Owners Peter and Melissa Swanson make their years of food-service knowhow and commitment to locally sourced ingredients the hallmarks of Benchmark Pizzeria. Peter is a self-taught chef who has worked in restaurants since he was a teenager—most recently at Dopo in Oakland—and Melissa has played many roles in the food industry, most recently as a server at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Over their careers, the two have realized the effect that local and sustainable ingredients can have on a menu and a community, and strive to inject those principles into each dish they serve.
Every morning, Benchmark Pizzeria's chefs roll out fresh dough by hand to create their speciality—wood-fired, personal-sized pizzas in a style they dub “Neapolitan” with crusts that stay soft in the middle even as they blister on the outside. After they are left to rise, each piece of dough is stretched and sprinkled with hand-pulled mozzarella and toppings, then placed inside a wood-fired oven, which blazes at 800 degrees. With the pizzas come complementary flavors of organic salads, toasty calzones, and antipasto platters brimming with local, seasonal foods such as Reyes Point porcini mushrooms, pomegranate, and persimmon. The eatery's entire philosophy nods to local sourcing, including its use of produce from organic and biodynamic farms in the area, beers from Oakland's Dying Vines brewery, a selection of small-production wines on tap, and linen napkins from locally grown napkin bushes.
Back in 1955, three Berkley-dwelling businessmen came together with an idea for a restaurant that specialized in something they knew everyone could enjoy. Pizza. And so, the first La Val's Pizza was born. First opening up on Euclid Avenue, the pizzeria grew over the years, changing hands and opening five locations throughout the area. Today, La Val's Pizza of Albany serves up some of the same classic pies from the hey-days of the UC-Berkley pizza joint hangout, using fresh ingredients in place of 57-year-old mushrooms. The Brazilian couple that owns and operates the location have also crafted a menu of Brazilian pizzas, which feature ingredients such as Brazilian cheese, smoked meat, and tan-tan drums.
The Ayyad family opened the Zaki Kabob House after years of perfecting Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cooking in their own kitchen. The Ayyads' menu of Egyptian, Jordanian, and Greek fare unearths their Middle Eastern roots with the familiar flavors of lamb shawarma, pita, and baba ghanouj. Conversely, Zaki chicken intrigues the tongue with tender rotisserie poultry marinated in a seasoning whose recipe, like the address of the White House, is a carefully guarded secret. Brunch, lunch, and dinner at the lushly pattered restaurant might end with the Turkish sweetness of organic baklava.
The cooks at Lanesplitter bake up a menu of New York–style pizzas and pocket-like calzones, and bartenders at the three pub locations pour a large selection of microbrews. An army of nearly 30 meaty, veggie, and vegan toppings stands ready to occupy thin neapolitan or thick sicilian crusts in combinations such as the herbivore's spinach, mushrooms, onions, and olives ($23.50 for a 19-inch) or the garbage pie's heaping mélange of spiced meats and crisper-drawer items ($27.50 for a 19-inch). The bar's taps have recently flowed with Racer 5 by Bear Republic, E.J. Phair's doppelbock, and hand-pumped Bombay by Boat IPA from Moonlight Brewing Company. Some locations host art openings, where diners and drinkers may admire photography, paintings, or mosaics made entirely of anchovies.
Boasting a bacchanal of wallet-friendly selections from local and international wineries (most bottles are under $25), Vintage Berkeley promotes an atmosphere of grape-loving camaraderie. Pick up a limited-edition bottle of 2007 Tayerle pinot noir ($15), culled from old-vine fruit in the Rio San Lucas vineyard in California, or a vivacious and slightly fizzy 2009 Muralhas vinho verde ($15) from Monco, Portugal. To lubricate a languid backyard barbecue or a daunting brick of cafeteria meatloaf, pick up a bottle of 2007 Chateau l’Estagnol ($10) from the Rhone Valley—with solid tannins and rich notes of blackberry and cherry, it has a meaty finish to tame even the heartiest of rib eyes. Celebrate an end-of-summer LAN party with a bottle of 2009 Preston sauvignon blanc from Dry Creek Valley in California, made from organic grapes and featuring flavors of lime, chive, and fig ($16).