stuff out of Pizzaiolo.
We do the soup kitchen, which up until now, admittedly, has been nothing but a failure. The hordes of homeless people I thought would be pouring into Pizzaiolo to get their free soup with good music playing and get served, don't. We get, like, 15 homeless guys and 50 Oakland hipsters who want a bowl of soup for five bucks. If homeless people come in, we give them a bowl of soup for free and some bread. We want to open a nice space and serve people nice food in a nice bowl with a nice spoon. I've been to a lot of church soup kitchens, and it's not that inspiring. It's great—if you are hungry, you are hungry and need some food. But I also think poor hungry people deserve to get their soup in a nice bowl sometimes. It's like, "You are a human being; sit in a comfortable chair and eat some soup."