Oakland Local

We’ve been fans of Nick’s Pizza since they opened.  Located on the corner of 62nd and Shattuck, Nick’s is very much a neighborhood joint.  Their standout crust is a wonderful hybrid of the thinness of a traditional Neapolitan pizza with the chew and structure of a New York style.  Along with the classic cheese, pepperoni and sausage pizzas, Nick’s showcases seasonal ingredients like their organic Dino Kale, Meyer Lemon Zest, Currants, Mozzarella, Pine Nuts and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

The kicker for me is that Nick has started to offer coffee and breakfast pastries in the morning.  The pastries are as high quality and ingredient driven as the pizzas, including croissants, scones and stuffed fougasse.  Nick is particularly proud of the pastries using croissant dough.  I can see why—they have the same kind of chewy-tender texture as his pizza crust.  I wanted to connect with Nick to ask him and baker Aron Ford about the breakfast menu and what’s ahead.

 

Hi Nick and Aron!  

The pastries ROCK!  I could mainline the apricot frangipane.  It’s pretty unusually for a pizza joint to start doing breakfast.  What made you decide to start doing breakfast pastries? How are you deciding what to make?  

NICK: Pastry and coffee service had been part of my plan with Nick’s Pizza since it’s inception. It’s important to me that the shop serves as a meeting place and center of community in our neighborhood. We wanted to expand away from our previous model of just being open for dinner, so we could serve the neighborhood better and create more of a sense of place at the shop. Just as our quarterly Community Meals are a way to bring the neighborhood together, we realized that there are few places nearby for neighbors to gather and relax over great food and coffee.

Additionally, pastry and baking is such a huge part of who I am, I couldn’t imagine them not being part of my business. I started by doing a few pop-up bakery mornings, because I genuinely missed baking and wanted to give myself the challenge of making croissants in our limited kitchen. We don’t have the kind of equipment (or the space for it) that most bakeries use for this kind of technical baking. Currently, our croissant dough is laminated entirely by hand and baked in our pizza ovens.

When I realized that Mornings at Nick’s could be a real thing, I started talking to Aron Ford about working on the project with me. He and I have a personal (and professional) relationship that goes back decades. Not only do I know what a high standard he holds his work to, I know that he takes a similar approach to food as I do. I call him my culinary soulmate, and he is pretty much the only person I could have trusted 100 percent with all the planning and hands on baking at the shop. He’s the reason that I was able to make this dream a reality.

ARON: I’ve always been particularly drawn to viennoiserie, which is a category of pastry that includes croissants and also brioche, puff pastry and danish. Most viennoiserie is yeasted, meaning that it lies somewhere between bread and pastry. Nick and I are both big proponents of sourdough. We love the tangy flavor, and in my opinion sourdough is a much healthier option.

So, the croissant style pastries are really spectacular.  What do you think distinguishes your pastries?

NICK: Aron and I have spent a lot of time planning the menu to best utilize our limited resources at the shop, while offering enough variety to please everybody. Just like we do with pizza, we are focusing on making a few really exceptional products instead of trying to offer a larger variety. We are also carrying forward our philosophy of making small batches by hand and paying very close attention to the details. Baking is all about attention to detail and being in sync with your products through all the phases of their process. Working on this scale allows us to create exceptional baked goods.

We think our current morning menu is pretty well balanced. The croissant products are some of the finest renditions I’ve tasted, our scones are delicate and tender but so flavorful that they are really satisfying, the fougasse is a great hearty breakfast bread that just happens to be vegan, and our little apple-oat muffins are 100 percent whole grain and easy on the wallet. To further round out our breakfast selection, we’re offering yogurt parfaits with housemade apricot-almond granola and fresh fruit as well as hard boiled eggs (the baker’s favorite breakfast snack).

We really like to highlight our croissant products. We’ve snuck a little of our sourdough starter into them, which gives them a real depth of flavor without tasting particularly sour. The croissant line includes a Chocolatine (made with Valhrona bittersweet chocolate), Almond, Butter, a Tomato-Chevre-Thyme and a seasonal fruit with frangipane. For as long as we can get fantastic California apricots, the seasonal fruit will be Apricot. As the stone fruit season progresses, look forward to Nectarine and Plum, and in the fall, Apple and Pear.

