SMART MOUTH

Berkeley, With Extra Cheese

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Sunday, June 27, 2004

WHAT: Cheese Board Pizza

WHERE: Berkeley, Calif.

WHY GO: Who knew socialism could taste this good?

Imagine a video store with only one movie. Not so hot. How about a pizza place with just one kind of pizza?

Somehow, Cheese Board has made the formula work. With no pepperoni vs. mushroom quandaries, ordering is a matter of simply deciding whether you want a slice, a half pie or a whole pie, and if it'll be eat-in or takeout.

For visitors, it just doesn't get more Berkeley than Cheese Board. The shop's a mile down Shattuck Avenue, the city's main drag, from the University of California Berkeley campus and across the street from the venerable East Bay eatery Chez Panisse -- and within walking distance of two acupuncture clinics. The place always has live musicians inside and frequently has petitioners outside, with a jazz-fusion trio and an education reformer, respectively, the night I visited.

And it almost goes without saying, the pizzas are always vegetarian (daily selections rotate among 20 or so different varieties). Heck, the restaurant is even a collective.

Cheese Board is so compact it spills onto the sidewalk, with the fast-moving line usually out the door. The interior is adorned with a "No War" painting next to a blackboard listing the coming attractions. One day may be roasted bell peppers, onions, feta, mozzarella, olive tapenade and parsley, while the next could bring roma tomatoes, onions, mozzarella, goat cheese, parsley, herb garlic and olive oil. Try ordering those at Domino's.

On a recent visit, I sampled a pie heaped with corn, onion, pasilla peppers, cilantro, mozzarella, feta, garlic and olive oil. On the counter, a bowl of free lime halves sat waiting to be squeezed on the pie. With the lime juice and cilantro doing a tango, each bite was a delight, and the corn created a pleasant texture.

With only five tables (three inside, two on the sidewalk) and a steady stream of customers, something has to give. And that something is sanity, as many diners picnic in the middle of the road on the six-foot-wide median of four-lane Shattuck Avenue. With my bare feet in the grass and a gourmet pizza at my mercy, I almost forgot about the 18-wheelers rumbling past.

Of course, if you're reading this and happen to be my grandmother, disregard that last sentence. Anyway, when there's no traffic, it's almost quaint.

The seminal Cheese Board -- a retail cheese and bread store a few doors down -- was founded in 1967 on the kibbutz model. In 1990, Cheese Board Pizza emerged from the shop as a way to dispose of leftover cheese and dough. Today, 40 workers -- from aged hippies to Mexican immigrants -- own a slice of the business.

As Arthur Dembling, a 13-year Cheese Board Pizza Collective member, explains: "It's basically a democratic workplace. It's worker owned and operated, everybody gets the same pay rate and all decisions are made by consensus. The only drawback is that decisions can take a long time."

That philosophy is reflected in Cheese Board's un-capitalistic hours. With "people not profits" in mind, the shop is open only five days a week and closes relatively early. The early quitting time is a result of the collective not wanting anyone to work more than a 10-hour shift. Fortunately, members of the East Bay proletariat adjust their appetites accordingly; on the Saturday I visited, the place was mobbed at 5 p.m. In Berkeley, apparently pizza is the opium of the masses.

Best of all, each order comes with one or two "slivers." These mini-slices are another form of socialism by default.

"The slicing used to be really uneven, so we'd give slivers to people when they got a small slice," says Dembling. "But most people didn't understand it. So now everybody gets a sliver -- it's just easier that way."

-- Jonathan Bloom

Cheese Board Pizza (1512 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, Calif.) is open Tuesday to Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30 to 7 p.m., Saturdays, noon to 3 p.m. and 4:30 to 7 p.m. Details: 510-549-3055, cheeseboardcollective.coop.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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