After the clock strikes midnight in Oakland, there's no shortage of tacos, burritos, or won ton noodle soup. But one of the most classic of late-night foods — pizza by the slice — was hard to find in Oakland during the wee hours. Enter Graffiti Pizza, which opened in Old Oakland in October.
"The trend has become to do a very artisan-style pizza, whether it be a nice wood-fired, artistic this-and-that ... you can't really go and get a good slice at a good price," said Matt Molina, Graffiti Pizza's head pizza chef.
Molina's certainly no newcomer to the world of pizza. He began making New York-style pizza at the age of 17 in his hometown of Tuscon, Arizona. In 2012, he moved to San Francisco to work as head pizza maker at Tony Gemignani's Chicago-style pizza outpost, Capo's. In 2014, he competed for the first time at the International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas and took first place in the pan division against several hundred other contestants. In a Chopped-style competition, he then took first place against all the other first-place division winners, taking home the title of 2014's Pizza Maker of the Year. In 2016, he beat out three other previous pizza makers of the year, winning the Best of the Best challenge. His three trophies are proudly displayed on the wall behind the counter at Graffiti Pizza.
Of course, the real test of Molina's pizza-making expertise is the pizza. A lover of art and music, Molina likes to be equally creative with pizza. Slice offerings change from day to day, even hour by hour — and you may never see the same combo of toppings twice. The whole pizzas you'll find on the menu range from the classic to the creative, playing with different flavor and color combinations. Some have called Molina's moderately thin-crust pizza a New York-style pizza, while some call his pan pizza Chicago-style, but Molina won't limit himself to any particular style of pizza. "It's really just my take on pizza," Molina explained. "After doing so many different styles, I blend a few things together to come up with what I've created here at Graffiti Pizza."
It's always fun to check the display case and see what slices are available. After a few visits to Grafitti Pizza, I finally got my hands on a slice of the pan pizza, which Molina makes only sporadically. The slice was over an inch thick, with crisp, caramelized, golden-brown edges. The toppings were simple — creamy ricotta, mozzarella, and thin shreds of basil — but in this case, the straightforward toppings allowed the flavor and texture of the crust to shine. I only wish that the pan pizza was available every day.
My favorite pizza from the menu was the Phantom, a sauceless "white" pizza topped with mozzarella cheese, blobs of ricotta, garlic, mushrooms, and red bell peppers, then drizzled with a thick, sweet-tangy balsamic glaze. The pizza had plenty of sweet elements — the balsamic glaze, the salty-sweet ricotta, the caramelized red bell peppers — which harmonized well with the salty cheese and crisp, airy, medium-thick crust. My only gripe was that the crust could have used a touch more salt for a fuller flavor.
Equally satisfying was the SG7, topped with tomato sauce, pepperoni, salami, banana peppers, and another drizzling of balsamic glaze. A good pizza can be easily ruined by a tomato sauce that's too sweet, too thin, or too acidic, but Molina's was nicely balanced, allowing the flavor of the tomatoes to come through. I'm usually not a fan of pepperoni on pizza — it's often overly greasy and soggy — but here, the pepperoni was nicely caramelized and crisp around the edges, adding an interesting element of texture to the pizza. The peppers added a sharp, vinegary flavor that cut through the fatty salami and pepperoni, while the sweetness of the balsamic drizzle helped to offset the saltiness of all those cured meats.
I also tried the Cloud pizza, a more classic combination of Italian sausage, spinach, and dollops of ricotta atop tomato sauce. All the ingredients went well together, and I especially loved the fluffy, creamy ricotta paired with the slightly bitter spinach — but it tasted a bit flat in comparison to the SG7 and the Phantom, perhaps because it needed more salt.
There are no vegan pizzas on the menu, but Molina was happy to make adjustments to the Yard pizza, subbing out the pesto, which contained cheese, for tomato sauce. Atop the pizza were chunks of canned tomatoes, red bell peppers, mushrooms, black olives, thinly sliced red onions, and a sprinkling of herbs. Without the cheese, though, the flavor of the pizza veered too sweet.
The menu isn't limited to pizza. I'd skip the mixed green salad, which was wilted. I'd also pass on the garlic knots, which were doughy in the middle. But the meatball sandwich is a must-try, and a bargain at $10. The bread, made in-house, was airy and crisp, and the all-beef meatballs were delicate and light. Again, balance is the key here — while some meatball sandwiches can be overly cheesy, this one had just a touch of provolone, allowing the flavor of the meatballs to come through.
There's a cute patio in the back of the restaurant, complete with a fountain and large tables that are perfect for groups. But the restaurant doesn't seem particularly well prepared for group dine-in orders right now. Even when I called ahead, the pizza took a while to arrive, and everything was served on paper plates with compostable flatware. If you're looking to sit down and eat a whole pizza in a more upscale environment, I'd suggest looking elsewhere for now. But for a slice, especially until 3 a.m. on a weekend, when you can chat with Molina in the kitchen, watch him toss dough, drink a beer, and hang out on the patio? I can think of no better place in Oakland than Graffiti Pizza.