It wasn’t Charlie Hallowell’s intention to open a restaurant that would convert into a coffee shop in the mornings. He just wanted a cup of coffee.
The restaurant, Pizzaiolo, sits unobtrusively on a busy stretch of Telegraph Avenue, the newly hip Temescal Alley its backdoor neighbor. At times the line from the impressively popular Bakesale Betty’s stretches from its perch on the corner of 51st past the small wooden sign that bears Pizzaiolo’s name. As a restaurant, Pizzaiolo is a rare hybrid—the type of thoughtful, local spot that prepares a level of food, surprisingly lacking in pretentiousness, that’s found popularity from both locals and foodies alike.
When the space opened in 2006, Hallowell—the owner of other local Oakland favorites Penrose and Boot & Shoe Service—wanted coffee in the mornings, so he bought an espresso machine. It meant he’d have coffee at arm’s reach while preparing for the restaurant’s increasingly busy dinner service. After awhile, an assortment of his friends started showing up, ostensibly to catch up with the busy Hallowell, but more and more to enjoy a shot from his two-group La Marzocco espresso machine. At some point, as Pizzaiolo Cafe Manager Aviv Gerber told us, “someone had an idea to make doughnuts on the weekends and eventually there was enough of a following that Charlie decided to open up in the morning.” Now, almost ten years later, Pizzaiolo is open and serving Four Barrel coffee, as well as fresh-baked bread and pastries six days a week, 8:00 a.m. to 12:00 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
The Temescal neighborhood of Oakland, in that very typically Oakland way, is at once bustling—the constant rush of cars, the small parade of people marching up and down the sidewalks—and yet calmly residential. The commercial hubbub feels LIKE more of an extension of the surrounding residential neighborhood then anything else. Inside Pizzaiolo, with its exposed brick and warmly glowing burnished hardwoods, a similar feeling exists, as if the residual energy of Hallowell and his friends had long ago morphed and evolved into a communal living room for the neighborhood. Gerber’s dog, Maude, can be spotted most mornings shyly asking for a pet from her favorite customers. “It’s actually a neighborhood spot,” Gerber tells me, and not some pre-fabricated intentional vibe.
Stand in line for even a minute and this becomes apparently clear. It isn’t that the baristas can predict drink orders, or what pastry a customer might prefer (they can and do), it’s how conversations jump back-and-forth between the baristas and seemingly every customer. These chats don’t feel like small talk in the service of selling coffee; they feel like a very extended friend group catching up day-after-day. “It’s organic,” Gerber tells me, Maude and the others looking on. “It’s magical.”
If you drop by, and you should, maybe you won’t have time to plop down at one of the tables and bask in the rectangles of morning light that spill over the front of the space while sharing a couple of doughnut holes with a friend. Maybe you’ll be in a rush, and you’ll miss the opportunity to sidle up to the bar with a cappuccino and talk casually with one of the baristas hustling behind the counter. You might only have enough time to wait in line, amongst the chatter of friends, new and old, the smell of fresh-baked bread wafting between you, and grab a coffee before heading back into the fray of your busy life. This place does quick service just fine, but it’s in the lingering moments, in the ongoing hearth-warmed dialogues, where coffee in the morning at Pizzaiolo really shines.
In the words of Gerber, “We want to be a sledgehammer of love. We want this to be a soulful place for people to gather.” And it is.