new year, new pizza

TLDR: order Carbona pizza.

And here’s why:

We eat a lot of pizza. I grew up in a pizza town, and I mean, what town isn’t a pizza town? Do Americans grow up in cities that don’t care about pizza? I feel like everyone has their favorite pizza. Whether its a nice, thin New York slice, a sink-your-teeth-in Chicago pie, our fresh california style — or even, god forbid - St Louis pizza with that awful thin cracker-like crust and provel cheese - people have preferences and are extremely passionate about their pizza (even if their favorite pizza is terrible).

To get through the last year, we had a few tried and trusted pizzas in the rotation, but I’m always sort of flirting around on Caviar and Doordash, trying to find something new and exciting to fill that endless void for comfort food and I finally found it. And holy crap, did I find it.

Photo credit Remy Anthes

I almost overlooked this too. I’m sure you all know Grand Lake Kitchen - it’s a mainstay restaurant on the lake, with reliable salads and the such, plus in the olden days they had a regular line out the door for brunch on the weekends. And the restaurant was doing great, so in the before-times, the GLK team opened up a new spot in Dimond in Oakland. It was a promising sign for the neighborhood restaurant scene to get a beloved spot like GLK. But once the pandemic hit, the team knew they would need another concept beyond their dependable fare to propel them through the pandemic and they had a hunch that in these trying times, pizza is what the people need. So they put their heads together and created a new Detroit-style pizza concept that you won’t know you were missing until you take your first bite.

There haven’t been a lot of reasons to go to Detroit for the last fifty years, so for those of you who are unfamiliar, let me catch you up. Detroit is a rust-belt city like the one I grew up in. Rust-belt cities like Buffalo, Cleveland, St Louis, etc, were once all very important and vibrant cities during the industrial revolution - but they eventually suffered considerable population loss and decline as factories shuttered in the middle of the last century. There’s a whole magazine dedicated to the region, aptly named Belt that can tell you more about it if you’re curious.

In these cities, food is a cultural centerpiece and while nowadays many of these rustbelt cities are making a comeback and have great chefs offering sophisticated fare - the things that people still depend on and associate with these places are hearty dishes that stick to your bones and help folks get through the unforgiving winters. When it comes to iconic regional dishes, Buffalo has its chicken wings and “beef on ‘weck”, Rochester, New York has a not-too-far-from-how-it-sounds ‘garbage plate’, you can find filling foods like corned beef and potato pierogis in a few Ohio cities and of course, the gluttonous Pittsburgh deli sandwiches overflowing with coleslaw and french fries (for the curious and uninitiated, you can try one at Giordano bros in SF).

Meanwhile, on the midwestern pizza front you have the very heavy Chicago pizza which made its way around the globe, in part, thanks to the “Uno” franchise, and here in the east bay we have pretty good access to our own local Chicago-style pizza with Zachary’s, Patxis and Little Star. Yet Detroit style pizza, while also an extremely filling pizza-commitment, is still the lesser known, unsung pizza hero that still hasn’t quite had its moment in the sun.

Most pizza in California has origins in the style of pizza from Naples, Italy (Napoletana) - which is usually relatively flat, soft, chewy and topped with fresh ingredients. Detroit style pizza on the other hand takes inspiration from the southern Sicilian pizza styles and is very thick and baked in sheet pans with a focaccia-like dough - which is more bread-y than pizza-y. This type of pizza is often called sfincione (which translates roughly to ‘thick sponge’) which should further illustrate the texture for you. The pizza is often cut into squares and/or rectangles.

In Detroit, they Americanized their own version of Sicilian square pizza and also baked their dough in sheet pans - but the pans they used were supposedly used for factory auto parts, because, well, Detroit is ‘the motor city’. And then they Americanized it even further by adding lots and lots of cheese from Wisconsin that pours over the edges and creates a satisfying, salty crisp.

Historically, the best places to find a square-type slice here in the bay were at the long-standing Golden Boy in North Beach and more recently Square Pie Guys - but otherwise it’s been pretty quiet here on the 90 degree angle pizza front. Which is why I was so thrilled when I stumbled upon Carbona pizza on my evening Caviar scroll. Carbona pizza is the Detroit-style pizza we didn’t know we were waiting for.