Finally, we are really proud of the loaves of bread we’ve been baking. Our signature loaf has been dubbed “the Bushrod Rustic Loaf” after the neighborhood. It’s a good solid, flavorful, versatile bread with a lot of the soft chewy interior texture (and keeping power) of sourdough, with a subtle sour flavor. We’ll sell it as batards currently, and have had great success with it for sandwiches, panzanella or served along side a big salad or soup.

Launching this aspect of the shop has been one of the most exciting and rewarding professional challenges I’ve given myself. Aron and I have gotten to spend countless hours dissecting and analyzing croissant, complete with careful slow-chewing and thoughtful gazes off into the distance.

ARON: When we began recipe testing for this project, developing a sourdough croissant was first on our list. As we’re an incredibly small shop, we looked to develop a small pastry lineup with a lot of variety. Since we’re doing a bacon-cheddar scone, we decided to search for a vegetarian savory croissant rather than do ham and cheese. We tried a few combinations, but really liked how the strong flavors of roasted tomato and chevre stood up in our tangy pastry.

I’m doing all of our pastry production by hand. We don’t have a sheeter, which is generally how folks roll out croissants. Instead I’m doing it just with a rolling pin. Additionally, our pizza ovens are less precise than most pastry ovens. We love the lift and crisp that the ovens give to our pastries, although I need to watch things carefully and rotate thoroughly. Our humble pastries and bread are truly handcrafted.

On the bigger picture, why did you decided to be so rooted in Oakland? Your point of view clearly is about being Oakland based.

NICK: I’ve decided to make Nick’s Pizza rooted in and about Oakland because I am rooted-in and about Oakland. It’s my hometown, and the community I want to put my love and energy into. I never even considered opening up my shop in San Francisco, because being from Oakland is such a huge part of my identity.  I believe that Oaklanders deserve really good things, and I’m glad to see my shop becoming one of those things.

I love the people of Oakland, and one of the best parts of the last year has been getting to build relationships with so many folks in the neighborhood. I know my neighbors by the shop far better than I know my neighbors by my house on 43rd! I feel like my business, myself and my staff have been held and nurtured by our community in such a beautiful way. My new relationships with fellow Oaklanders is the single most important thing that has come of the shop so far.

I always think of Oakland, and Oaklanders, as being down to earth and resourceful. The shop was opened with this ideology. I didn’t have a lot of money to spend on building out my dream pizza joint, so I took over an old shop and put a little shine on it. As we plug along, I’ve been able to do a little at a time to improve the place. We’re actually giving our dining room a little facelift this weekend.

“Down-to-earth and resourceful” informs our food philosophy as well. Whether it’s pepperoni pizza or a good simple croissant, we always make sure we have selections on our menu that are approachable and comforting. Prosciutto and Pluot Pizza is amazing, but we know it’s not for everyone, every time. As for resourceful, we are really about making awesome food with what we’ve got—produce-wise and equipment-wise! When we started talking about making croissants, neither Aron or myself shied away from the fact that our only piece of cooking equipment in the shop is an ages-old tank of a pizza oven. Instead, we embraced the idea that people have been baking in all variety of ovens for thousands of years. No reason we can’t turn beautiful delicate croissants out of our Blodget.

ARON: Nick and I both grew up here in the East Bay (he in Oakland, I in Berkeley). We still live here (both in Oakland), and we both identify with the East Bay spirit. Additionally, our pizza and croissants, as sourdoughs, are very much products of their environment.

Both he and I also find the “Oakland style” moniker to be liberating. Rather than aspire to create New York pizza or Parisian croissants, we can make our choices based on our own tastes.

What’s next for Nick’s Pizza?

NICK: I’m a dreamer, but not much of a planner! Currently we are sticking with our one little shop on Shattuck, but we are always kicking around ideas about what our next steps are. If Mornings at Nick’s really takes off, we will definitely have to expand into a bakery in some way. We also hear a lot of desire for us to open a location closer to the lake. For now, we are just going to focus on nurturing our one shop and working hard to make the best pizzas and pastries we can. I also have a very strong loyalty to North Oakland, and want to keep as focused on this area as I can.

In the more immediate future, as word catches on about Mornings at Nick’s, you can look forward to an expanded bread selection (deep down I’m a bread baker at heart!), and a fantastic sticky cinnamon roll Aron has been working on. I’m really looking forward putting more amazing California stone fruit on the pizza menu this summer, and I’m toying with the idea of serving a charcuterie platter with some of our amazing bread and some tasty locally prepared meats.

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