For some time, East Oakland's restaurant offerings have been dominated by Southeast Asian kitchens, filling residents' bellies with Banh Mi, pho, and pad thai. But with the contentious influx of new Oakland residents, and swiftly changing face of Oakland, it should perhaps be no surprise that a lonely stretch of 14th Avenue has a new, brightly painted New York-style pizzeria with neat umbrellas lining the sidewalk out front — Philomena.
Warren Rector, the owner of Lake Merritt's ever-popular beer garden, Portal, set his sights on the spot because he once lived in the area. "Living around the corner, there was no place to get brunch or pizza, and coming from New York, I'd always wanted to open a pizzeria."
Philomena's website declares the restaurant an "new Oakland classic." And the menu does feel classic, with its combination of West and East Coast sensibilities. It sticks to the crowd-pleasers one typically finds in an old school, New York style joint: thin-crust pizzas, cheesesteaks, and a few rib-sticking comfort food standards thrown in for good measure. In that sense, it's all-American, red-blooded, and straightforward. But many of its dishes are also kissed with the locally common delicacies that Bay Area residents have long been enamored with — think arugula, pork belly, heirloom tomatoes, and gem lettuces. The menu went straight for my weak spots.
A Philomena pizza can be a delicate thing. Baked in what must be an extremely hot deck oven, the pizzas are thin and crunchy, with toppings sparingly distributed. Each bite held my interest with something different: a bright smear of tomato sauce, a bit of meat, or a crisp blister on the dough, lacquered with fried cheese. The soppressata offered at happy hour was a clear winner for me. The soppressata (an Italian dry salami) was sliced translucent, and ruffled and crispy at its edges from a quick rendering in the oven, speaking right to my eight year-old, pepperoni pizza-loving heart.
The pork-belly pizza spoke less. The oven did wonderful things to the pork belly — the crust was roasted in pig fat in some places, which is a rare thing in my book — but the dish isn't for everyone. The pork belly, together with the roasted potato, gave it a slightly sweet profile, balanced by a green garlic pesto and pungent bites of blue cheese scattered throughout. It reminded me of a BBQ chicken pizza — something that some gravitate towards and others are repelled by.
For the most part, though, there were more hits than misses. Even the seemingly pedestrian chicken parmesan sandwich had its thrills. The soft roll accentuated the crispness of the chicken's crust, and with every bite, the mozzarella stretched, as it might in a fried mozzarella stick.
A more exciting sandwich all around was The Dubs, filled with pork belly, a fried egg, several slices of pork loin, and a grain mustard aioli. The toasted baguette was soft enough to easily bite through, and though the sandwich sounded like it might be over-the-top, all the ingredients harmonized well — like a super tasty, meaty breakfast sandwich.
The Philomena Cheesesteak was also worth the indulgence. It went down easily, with beef bathed in a sharp cheddar cheese sauce and sweet roasted peppers. The accompanying house-made potato chips were like a cherry on a sundae, or the umbrella in a drink — unnecessary but wonderful. The remarkably thin chips nearly crumbled in my mouth, yet were full of potato flavor, and not in the least bit greasy.
Some of the starters, served alone, could easily feed one, or perhaps two mildly hungry people. I'd go straight for the mac and cheese. Everything in it was on point: The pasta was al dente, tossed in a creamy sauce that's as cheesy as a goldfish cracker; the mushrooms were roasted until chewy and intense; and fava beans leant their tonifying flavor. My baser cravings were satisfied by the crumbly-crisp pancetta bits, so well-rendered that they almost tasted like the crunchy fried cheese that laces Philomena's pizza crusts.
I had mostly pleasant feelings about the hanger steak, topped with fried onions and a mild horseradish sauce, dripping onto a bed of kennebec potato fries that were more on the soft side. It was seared to a remarkable crunch. But even when we requested it medium rare, it would come out on the medium side, and it lacked that bloody tang I like a steak to have.
The salads I had were solid — particularly the gem lettuce Caesar, whose flavors were clear and direct. The lemony vinaigrette shone, the anchovy was chopped into a rough dice, and gratings of parmesan cheese feathered the whole thing. Every golden crouton tasted like it was steeped in olive oil. And there was nothing wrong with Philomena's simple heirloom tomato salad, which featured firm, meaty slabs of tomatoes paired with a cloud-like burrata.
Quiet and faded as its location may be, Philomena doesn't feel that way inside. With paper towels on each wide, communal table, chalkboard walls, and leisurely service, the restaurant is a polished yet casual place that could easily accommodate a family of four, or a cadre of sports-loving beer drinkers. The beers on tap and the bottles in the refrigerator case are similar to what you might find at Portal — Allagash, Stone, Faction, and Russian River, the usual suspects. And even though it has three flat screen televisions, they're set up high enough to not be intrusive.
According to Rector, the place is packed when a game is on, but on a regular night, I've found it to be relaxed. On the occasion when my party came with a baby, the servers worked with us to make sure our evening's pace suited the needs of a new mom. The accommodating character of the place may have something to do with its prices, which are generally not cheap. A fourteen-dollar sandwich is a bit steep — even if it does includes high-quality ingredients. It would likely be a gut-twister for the neighborhood's less moneyed residents.
The most reasonable option is during happy hour: $9 for two slices and a pint. But happy hour only runs from 3pm–5pm — people with regular nine-to-fives are out of luck. Beyond happy hour, some residents may find it hard to go bigger than a pint and a four-dollar plate of garlic parmesan knots.
Neighborhood changes notwithstanding, the place wants a crowd. So says the 48-ounce porterhouse special served on Fridays, intended for between two and four people. So does the bouncing music. Philomena has all the potential of being the fun, lively neighborhood go-to spot. That is, if Rector chose the right neighborhood.