Trial by wood fire
Two fun new Chico pizzerias open during the pandemic
Roland Allen and Alan Gross had
just two days to celebrate clearing the final hurdles to opening their new brewery/pizzeria. “We passed all our inspections literally 48 hours before the coronavirus lockdown,” Allen said by phone.
It wasn’t the momentous debut they’d envisioned when they embarked on building Mulberry Station Brewing Co. on the south side of town. But who includes a global pandemic and shuttered economy in their business plan?
The restaurant’s name is a nod to the old Chico Electric Railway that used run down nearby Mulberry Street, and it’s a bit heartbreaking to walk inside—now that the state’s dine-in restrictions have been eased—and see the huge dining room fairly empty due to physical-distancing requirements. The wide-open space with the silver brew tanks in the corner and the wood-fired oven extending into the room—formerly Chico Auto Parts, and before that a bowling alley—has a lot of potential as an inviting gathering place for large groups, but likely won’t be fully realized until the pandemic is over.
The owners have had to reinvent their business plan on the fly, which has meant temporarily abandoning one of the core tenets of the their food philosophy: Wood-fired pizza should be served fresh. There is a small window of perfection—pretty much just straight out of the blazing oven—but Allen and Gross had to adapt.
“We were never going to deliver pizzas, and probably not going to do take-out,” Allen said. But Gov. Gavin Newsom’s initial order discontinuing dine-in services gave them few options.
The pizzas are built on a Neapolitan-style crust, and the pie from my first visit—the Smoked Porky ($17), with smoked pork, Yukon gold potatoes, cheese, green onions and white garlic sauce—didn’t lose much in the ride home. The crust—a little thicker than typical wood-fired ones—was still light and airy with a nice chewiness and tasty char on the bottom.
Especially enjoyable at home was the 32-ounce crowler of Electric Rail Pale Ale ($12), which had a moderately malty body to balance the hops. With Allen as one of the brewmasters (alongside Dale Sakschewski), it’s not surprising. He has a long résumé that started with a decade as an assistant brewmaster at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. before starting Butte Creek Brewing in Chico in 1995. For the past seven years, he was the brewmaster at Feather Falls Casino Brewing Co.
Next on my to-drink list is Roland’s Redder Ale, a beefed-up version—from 5.6 to 7.3 percent alcohol by volume—of the signature red ale that’s followed Allen throughout his career.
The brewmaster says that business has been going “OK,” and he’s just hoping that COVID-19 cases don’t rise to point where restaurants and bars are forced to take a step backward.
Across town, on the student-centric corridor of Walnut Street/Nord Avenue, another wood-fired oven has been pushing out Neapolitan-style crusts during the pandemic.
Pizza Riot opened one week before California’s stay-at-home order was issued. Before then, owners Kristin and Bruce Riot had already become somewhat established in Chico as street vendors. The husband and wife had been selling their pies at various locations around town for several months, building a reputation with a creative menu of vegan, organic, non-GMO pies.
“Luckily we had a really good platform from our pop-up,” Kristin said during a recent phone interview. The mother of two was often seen wearing her baby daughter in a sling as she shaped dough at pop-ups, and the couple leveraged social media to build a following of people craving vegan options as well as many meat-eaters who didn’t realize the menu was all plant-based.
“They were surprised to find out that we were vegan,” Kristin said. “People are missing texture and seasoning [of meat],” she added, so several of the options are created with replicating those qualities in mind. The most notorious example on the menu is the Dirty Burger (an homage to the burger stand from Trailer Park Boys), a sort of deconstructed hamburger on a crust (for $15), with barbecue sauce, “mozzarella,” Beyond Burger meat, cherry tomatoes, pickles and red onions. The sweet sauce and tangy pickle cement the familiar impression and are great complements as well.
During my first visit, I also picked up one of Pizza Riot’s Sunflowers, which is a mini pizza in the center surrounded by folded “petals” filled with out-of-this-world house ricotta (made with cashews) and basil. I got the original ($14) with a “cheeze” and marinara pizza center and fresh marinara dipping sauce.
The airy, chewy crust on both pies was perfectly done.
Some of the other inventive pizzas include the Japanarchy (featuring shitake mushrooms, sesame seeds, lime and teriyaki drizzle) and the Korean Cholo (with chorizo, jalapeños, avocado-lime drizzle and a side of kimchi). There’s also a selection of Asian-Mexican fusion tacos and Riot Dogs, featuring Beyond Meat dogs wrapped in pizza dough.