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First look inside Benchmark Pizzeria in Oakland

Neighborhood spot in Old Oakland offers sophisticated menu

By DANIEL M. JIMENEZ | djimenez@bayareanewsgroup.com | Bay Area News GroupPUBLISHED: December 11, 2018 at 11:00 am | UPDATED: December 13, 2018 at 1:38 pm

A neighborhood spot in a tiny East Bay community is bringing its cozy feel and upscale menu to Old Oakland.

Benchmark Pizzeria, which has been feeding residents in Kensington since 2012, recently opened a second location on Ninth Street, just off Broadway. A few blocks from Uptown’s bustling-hot restaurant and bar scene, Benchmark sits in a neighborhood with a much sleepier vibe, and it fits well for a place that feels like it wants to be the Friday-night spot for those who live in some of the nearby apartments and condos.

Those who stop by will find that co-owners Peter and Melissa Swanson (also executive chef and operations manager, respectively) and chef de cuisine Jennifer Moffitt (most recently of Boot & Shoe Service) are serving a creative menu of Italian-California flavors, boosted by fresh and locally-sourced ingredients.

THE VIBE: Did I mention it was relaxed? The place was nearly full on a recent Friday night, but it still felt very welcoming and quiet. Our service was warm and friendly throughout the evening, encouraging the kind of settle-in-and-have-that-second-glass-of-wine vibe that makes a place feel like home.

The dining room features a broad circular area at its center encompassing both the bar and the wood-fired pizza oven. Towering windows let in plenty of light during the day and give diners a view of the neighborhood’s signature cafe lights at night.

THE FOOD: If you’re looking for a simple Italian dinner done right, you can get it here. Make a meal for two out of the creamy Benchmark Caesar Salad ($10/14) and the Benchmark Pizza ($15) with housemade tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil on a chewy, puffy crust, or the Baked Whole Wheat Rigatoni ($18), with plenty of kale in the tomato sauce and ricotta melted on top. (Add sausage or salami to either dish for $4.50 more.)

But if you want to do something more unusual, Benchmark has plenty of options as well, like the creamy-rich salad of farro and Nantes carrots ($9), with chunks of beets and radicchio and a buttermilk dressing that adds just a bit of cool tanginess to the dish. The Fennel and Black Olive pizza ($17), done up with fennel and a Calabrian chile vinaigrette, offered a really nice interplay of flavors on the palate.

DON’T MISS: Benchmark certainly has plenty of healthier dishes — including lots of vegetarian options, many of which can be made vegan — but on a cool late-autumn night, you’ll find plenty of options for pre-hibernation carb-loading too: The crunchy Fried Chicken ($18), served with buttermilk biscuits and gravy, or the Spaghetti Carbonara ($18), with smoked pancetta, pecorino and grana padano cheeses, and plenty of black pepper. (Since you’re already going crazy, finish up with the ethereal Buttermilk Panna Cotta for $8 or the Chocolate Marquise Cake for $6.)