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Thursday, January 30, 2014

East Bay Bite of the Week: Pizza with History at The Cheese Board Collective

Posted By on Thu, Jan 30, 2014 at 8:00 AM

The Cheese Board's single flavor-a-day system makes for rapid fire freshness. - MOLLY GORE
  • Molly Gore
  • The Cheese Board's single flavor-a-day system makes for rapid fire freshness.

When the Cheese Board came into being a million years ago, in 1967, the Gourmet Ghetto was still just the ghetto, and "California cuisine" didn't really mean anything yet. It began as a small cheese shop, and it's still a small cheese shop (with pizza), but in the meantime it catalyzed a food revolution, brought Alice Waters to the neighborhood, and pioneered a business model that is slowly becoming the next big thing.

See also: East Bay Bite of the Week: Sriracha-Honey Brussels Sprouts at Osmanthus

East Bay Bite of the Week: Southeast Asian Paella at Spice Monkey

East Bay Bite of the Week: Lunch at Farley's East

The Cheese Board became a cooperative in 1971, when the owners sold it to the employees with the hope of creating an entirely democratic workplace. The shop was breaking ground in other ways too, focusing on local cheeses (a novelty then) and fostering emotional connections between employees as part of a viable business model. That same year, Alice Waters opened Chez Panisse a few steps away, intending it to be as close in reality as it was in principle. Together, they partnered to grow the local foods movement, Waters plucking cheeses from the shop for her menu.

In '75, the Cheeseboard Collective branched out to bread baking, and introduced a strange foreign bread called the "baguette" to U.S. consumers. It caught on. In 1990, the collective opened up a pizza operation next door, founded on the same fresh and local principles, and the lines went out the door. Eventually, it began operating and incubating other cooperatives, launching everything from the famous Swallow Collective Café -- Ruth Reichl's old haunt -- to the Arizmendi Bakeries. Like some kind of rhizome bomb, progress and projects and the seeds of more than one movement exploded out of the Cheeseboard. More restaurants and shops snuck in around it until the whole of North Shattuck St. was booming with gourmet goodness.

Lucky days include a slivered lagniappe, or freebie. - MOLLY GORE
  • Molly Gore
  • Lucky days include a slivered lagniappe, or freebie.

So, yes. The Cheeseboard is kind of a heavyweight around here. But still, it's a small and dusty place, with the best pizza on this side of town. The set-up is unique, and the menu only one item long -- a single vegetarian pizza option. The toppings change every day, featuring whatever is in season with a rotating roster of cheeses. Think bell peppers, fennel, eggplant, cilantro pesto. Mozzarella and Montalban cheese. Pears and herbs. The pizzas are thin, a little doughy, outlined by lightly blistered crusts of slightly tangy sourdough. On a recent night, plump, hot heaps of crushed tomatoes, fennel, and French goat cheese made for an excellent slice. And don't forget to help yourself to the sharp green garlic sauce.

The pizza concept was an organic expansion, born from the staff's habit of making it for themselves, loading weird cheese on ripped off hunks of sourdough dough, and topping it with market vegetables from next door. And then, there's that slivered freebie (a lagniappe, for you Philistines), a byproduct of the one-flavor-a-day motto and its rapid fire freshness. If a fresh round comes out of the oven before the current one is finished, which it often does, that existing pie is cut into slivers and thrown on servings of the fresh pie for free, without a breath of lag time. It's a tiny bit of goodwill and honesty, a throwback to the principles that make the cheeseboard great: democracy and a commitment to good, fresh food.

On most days at peak hours, there's a live band holding down the house, featuring everything from jazz to Chuck Berry covers to funk to keep you rollicking while waiting in line -- a small concession to make for the taste of your own town's roots.

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Molly Gore


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