I relish reviewing pizza. Any regular reader knows that this is probably my most common theme. Last year's onslaught of Neapolitan joints doesn't seem to be slowing in twenty-ten. Bring it on. Emelia's is a bit of an enigma. Yelpers just love it. Best they ever had. Gives Berkeley some serious bragging rites as a pizza powerhouse (adding to Arinelle and [uggh] Zachary's). There's a lot of mystery around the place. It's got odd hours and a rigid ordering process. In fact, they suggest you call ahead to reserve your pizza, requiring you choose your toppings at that time. They seem like very nice people, yet I sense an underlying Soup Nazi vibe...Still, there's a preciousness about it all.
The location is a little odd, a non-descript gas-station corner at Shattuck and Ashby. It's the sort of corner I've driven past countless times, but never had cause to stop. There's a gaggle of businesses that may or may not have included a laundromat, a taqueria, a cheesesteak place, a salon...The interior looks like a tiny East Coast slice joint (yet there are a couple of signs touting No Slices [For You]). One might say it's a bit of a hole in the wall, but I suspect if the mojo keeps going, and the owner is able to figure out a business model, they might ride a wave to better digs.
But really we're here for the pizza and Emelia's is an interesting bird. The construct defies any traditional stereotypes. It's not Neapolitan, though has influences. It's not New York style, though clearly has similarities. In a subtle way, Emelia's is defining it's own category. This presents me with a bit of a quagmire, because I cannot review it based upon references and drop into any hierarchy.
The 18" pie is the only choice with some straightforward toppings. The owner is very coy about his secrets, which I found a little unnecessary. I inquired about tomatoes and cheese and got nada. Even the best pizzaiolos are confident enough to share their ingredients. Hell, in Naples the law dictates the ingredients - it's no secret. The size is much more akin to New York style, yet the crust, thickness and toppings are clearly closer to Neapolitan.
The sauce was my least favorite part, though it was not bad. To me it could have been a little sweeter - it reminded me of Flour + Water on my first visits, which they subsequently worked out well. The cheese was outstanding and the crust was spot on, bottom to edge. There were brilliant bubbles from the oven and a little bit of the chewy, crunchy balance I like. The cheese was a fresh mozzarella variety, not quite as runny as a typical burrata, but close. A smattering of basil leaves were scattered about.
So, how to rank this? I'm jaded because I love the Neapolitan and New York forms unto themselves. They provide a great reference point. I don't think it stands up to the best of the best of the best. The owner spent time working for Pizzaiolo, but I think Charlie still takes top billing in the East Bay. Arinelle still nails the [inconsistent] title of proper NY slice in my book. But there is a solid place in the second tier for Emelia's. I can see craving it, which surprises me. This would be a GREAT party pie, as you get the flavor of Naples but the size of New York. Order a few, but call early.
Lastly, I gained some insight into the owner's strategy after happening upon a poetry slam at a dive bar up the street. He was packing up and I asked him about the name. His young daughter is Emelia. He's working his butt off to keep the quality high and churn out as many pizzas as he can, without missing out too much on her developmental years. As a dad, I get that. It makes sense for the odd hours and limited quantity. I wish him the best to scale his idea, hire some solid staff and capitalize on some damn good pizza.