Fist of Flour

An East Oakland Pizza Obsession: Fist of Flour

By Stephanie Rosenbaum

Photos by Stacy Ventura


This is what pizza can do to a man:

One day, you’re James Whitehead, a kid from Belmont, enthralled by the pizza-spinners at Pasquale’s in the Inner Sunset, spending endless after-school hours at Village Pizza and Pizza & Pipes.

Decades later, you’re a graphic artist, photographer, sometime furniture maker, and all-around tinkerer who’s eaten pizza across the globe—Italy, Kenya, India.

After years of East Oakland warehouse living, you finally land in a place with a decent kitchen. You start making pizza using supermarket dough, then move on to making scratch crusts out of Joy of Cooking. You soon discover the hard-working, Berkeley-born recipes of the Cheese Board Collective, whose daily offerings still inspire lines down Shattuck Avenue.fist3

And pretty soon, because this is how obsession works, you and your friends are hauling some 2,500 pounds of concrete, steel, and firebrick into your Fruitvale backyard. Just before the winter rains come on, you’re hosting your first open-air pizza party, feeding the flaming maw of your bulbous, bright-orange outdoor oven with stacks of local almond wood, wrecking the first few pies until, blissfully, you find your groove, glutting your buddies with slice after slice.

Having a true obsession, whether it’s with cooking, painting, or music, means that you have to keep doing it, over and over, as if feeling the bones of this thing you love. For a cook, this means you need people to feed, and you can’t expect all of them to come tramping through your backyard.

So, come 2010, age 39, you build another wood-fired oven, this one a light and nimble creation balanced on a trailer-turned-kitchenette hauled by a Velveeta-yellow minibus. Now you’re not just another Oakland maker turned food geek, you’re Fist of Flour, a one-man mobile operation poised to bring pizza to the people.

You start feeding gallery-goers in Oakland and skateboarders in Alameda. You pitch in to help with your neighborhood’s nascent farmers market (the Laurel Community Farmers’ Market; Saturday 10 a.m.–2 p.m. at 4173 MacArthur Blvd, between 35th Ave and High St) selling pizzas like the Fruitvale (chorizo, pasilla pepper purée, fresh corn) and the High Street Special (spicy chicken sausage, jalapeños, caramelized shallots) and the Classico (piled with pepperoni and mushrooms) for $13 a pie, $3.50 a slice.

Sweating rising food and fuel costs—even your bus’s biodiesel is not immune—you set up your rig outside Temescal’s new Sacred Wheel Cheese and Specialty Market on the second Saturday of each month, highlighting the shop’s domestic, farmstead-made cheeses.

And, of course, you eat pizza, because you own the leftovers. And you eat pizza, for research and because you still love it, at Gioia in Berkeley, at Rotten City in Emeryville, and at Marzano and Lo Coco’s in Oakland. Always, you’re on the lookout for killer pie. It’s a good life, this one with pizza in it.

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