by Granate Sosnoff and Bonnie Chan

Upon first impression, Emeryville’s Hot Italian looks like a sleek chain restaurant, thanks in part to a location dominated by chain restaurants. But to our pleasant surprise and salivating appreciation, Hot Italian has all of the things that the most snooty of Bay Area pizza-lovers want and almost require these days: authentic Italian pizza made by an authentic Italian pizzaiolo, a thorough wine and cocktail menu, fresh ingredients and locally-made gelato for dessert, to boot.

Owners Andrea Lepore and Fabrizio Cercatore met through a mutual friend, professional women’s basketball player Ruthie Bolton, years ago. Along with a common friend, Lepore and Cercatore shared a love of Italian cuisine, sleek design and sports, particularly biking, all of which laid the path for a fast friendship and business partnership. They opened their first Hot Italian location in Sacramento’s Midtown on Valentine’s Day in 2009, then opened their second location in our very own Emeryville Public Market last year.

The Hot Italian in Emeryville is housed in a big, hangar-like space outside the Public Market food court. The expansiveness is made even bigger by a bank of east-facing windows, crisp white walls and minimalist modern design, a kind of self-described “modern Italy meets urban California” aesthetic — not IKEA modern, but instead Italian Alessi modern, with sculpted chairs and cafeteria-like communal tables.

Afternoons are dominated by a mix of shoppers and a working lunch crowd; in the evenings, the ambiance is casual and breezy, with Italian pop songs in the background and Giants games projected onto the back wall. It’s a place you could bring your parents, friends, dates and kids alike and dress casually while eating pizza of a quality normally found in a more upscale-priced restaurant.   At Hot Italian, you can get a basic pie with tomato sauce, garlic and virgin olive oil for $10; the pies with the fancier ingredients top out at $16.

Cercatore, Hot Italian’s head pizzaiolo, grew up and went to culinary school in Cinque Terre, Italy, then started working in restaurants at 22. He now holds the title of maestro pizzaiolo, someone who has mastered pizza-making. Hot Italian is dedicated to the craft and to echoing the traditional pizza of Italy, which means the highest quality, locally-sourced toppings, their own blend of flour, and house-made sausages.

“We want to keep to keep the product authentic — we don’t want to ‘Americanize,’” Cercatore said. “Most people, when they come here [from Italy], they open Italian restaurants and they are too scared to stay with the concept; they start to change to sell more. In the beginning when we first set up, we really had to fight — people would tell us, ‘Oh, there’s not enough cheese.’ But this is the same pizza as I used to make in Italy. No chili flakes, no ham and pineapple.”

Lepore, an Italian-American has a background in sports marketing:  she was with the Sacramento Kings for ten years, then opened her own business specializing in cause marketing.  She brings her expertise to bear on the business and marketing aspects of Hot Italian, starting with the bold statement of the restaurant’s shirts: “HOT ITALIAN,” they say, in big bold white letters, which clearly take on extra meaning when being worn on an actual person.

“We knew we wanted to just do pizza because [Cercatore’s] pizza is so good,” Lepore said, “and you can pretty much have any flavor profile so there’s no need to do a bunch of other things. We can just focus on pizza and do it really well.”

Hot Italian Hot Italian

We visited Hot Italian together on a weekday afternoon, in time for the bustle of the lunch crowd. Here’s our take on the food and drinks.

THE FOOD

Granate:

The pizza crust is authentic, flavorful and interesting, as it is both crisp (but not like a cracker, like some are) and chewy. Hard to choose a favorite from the ones we tried. I enjoyed the Fiori, which came with prosciutto parma, mozzarella, arugula, truffle oil and mushrooms, but I loved the Murino, a surprising pear-and-gorgonzola combo with sweet honey mozzarella.

The house-made sausage and pepperoni were pretty delicious too, even at slightly full.

And I hate to be the one to say it, but the gluten-free crusted pizza was the best I’ve had. There goes my street cred.

Bonnie:

When our editor asked us to visit Hot Italian in the Emeryville Public Market, I was expecting a stand at the food court that served big gooey slices with thick crusts, Fat Slice-style. I was not expecting a restaurant helmed by a pizzaiolo from Cinque Terre. And I was not expecting to dine on pizza topped with smoked salmon, mozzarella, mascarpone and fresh dill (the Magnini), which was my favorite of the pizzas we sampled, followed closely by the mouth-watering Murino. The focus is on impeccable flavor combinations and fresh ingredients. And because the pizza crust is quite thin, following the manner of Italian pizza, I found I could eat a lot of slices without feeling bloated and overfull. I could eat a whole pizza, easily. Probably.

