Dining Review of East End

The wood-fired pizza remains stellar, though only a small part of the larger Manousos-Alioto vision.


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Pork belly.

Lori Eanes

 

Paul Manousos blipped onto my radar more than a decade ago, when my primary gig was writing about music and his was recording and touring as a singer-songwriter (with a sound that brought Graham Parker, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Springsteen to mind). Sometime in 2007, I crossed paths with Manousos in the Alameda Marketplace, where he was working alongside Jeff Diamond at Farmstead Cheeses & Wines. Then, in spring 2010, I watched from afar as Manousos, inspired in part by a trip to Italy and encouraged by Diamond, took over a back corner of the Marketplace (when Feel Good Bakery moved into larger digs), installed an imported Mugnaini wood-fired oven, and launched East End Pizza Co.

“I always wanted to do something with food,” Manousos told me recently. “But I’d thought it was working at Farmstead.” He’d been making pizza and bread at home for some time, so taking his cooking skills public was a logical progression. For the next three years, I followed the East End Facebook page, where hunger-inducing photos of the handcrafted thin-crust pies were posted daily. Manousos was improvising with artisan Italian and seasonal California toppings—Mousetrap house-pulled mozzarella, Fra Mani pancetta, Yukon Gold potatoes, wood-smoked caramelized onions, house-made Merguez sausage, fire-roasted broccolini, fava greens, and other tantalizing ingredients—and coming up with intriguing combinations. Eventually, the FB entries included news about an impending expansion—into the Marketplace’s prime front corner, previously the home of the Chinese restaurant Ching Hua.

On June 4, 2013, the new East End opened, offering a menu that featured not only a dozen classic and specialty pizzas, but also snacks (pickles, fries, wings), soups and salads, house-made charcuterie (bresaola, duck liver paté, pork rilletes), cheese plates, main dishes (pasta, meat, fish), and vegetable sides (asparagus, chard, artichokes, risotto), plus a bountiful list of beers, wines, spirits, and house cocktails. (Eventually, hefty lunch sandwiches were added.) It was a big move, but Manousos, in his mid-40s and one of 11 children, says that his mom always made “big food,” and he wasn’t daunted. Partnering with his wife, Michele, a designer and home stager, and chef Jacob Alioto, who spent more than nine years at Luka’s Taproom and was itching to unleash his creativity, Manousos dove in with a collaborative approach that is not unlike making music. The operation, from the kitchen to the bar to the service, he says, is not “an intense hierarchy—no one says this is how it’s done; we don’t exclude anyone, and everyone’s encouraged to come up with new ideas.” (Manousos’s 2001 album was titled C’mon, C’mon.)

The restaurant seats 46 at wood-topped tables and another 12 at the polished chocolate quartz bar. It never feels cramped, and the high ceilings and tall, arched windows enhance the sense of roominess. The raw-wood boards (reclaimed from an old Alameda boathouse) of the back-bar lend a saloon feel, but other design elements (the lighting, the subtle wall treatments) give the ambiance a more elevated sophistication, signaling that East End is now much more than a “pizza company.”

Robin and I got our first taste of East End one winter evening after running an errand in Alameda (I’d left my credit card at Trabocco the night before). We decided on the spur of the moment to drop in, opted for seats at the bar, struck up a lively conversation with Jessica, the bartender, ordered a couple of drinks and a “snack” of olives, and felt immediately at home. Jessica proved her mixing prowess with a perfect Sidecar for Robin and an On the Boulevard (a bourbon take on a Negroni) for me (both $10). The warm mix of savory olives whetted our appetites for a spicy Diablita pizza (red sauce, Calabrian chilies, house cheese blend, and goat cheese, finished with fresh shaved garlic). The base price for the 14-inch pie was $16; we added pepperoni for $2 more. With a thin, crust that was both crisp and chewy and not overly blistered or blackened at the slightly puffy edges, and a balance of fiery, tangy, and salty flavors, the pizza stood up to the East Bay’s best (almost including those that come out of our neighbor’s backyard Mugnaini oven).

That visit was “unofficial” but convinced us that East End deserved more attention, and we put two more dinners in our plans for the coming months. At one, Marcus served us at a window table where, in addition to reprising the very same olives and cocktails, and trying a special pizza with red sauce, Castelvetrano olives, fire-roasted onion, house cheese blend, and Merguez sausage, finished with ricotta salata (the Briganti, $19), we dipped into the wider menu and were blown away by the pork belly à la cassoulet ($12)—thick, luscious strips of fatty meat laid across bubbling hot cannellini beans braised with salty ham hock and served in a cast-iron casserole. It’s a dish that, like many others in Alioto’s and Manousos’s repertoires, calls for several encores.

We returned a week or so later. Bar seats seemed appropriate as we took full advantage of a Monday all-night happy hour, since discontinued, by way of three Hog Island Miyagi oysters ($1 each), $5 house wine, and a $5 special cocktail, in this case a Pimm’s Cup made from scratch (dry curaçao, gin, sweet vermouth, and lemon). By now we were fully attuned to why “Pizza Co.” is written into the name with invisible ink, so we forwent a pie and gorged instead on mussels, a heaping bowl of large mollusks in a green garlic broth with grilled house-made bread ($11); spinach gratin with a cheesy, crunchy top, in a cast-iron pan ($8); ribbon pasta with a rich, savory pork and lamb ragu and shaved Parmesan ($14); and orange crème brûlée ($8) for dessert. All the dishes were served to share, and none went unfinished. Meanwhile, the bartender, Kehl, educated me about several gins (an East End passion, it seems), with sips of one named (quite accurately) Sage and another, Terroir, from Alameda’s own St. George Spirits, that I just had to have in an exquisitely dry martini ($10), with an olive, of course.

East End instantly struck us, and insistently calls us back, as a place to hang out and explore the unpretentious but bold cuisine and drinks. For Manousos, it sparks a “sense of adventure,” he said, “like songwriting, where I’m always looking for something to write about.” East End opened with a great hook, added verses that never repeat themselves, and is building a rousing chorus with no end in sight.

East End

Italian. 1650 Park St., Alameda, 510-263-9630, 11:30 a.m.–9 p.m. Tue., Wed., and Sun., 11:30 a.m.–10 p.m. Thu., Fri., Sat., www.EastEndPizzaCo.com CC Full Bar R WC $$

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