A Pizza Nerd Makes His Mark
Peter Swanson’s Benchmark Pizzeria spawns
a second location
By Alix Wall | Photos by Kala Minko
Peter Swanson is a self-described pizza nerd.
Through seven years at Benchmark Pizzeria in Kensington, he and wife/co-owner Melissa Swanson have been cranking out what some pizzaficionados rank among the finest pies the East Bay has to offer. They’re wood-fired, Neapolitan in style, with dough that goes through a 48-hour fermentation period to achieve its rich flavor and incredible chewiness.
As of October, the Swansons are also dishing it up from a big-windowed Victorian, the former Desco space on the corner of Ninth and Washington in Old Oakland.
Peter Swanson stepped into the kitchen to stretch his first pizza crusts while still in high school. “I was a delivery driver,” he says. “Pizza was always a comforting food for me.” But it was some years later that he began to hone his pizza-craft at tonier establishments, notably Oliveto and Dopo in Oakland.
Peter’s nerdiness takes on real cred when you understand he’s on the 45th iteration of his dough recipe. He says he’s still using the original starter he created at home in El Cerrito before Benchmark opened and guesses he must have made hundreds of batches of dough through the process, taking copious notes, weighing everything to the gram, and recording the day’s heat and humidity, how long the dough rested, and every aspect of proofing and fermentation. When he finally had a recipe he was happy with, they opened the original Benchmark, only to have their meticulously crafted dough completely fail the first two nights.
“It just disintegrated. I couldn’t stretch it, and it was falling apart like crazy,” Peter says. “It was so awful we almost moved to Mexico.”
Obviously, things improved. The pizza at the new location is nearly the same recipe, although in Oakland, for whatever reason, it requires 200 grams less water.
It was as a 12-year-old living in Kent City, Michigan, that Peter got his start in cooking. His vegetarian stepfather didn’t want meat cooked in the kitchen, so his mom bought her son a grill so he could cook it outdoors. When the time came to choose a career, Peter wandered into a fine-dining kitchen, where one boss told him he was slow (and worse). But the young chef persevered and found his rhythm in the camaraderie and fast-paced energy of the line at kitchens in Vail and Denver, Colorado.
Moving to the Bay Area, Peter took a job at Lark Creek Inn, where he had his first epiphanies about fresh produce and hand crafting. His first taste of a fresh fig suddenly made sense of the Fig Newton, and on learning to make mayonnaise, he remembers thinking: “It’s egg yolks and oil? I thought it came from a jar.”
Melissa Swanson grew up in Berkeley, where as a child she became a fan of dining out. Later, as a budding journalist, she trod the path of many freelance writers and waited tables. It was while working at Oliveto in 1999 that she met the chef she would marry and start a family with. When the couple opened the first Benchmark Pizzeria in 2011, their idea was for a neighborhood eatery that would welcome children. Kids got their own menu of basic pizzas and pasta dishes, while adults found more sophisticated fare, including classic pasta dishes and handmade meatballs with polenta and braised greens. Mains, sides, and salads emphasized local seasonal produce, which has been easy with the Kensington Farmers’ Market setting up right outside the door on Sundays. The Swanson’s have ongoing relationships with local farms like Riverdog, Full Belly, Dirty Girl, Blue Heron, and Billy Bob, as well as with local olive oil and beer producers.
An Oakland Mash-up
“When I make pizza, I can block out all the other external things going on,” says Peter, who clearly still loves this task, but over time, he has stepped back from the pizza line. With the opening of a second location he and Melissa knew they would need more kitchen expertise, so they hired Jennifer Moffitt, most recently at Boot & Shoe Service, as their Oakland chef de cuisine. That has brought a whole new perspective to the menu.
Coming from a family of excellent cooks with Italian roots, Moffitt was trained in French culinary traditions and also embraces Latin flavors from her wife’s background. (Look for her chimichurri sauce on the menu.) It was while working with Chef Melinda Randolph at the now-closed 2223 in San Francisco that Moffitt found her freedom. “You didn’t have to be constricted to just one area . . . it didn’t have to be just Italian or French; you could be creative.”
That point of view works well for Peter, who says, “I don’t like rules that much . . . so if we want to do something, we’re going to do it. If it tastes good and people like it, we have no problem with it.”
Both chefs say they like playing off each other’s palate, and their stylistic differences keep things interesting. Take for example an onion and pepper pizza: Swanson does his with tomato sauce, grana, and maybe fresh herbs. Moffitt, on the other hand, will marinate the onions and peppers in vinegar for a flavor that infuses the pizza.
“It’s fun for the line cooks; they don’t know what to expect when they come in. Will it be Jen’s way or Peter’s way?” says Moffitt. “It keeps things exciting and fresh.”
Swanson adds, “It’s way better than having one person who controls everything.”
The new Benchmark’s extended entrees include fish & chips and Moffitt’s Southern-style fried chicken. Popular since opening day, the chicken is noted for its exceptionally crispy exterior and delicious sides of rapini, biscuits, and gravy. (Tip: Ask for the house-made Calabrian chili hot sauce to accompany this dish.) The team is also curing its own bacon for brunch, and don’t be surprised if you find a distinctly un-Italian chicken and waffles on the menu.
Melissa Swanson, who oversees everything but the food, says that from the beginning they’ve had decent crowds in Oakland. “It’s been a really solid start. Of course we have a ton of room to grow, but we’re happy.” She still recalls that failed pizza dough and other frights from that first year in Kensington: “When we opened, there were a few nights where we were almost in tears because there were two people in the restaurant, but that hasn’t happened here.” ♦
A contributing editor of j. weekly, Alix Wall is a freelance writer and founder of the Illuminoshi: the Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals. Find her at alix-wall.com or on twitter @WallAlix.
Photographer Kala Minko is inspired by talented musicians, delicious food, and adventurous travel. She loves working on story-driven projects with clients that share her passion for genuine visual storytelling and beautiful sunsets. See her work at kalaminko.com.