Out to Lunch
by Richard Eber
One of my favorite comfort foods is pizza. Whether the pepperoni dance when being cooked, the dough is artistically flipped, or be deemed “the last honest pizza” is of little consequence to me. When eating this Italian specialty bread, pure enjoyment is my only objective. All this dressed up Italian specialty bread offers us is a tasty culinary experience with family and friends.
If the truth be known, in general, there is not a significant difference between franchise quality pizza put out by likes of Mountain Mike’s, Round Table, Domino’s, Papa John’s, etc. These pizza places and almost all local family-run operations are using similar canned sauces, cheese, dough, Italian meats, olives, artichokes, and other components in making America’s favorite semi-fast food.
Locally, there is one restaurant that puts out a superior product. It is a small bakery-café called 54 Mint Il Forno, 1686 Locust St. in Walnut Creek. It is the brainchild of Claudio and Daniele who operated a white tablecloth restaurant of the same name at Treat and Oak Grove for several years. Their current Italian rendition is much more informal.
Outside of operating a coffeehouse-like destination in the morning, 54 Mint serves lunch and dinner featuring pasta, salads, and pizza that is unlike any in the region. Their decorated flatbread is unique having its culinary roots trace back to Naples, Italy; the very region credited for being the origin of this dish American’s have embraced so much.
What makes 54 Mint so much different from their competitors? To start with they use an imported flour blend from Italy. This is combined with yeast and salt that is raised into small units about the size of tennis balls. From there Chef Roberto stretches the dough into an oval shape. Rice flour is used underneath to make sure the crust is thin and light.
For tomato-based pizzas, Roberto uses small amounts of his house-made sauce. Fresh Roma tomatoes are peeled and cooked for several hours. They are then pureed with garlic, herbs, and olive oil to provide a taste that canned sauce (no matter how much doctored) can duplicate
54 Mint imports Italian sausage, mozzarella, burrata, prosciutto, salami and other Italian meats used for the toppings of their pizza. My favorite, called Norcina, uses fresh cremini mushrooms, truffle pecorino, and sausage on a white dough base.
Naturally, for all of 54 Mints offerings, a small drizzle of Italian extra virgin olive oil is poured on top of the pizza right before they enter a 650° oven for about four minutes. The end result is perfection. Each bite is full of different flavors.
With 54 Mint, it is all about taste. If one is interested in volume and the amount of ingredients that can fit on top of the crust, there are several restaurants in the area (which feature plentiful coupons) that specialize in weight per square inch. For me, the flavor profile at this establishment fits my pallet as do their fine Italian wines. One must make the dining experience complete.
This is not to say 54 Mint has a monopoly on a satisfying pizza experience in the area. One place that goes unnoticed by many is the E. J. Phair Brewery in Pittsburgh. Their brick oven pizzas use only high-quality cheese, produce, and meats and is pleasantly washed down with their home-brewed beers. Having limited refrigeration in the facility makes using fresh ingredients a necessity. Or, as Martha Stewart might say, “This is a good thing”.
Another quality Italian pizza favorite is Bambino’s in Concord. Located on Farm Bureau Road in Concord, it’s respectable crust and toppings can go toe to toe with the better pizza restaurants in the area, including Rocco’s, Pinky’s, and Sorrento’s in Walnut Creek.
Mello’s receives its fair share of raves as does Zachary’s Chicago Pizza. Both are in Pleasant Hill. Like its cousins in Oakland and Berkeley, Zachary’s is famous for their calzones, which is basically pizza toppings cooked inside a large pocket of dough. While several places have tried to replicate what Zachary’s does so well, no one else seems to be able to get this delicious meal right.
But as they say, it’s a big world out there for pizza lovers. Each of us likes what we think is a slice of paradise!