Every morning at 8 a.m., Pizzaiolo quietly opens its doors to a small morning crowd. If you know their faces, you'll recognize a handful of the East Bay's brightest literati gathering between the brick walls, scrawling new works into their leatherbound notebooks. It's at once a morning writers' hub, a point of reconnection for old friends, and a warm stop-in for coffee. Against the backdrop of a wood-burning pizza oven's warm glow, amid the whirling aromas of the kitchen crew's dinner prep, it's a romantic scene. Add to that the spot's famous buttermilk doughnut, and it's a magical morning spot.
We love the buttermilk doughnut, and we're hardly the only ones. The pastry is a perennial star of Oakland's favorite artisan pizza spot, counting even Michael Chabon among its fans. Despite the famous fandom, the doughnut stays popular in its own, very small way. It's wildly good, and keeps the precious charm of having stayed just under the whole city's doughnut radar. While we'd like to keep it that way, it's hard not to talk about.
The doughnut, conceived five years ago by Pizzaiolo pastry chef Kiri Mah, caught fire as a morning favorite the day it was born. Through the years, other doughnuts have come and gone, but the buttermilk stays.
"It made us popular really fast," says Mah. "It brought in the morning crowd. People came in asking for two dozen, but I only make that many." As such, most days the supply runs out fairly early.
For a doughnut, it's a rustic, fortifying thing. It falls into the cake school (compared to the cloudlike fluffiness of the yeasted variety), which makes for a dense but soft pastry. The rustic appeal comes partly from the small-batch process, which finds Mah hand-dipping each doughnut into a pot of rice bran oil, to be rolled in cinnamon sugar. The effect is a delightfully delicate crust, a thoroughly non-greasy feel, and the satisfaction of sugar's granular crunch wrapped around a bed of cake.
Buttermilk's lightly sour character does a bang-up job of adding depth and balancing out the sweet factor. Add a gibraltar, and you're set for the morning. Just make sure to get there early, and sometime soon. Come October, the buttermilk doughnut will take a short hiatus while a seasonal pumpkin-with-brown-butter version fills the spot.