A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Pizza To Die For

Whenever New Yorkers get together in the Bay Area, they always complain about how much better the pizza was back home.
That's pretty arrogant, but these are New Yorkers, after all. (You got a problem wid dat?) And in this case, they have a point. If you've never tasted New York pizza, you haven't lived. Jon Stewart is right about that.
Well, I have good news for all you transplanted Gothamites: There is one place that sells the real thing. But it's so tiny, it's easy to miss.
It's an unpretentious hole in the wall called Arinell Pizza, located right on top of the downtown Berkeley BART station. It's so authentic, they serve the slices on waxed paper, just like in the Big Apple.
It all started 40 years ago, when Ron Dermijian, who was teaching elementary school in New York, came out here to visit some friends. One night, they said, "Wanna have some pizza?"
They took him to a well-known local pizzeria, and he was underwhelmed.
"It was very mediocre. They told me, 'This is as good as it gets,' so I thought, 'If I brought authentic New York pizza out here, it could be a big hit.'"
Problem was, he knew nothing about making pizza. So when he got back to New York he made a beeline for his favorite pizzeria, Carolina Pizza at the corner of Nicholas Avenue and 181st Street in upper Manhattan, and made the owner an offer he couldn't refuse: "If you teach me how to make pizza, I'll work here for free."
The guy was wary at first, "but after he finally believed I wasn't going to open up a place right across the street from him, he agreed. He taught me how to make it just like they do in Rome."
On February 15, 1975, Ron and a friend named Larry went into partnership and opened Arinell Pizza in Berkeley. (The name is a phonetic spelling of their initials: R and L.) It was a hit from the start – so much so, Ron was able to buy Larry out within a couple of years, although he kept the name.
"I've never wavered from the recipe, which I was encouraged to do because Californians want their food Californicated," he says. "Pizza is best served plain, with maybe one or two toppings, max."
That means nothing exotic like pineapple (ugh!). "People are constantly asking for it," he says, "and I once gave in and bought a case of pineapple, which is as cheap as pepperoni. But I still couldn't bring myself to put it on the pizza, as hard as I tried, so I finally threw it out."
But even more important than the toppings – or, in this case, the lack therof – is the crust, and Arinell's is sheer perfection: crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, with just the right amount of chewiness. It's enough to make grown men weep. And his grateful customers reward him by coming back over and over again.
"It's humbling," he says. "In New York City, every corner has two pizza places – an OK place and a good place," he says. "All I ever wanted to do was be the good place. Who would have imagined all the attention we've gotten here? We've become iconic."

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