The concept behind Berkeley's Build Pizzeria isn't exactly earth-shattering in the pizza game: Diners can choose their own toppings.
But if you're going to hang your hat on that gimmick, do what Build has done: Compile a list of high-quality ingredients, make them local and organic wherever possible, and lay them out in an eye-catching spread that encourages diners to step out of their comfort zones.
While Build offers both classic combinations and new wave choices, diners should be aware that the more elaborate their pizzas are, the more they're going to pay -- not a small consideration at Build, where the aforementioned quality comes at a price.
Build's sizable space blends industrial chic with an art gallery vibe: Imposing metal light fixtures hang overhead, while giant black-and-white photos dominate the well-lit walls. The bar takes up about a third of the space, supplying craft beer flights, wines by the glass and craft cocktails ($11) that give classics a twist. The flashy Coco Sofisticada is a piña colada, enhanced with lime and orange juices, spices and an edible orchid garnish. The Pompelmo Piquante approximates a margarita, but with grapefruit juice, a house-made Calabrian tincture, pineapple syrup and a black lava salt rim.
But the heart of the restaurant is, of course, the "Building Department," where diners who choose to "build" wait briefly in line, then make their selections as builders assemble their pizza for them. On a recent Saturday night, the place was busy; we waited about 10 minutes to be seated, even though we had reservations.
We started with the truffle arancini ($8.95), two fried risotto balls stuffed with smoked mozzarella and served in a hearty tomato sauce. Calamari ($9.95), served with either a lemon-garlic aioli or a Calabrese pepper sauce had a light, crispy coating, and a great tentacle-to-ring ratio, an important factor for squidheads like me. Other options include a creamy local burrata ($11.75) and a salumi platter ($16.95), as well as various salads.
Build's raison d'être is, of course, the pizzas and that's where things get interesting. You start with a base pizza ($9.95), which will feed one very hungry person -- or two with the help of an appetizer or salad. The nicely crackly-textured crust is topped with sauce (red, white or pesto) and shredded or fresh, hand-pulled mozzarella. Add a specialty cheese ($2), proteins ($2 to $3 for everything from pepperoni to shrimp) and vegetables ($1), which range from traditional fare to sliced potatoes, broccolini and caper berries.
We ordered a variety of pizzas, including the pre-designed BBQ Chicken pizza ($15.95), but decided to add pineapple, a choice that in hindsight, added too much sweetness to the pie. That's the double-edged sword of the Build model: You are free to choose anything you want -- but you may not be as good at assembling flavor combinations as you think you are.
I opted for the Tartufo ($15.95), which starts with a white-sauce base and adds mozzarella, roasted mushrooms, baby arugula, truffle pecorino and truffle oil. Figuring all that truffle wouldn't be rich enough, I took the menu's suggestion to add pancetta. Decadence achieved: The savory notes of the one-two truffle punch, and peppery arugula worked incredibly well with the pancetta.
Our service was prompt and friendly throughout the evening, but it would be helpful if servers explained the timing behind the build pizzas, which arrive considerably more quickly than the predesigned pizzas.
If you've saved room for sweets, you really can't go wrong with the dessert menu ($8.95), but the budino really shines with its Italian butterscotch and burned sugar flavors. The rich Chocolate Insanity cake and beer floats are good choices, too.
Bottom line: Delicious ingredients and a comfortable, modern atmosphere make Build a winner.
* * *
WHERE: 2286 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley
HOURS: 4 to 10 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, noon to midnight Fridays and Saturdays and noon to 10 p.m. Sundays
CUISINE: Roma-style pizza
VEGETARIAN: Many choices; pizzas can also be made with dairy-free cheese and gluten-free crust.
BEVERAGES: Craft cocktails, craft beer and wines, mostly from California, by the glass
RESERVATIONS: By phone or online
NOISE LEVEL: Moderate
PARKING: Street parking, pay lot nearby and Downtown Berkeley BART is a five-minute walk
KIDS: Children's menu with $6.95 entrees, including milk or soda
PLUSES: Great variety of ingredients, interesting flavor combinations.
MINUSES: Pizzas start at the pricey end, and those toppings -- especially premium items -- add up quickly.
DATE OPENED: April 2013
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