Benchmark Pizzeria quietly opened this summer on the Kensington-Berkeley border. The husband and wife team who run the restaurant come bearing impeccable credentials: Melissa and Peter Swanson met at Oliveto Café & Restaurant in Oakland in 1999. He worked there as a lead line cook before moving on to help Jon Smulewitz open Dopo on Piedmont Avenue, where he worked for six years. Melissa wrote about food the San Francisco Chronicle and Diablo Magazine, among others, and worked at Chez Panisse Café as a server before joining her husband in their new venture. Berkeleyside NOSH caught up with Melissa to see how the neighborhood restaurant is doing six months in.
Why a pizzeria?
Peter has always been passionate about pizza. At Dopo, he became affectionately known as “Pizza Pete” for his development of the dough recipe and nightly work on the pizza ovens. We’ve always envisioned opening a place together offering our favorite food.
Why the location?
We live about two minutes away and believe the area was ripe for a pizzeria like ours. Before we opened, you’d have to go to Oakland or San Francisco to get wood-fired pizza with locally sourced, farm-direct produce.
Why the name?
We were inspired by the the geological survey markers, also called benchmarks — we thought they had a beautiful, artistic quality and inspired both the restaurant’s artwork and logo. Peter hunted down all the local ones, photographed them, and framed them in redwood.
Peter is head chef/owner alongside Benjamin Ward and Laine Steelman as co-chefs.
Our menu changes a little bit every day so we print menus daily and update them online by 5 p.m. We rotate pizzas based on what’s available at farmers’ markets, the season, and what we are in the mood to serve. We always have at least eight pizzas, including a gluten-free option called farinata, which is a crêpe-like bread we top with mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. We always have an antipasto platter (for two or for four, and two salads. For dessert, we offer Straus organic soft serve ice cream with various toppings and make our own “Benchmark Sundae.”
Where do you source your ingredients?
We source mostly from local, organic farms like Dirty Girl Produce, Full Belly Farm, Knoll Farms, Blue Heron, and Riverdog. Our olive oil is from Napa and the San Joaquin Valley, tomatoes for the pizza sauce are organic and from Modesto. Our flour is one main exception — it’s from Italy. All of our beer and wine is local and served on tap to minimize waste and preserve freshness.
What’s the “vision”?
We envision Benchmark to be a warm, welcoming place for people to eat simple, delicious, pure food.
How’s business so far?
Business has been great! We have been warmly welcomed by our neighbors.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Yes! On New Year’s Eve, we are hosting our first of we hope many special themed dinners in which we will step away from pizza for just a night to ring in the New Year with a five-course meal cooked on our wood oven. We are taking reservations now for both a 5 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. seating. Please visit the blog on our web site to check out the menu.
Benchmark Pizzeria is at 1568 Oak View Avenue, Kensington.
Photographer Fer Fernandez is the voice behind the FersBite blog.