One thing of note is that you can also order your pizza in calzone, panini or salad form as well — Hot Italian uses the same ball of pizza dough for every incarnation. So your calzone will be just the same as the pizza, only in food-pocket form. Their panini is an Italian sandwich wherein the bread is made out of the pizza dough. And the salad comes as a serving of greens piled high on, yep, a pizza crust (though you can also opt for the salad without the crust).

Granate:

The second time I visited Hot Italian, I tried the Marcuzzi salad, which was piled high and enough for two. It had mixed greens, shaved fennel, carrots, radish, red onion and a treat of olives. We tried the Pantani pizza, which came with bresaola (cured, salted beef), arugula, mozzarella, shaved grana padano cheese and fresh lemon and the Taricone, a pizza with smoked swordfish — a new experience for me on a pizza, but like all the other toppings, artfully balanced with other ingredients like arugula, lemon and cherry heirloom tomatoes.

As with all the pizzas, nothing seems thrown together and all is carefully rendered. Our only small critique would be that on the second visit the pizzas came out less than hot and cooled a bit too quickly for our liking.

I was sharing dinner with an Italian (from near Bologna) who liked the food and atmosphere a lot. She was also very happy to be able to drink a Peroni beer.

Hot Italian

THE DRINKS

Granate:

I had their very stellar Proseccos from Bisol Jeio (the Rosé and Brut) as well as their “house Prosecco” which that day was from La Marca. Bisol Jeio is an upper-end Prosecco that isn’t always easy to get — apparently Los Angeles is drinking it up from the distributor. But I saw it at Miss Ollie’s recently so it must be back in. Contrary to popular belief, Prosecco is not Italian for bubbly or sparkling. It is a sparkling wine made from Prosecco grapes. The better ones are usually from the region the Bisol Jeio is from, Valdobbiadene, Veneto. Hot Italian serves a Ruggeri by the bottle “extra dry,” which is the most confusing thing because it is a sweeter wine than the Brut…

They have a diverse selection of about twenty wines, many Italian but also some from California, and are working on putting together some wines to serve on tap.

Bonnie:

I paired our pizza with one of Hot Italian’s custom cocktails:  the Pesche, a cocktail of Old Bardstown Kentucky bourbon, peach, ginger and mint. This was at 11:30 a.m., and I’m happy to say that, rather than feeling like I was drinking bourbon seven hours too early, I felt like I had made an excellent decision. The bourbon was perfectly balanced with the subtle fruit flavors, not at all watery or overpowering. As far as food pairings go, wine would undoubtedly be a better (and more authentic) companion to the pizza, but I would drink an after-work cocktail here any day.

OTHER STUFF

Granate:

My daughter had the ALMARE mint chip gelato made by “two Italian guys” and gives this item an enthusiastic two thumbs up. (Same on the pizza, FYI).

~~~~~~~

IF YOU GO:

Hot Italian

WHERE: Emeryville Public Market, 5959 Shellmound St., Emeryville
PHONE: (510) 922-1369
MORE INFO: www.hotitalian.net

8 Responses

  1. BT

    Hot Italian? Hilarious name! I’ve never heard of this restaurant and would never go b/c of the name. But after this review, it might be worth a try!

    Reply
  2. barbara g.

    So excited there’s another option for traditional pizza in the area! The interview sounds like a scene out of Big Night…love that they’re keeping it Italian style!

    Reply
  3. albert

    Is there a reason other than their recent advertisement that Oakland Local is reviewing a pizza joint in Emeryville by way of Sacramento? Do we not have enough decent restaurants here in town in need such publicity?

    Reply
  4. Susan Mernit

    Actually, we made the decision to review Hot Italian before they approached us about ads and before they knew we planned to review them. We’d been hearing buzz–alot via social media–from local foodies about this spot and how great the food was, and since OL readers love pizza, we wanted to see what it was. As you can probably see, we do lots of reviews where we don’t have the restaurants as advertisers-when we’re doing a sponsored post as part of a marketing package, we disclose that.

    Reply
  5. albert

    Really? Ten pages of links on your Food page, yet this is the only review for a restaurant outside of Oakland. But I believe you. Might I suggest Pizzaiolo on Telegraph? Pizza Rustica on College? Both serve amazing pie and allow your tax dollars to stay here in Oakland. And I bet both would love (and deserve) love from OaklandLocal.

    Reply

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