The Cheese Board Collective at Shattuck and Vine in Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto is a worker-owned bakery and cheese shop that sells a gorgeous selection of bialys, bran muffins, brioche and bread pudding. And that is just the B’s! On the cheese side there is brie, feta and all sorts of esoteric offerings from the Savoie to Sausalito. Check out the board, which reads like the West Coast extension of Murray’s or Zingerman’s formidable offerings.
But I skipped all of this for the pizza, which is sold in an adjacent parlor. It’s all a lesson in seasonality and simplicity. There is only one pie offered daily, sold by the slice ($2.50), half pie ($10) and whole pie ($20). The pizza is always vegetarian and usually features a sauce or condiment that is available in large squeeze bottles, located on a table next to the communal pitchers of water. Because there is only one pie offered, they are constantly being made and the ordering process is limited. It's all very liberating. One pie. Take it our leave it. New York should learn from this. But, who am I kidding. This would never fly in NYC.
“Cheese Board was the first place I remember putting arugula on a pizza,” says Nate Houghteling, a 29-year-old Bay Area native and longtime fan of the pies du jour. “That blew my mind at the time, and now it's commonplace.”
A couple weeks back, I showed up on a sunny Saturday afternoon to find approximately 15 people waiting in line ahead of me. This, I was told, was a light lunch rush and within nine minutes I had a box in hand and fought mightily (and successfully) for a sidewalk table. I cracked the recycled cardboard box to find the most beautiful pie topped with freshly diced tomatoes, a blend of mozzarella and asiago and loads of toasted garlic cloves and strips of fennel. An extra-garlicky pesto was the squeeze sauce of the day. The crust was almost an afterthought, more of a vehicle to deliver the cheese and vegetables. It reminded me of fast-food pizza dough, with just enough structure to support the enterprise. Not charred. Not semolina. Just pizza dough, which was all good. The pie was wonderful.
During fig season, they sell pizza topped with Danish blue cheese, mozzarella, fresh arugula, figs and lemon vinaigrette. And when corn is knee-high, you will find pie topped with chile pasilla, onions, mozzarella, feta cheese, garlic olive oil, cilantro, corn and….limes. "They actually throw some limes into the box, which just puts it over the top for me," says longtime fan Abraham Escareno.
Houghteling has never received a straight answer about the taster slice's origins, but he has a theory. "It’s a little bit like when you order a milkshake at a legit diner and they bring out that metal mixing cup along with your glass,” he speculates. “It's a small gesture with a big message: life is joy and abundance. It's the Cheese Board's way of saying, ‘You may already be getting one of the best pies in California, but here's 1/8 more of that same pie just because the sun came up this morning.’ I'm tearing up and getting hungry just thinking about it.”