Lovemaking at its best takes place in an endless present moment. Eating, however, is one of those rare human pleasures that, at its pinnacle, places us in the past, the present and the future all at the same time.
So swift and mysterious are the neural pathways created by food that it can even transport us to other people’s pasts. Lots of us who didn’t know a madeleine from a macaroon when we were growing up now experience the délices of a French childhood when we bite into the famous little shell-shaped cookies. Although the Paris of Marcel Proust is two centuries, a continent and an ocean away from us here in the Bay Area, madeleines have also become part of our children’s treasure trove of culinary memories.
Will Gioia, born and raised in Park Slope, Brooklyn, knows that food is memory’s skeleton key. That’s why this 32-year-old chef has chosen to take his first-rate culinary training, his experience in world-class restaurants both here and in France, and to concentrate it all into a tiny space on Hopkins Avenue in Berkeley with five stools at a granite counter, no tables and a war-horse of a pizza oven.
The grandson of immigrants from Sicily, Naples, France and Germany, Gioia—like so many others born with a culinary calling—says his fondest childhood memories are centered around food. “I learned family values in the kitchen—rolling out pie dough with Mom, making fresh pasta on the dining room table with Pop, stuffing ricotta cheese into pasta shells with Grandma and watching as Nanny [his maternal grandmother] made her impossibly tall lemon meringue pie,” says the honors graduate of Hyde Park, New York’s prestigious Culinary Institute of America. He got hooked as a teenager on the joys of entertaining cooking for friends and family side-by-side with his step-mother Laurie.
But Gioia says his best memory of all is of walking down to Seventh Avenue with his little sister Sascha and their friends to get a slice and a Coke. “I never got tired of it. In fact, it’s something I still do every time I visit Park Slope.”
But Brooklyn, as far as Gioia is concerned, is much too far away from Berkeley. He wanted to re-create the satisfactions of his childhood ritual, not only for himself and his wife Karen and their friends, but also for the children of Berkeley—children who have never been to Brooklyn and may never go there.
The space on Hopkins—formerly occupied by Magnani Poultry, which has moved to the larger space on the corner, across from Monterey Market—is ambling distance from King Middle School and Gay Austin Preschool. King is the site of Alice Waters’ famed Edible Schoolyard, an acre of organic garden with a bay view, where King students grow the produce for their cooking classes, study science and raise chickens. Kids at both schools, throughout the years, have made a point of stopping at the bakery on Hopkins for cookies—first in the company of their parents and then on their own.
“These kids know about good food,” says Gioia. “In great part thanks to Alice [Waters], they have sophisticated palates and an unusually high level of food awareness.”
The young chef, who tends his own organic garden in Berkeley, had a vision of creating a West Coast version of those beloved Brooklyn pizzas that would occupy a place of honor in the culinary memories of North Berkeley kids when they grow up. “I had this idea of a place where they could stop on their way home from school and buy a great slice. Or come back later to get a pie to take home for family dinner.”
Gioia has had stints cooking in France under the tutelage of Alain Llorca, at Oakland’s Oliveto, cooking elbow to elbow with celebrated chef-owner Paul Bertolli, at San Francisco’s Zuni Café with award-winning chef Judy Rogers and, finally, as executive chef at the short-lived but much loved Mazzini Trattoria in Berkeley. But all of his experience only crystallized his resolve to create food memories as strong and joyful as his own—not just for couples prepared to plunk down $70 for dinner, but for kids and their hardworking parents who want food that’s delicious, approachable, convenient and good value. “Fine dining on expense accounts, fusion and embellished food all have their place,” says Gioia. “But some of the best food and family memories are built on the simplest things.”
Like a sublimely perfect slice of pizza, hot from Will Gioia’s childhood memories of Brooklyn.
Starting May 19, Gioia Pizzeria will be open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. 1586 Hopkins St., Berkeley. 528-4692.
Berkeley author Barbara Quick is the mother of a sixth-grader at King Middle School who would be much too embarrassed if we mentioned his name here.