Photo credit Remy Anthes

Eating and falling in love with this pizza reminded me of how weak my grasp of language is. Its hard for me to really tell you what makes this pizza so good. I mean, sure, I could tell you that it’s the kind of pizza that you need to carry with both hands. It’s the kind of pizza that upon first sight, raises your eyebrows and lets you know you might not have needed to order a dessert, but you will anyway.

Its the thick dough; focaccia-like, bubbly, greasy, and satisfying. The sauce has the right amount of sweetness and tang without overpowering the salt of the cheese. The textures alternate from chewy to crunchy in the most fulfilling way. But like finding love, no words can quite do a good pizza justice. It’s why musicians and artists spend lifetimes chasing the words to articulate that flutter in the heart.

And not everyone falls in love the same way. I referred a few others to Carbona to make sure it wasn’t just me - that I wasn’t just mad with pandemic-boredom; that any sense of novelty coupled with nostalgic familiarity would be enough to hook me - but I am not alone. Though, to my chagrin, one person said it was just ‘good’ the first time they had it, but then they quickly found themselves craving it and ordered it many more times since.

The ‘thick brick’ is Carbona’s standard 10 x 14 pizza that will easily feed a family of four. I get mine with pepperoni and pepperoncini because if you’ve been reading this newsletter for any amount of time, you know when it comes to comfort foods, I’m like a feminine, slightly-more sophisticated Guy Fieri with the flavor dial turned up to max setting.

When designing the menu, the team at Carbona likewise seemed to have a bit of a ‘f*ck it, 2020’ sort of attitude and really just went for it, much to my indulgent sense of delight. Whether it’s the thick panko-battered mozzarella ‘styx’ or the deep fried ravioli - a nod to head chef Dave Wasem’s hometown of St. Louis and their locally famous toasted ravs - the team spares no gluttony. The appetizers are accompanied by a fresh dill ranch-like dipping sauce that is thick, tangy and utterly addictive and I would highly recommend ordering a side for your pizza. Even the ‘vicious’ salad brings a burst of flavor with a tasty balsamic and crispy prosciutto.

Carbona has a handful of creative pizza options like an ala vodka pizza with anchovies, the “Thick Courtney” which features a vegan cheese, broccoli rabe, olives and mushrooms, and the “Thick Eddie” topped with a Burmese peanut and garlic crunch. They even go so far as to offer a sacrilege Hawaiian Detroit pizza (the “Thick Mahalo”), which I cannot endorse in good faith, but who am I to stop you from living your dreams?

For non-pizza folks, they feature spaghetti squash pizza bowls, plus lots of fun and delicious GLK cocktails, beer, wine, frozen drinks and house-made desserts like hard-packed soft-serve sundaes.

The one treat that caught me by surprise is the very rare Dole Whip. Dole Whip is a dairy-free, soft-serve, pineapple-flavored, ice-cream-like indulgence that I subsisted on every summer as a child. Disney fanatics associate it with the Enchanted Tiki Room - but its also popular in both St. Louis and Buffalo. It’s so beloved and otherwise hard-to-find that Disney even released the recipe while everyone was sheltering in place.

Between the pizza and the dole whip, my experience with Carbona was sort of like that scene in Ratatouille when the mean, old restaurant critic takes a bite of the title dish and is transported directly back to his childhood and then changes his life forever.

So whether its the pizza, the dill sauce, or the desserts, Carbona Pizza is the pizza place that will get you through the pandemic winter.

Pick up at 2042 Macarthur blvd in Dimond or nab delivery via Caviar or Doordash.

And in other east bay food news:

  • 🌯Senor Sisig, a Filipino fusion restaurant and home of my all-time favorite California burrito now has a to-go window at 1628 Webster near Grand Lake. Be sure to stop by or find them on Caviar to get a burrito or their Sisig fries.

  • 🍞Alice Waters and co are serving breakfast at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, first come, first serve.

  • 🌯A new Jordanian restaurant Shawarmaji secured a more permanent home after operating as a pop-up out of Forage Kitchen. The Chronicle’s Soleil Ho loves their spit-roasted shawarma and garlic sauce - plus they have great pickles and they’ll put fries in your wrap, which I naturally support.

  • 🌺There’s an adorable new Hawaiian bakery called Ono Bakehouse on Martin Luther King Blvd in Berkeley. They’re known for their Queen Emma cake but let me also suggest the butter mochi. And if you like spam musubi, this is your place. The coffee is good too!

What restaurants are getting you through the winter? Write us!