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November 11, 2021

Writing’s On The Wall: Oakland’s Graffiti Pizza Is Here To Stay

by Joe Bonadio

In 2012, Matt Molina moved to San Francisco from his hometown of Tucson, Arizona, to head up the kitchen at Capo’s, then just starting out on Vallejo Street. It was a plum gig for a young pizza maker, but Matt came highly recommended, and he didn’t take long in distinguishing himself.

In 2014, Matt scored his first world pizza championship at Pizza Expo in Las Vegas in his very first competition–then doubled down to beat all the division winners, and snare Pizza Maker of the Year for 2014. Two years later the pizzaiolo struck again in Vegas’ Best of the Best challenge, edging out three other previous Pizza Makers of the Year to bring the top prize home for Capo’s.

These days Matt is on the other side of the bridge, bringing the pizza gospel to the good people of the East Bay. Graffiti Pizza, the chef’s first post-Capo’s project, opened in Old Oakland in October of last year. And pandemic be damned, business at the new pizzeria has been booming.

I’ve known Matt for years and have written about him here before, and he’s always good for a lively conversation. Last week we sat down at Belle Cora here in the North Beach neighborhood, where he was kind enough to bring me up to date on his new project. Lightly edited for clarity and length, our conversation is below.

Joe Bonadio: Hey Matt, how are you?

Matt Molina: I’m good, man.

JB: Can you remind our readers how you first got into the restaurant business?

MM: Well, originally I’m from Tucson, Arizona, and when I was 16 I got my first job at at thrift store. I loved that job, loved it to death. But something wasn’t hitting it, so I ended up getting a job closer to my house, at this Italian restaurant called Venice Pizzeria.

That’s where I learned to make pizza. I was 17, so I started out as a dishwasher, then moved up to salad and doing prep work. I moved on to being a line cook, then a pizza maker, then to running the ovens.

JB: At that point you were pretty much a kitchen manager?

MM: Basically. Then when I was 19, I got a job as the assistant manager of a pizzeria chain called Rosati’s, which is a Chicago-style place. I worked there for a few years,and when I left there, I got a job at a place called Grimaldi’s. From what I was told, Grimaldi’s was one of the first pizzerias to open in the United States, and their first location was under the Brooklyn Bridge. Coal fire.

Matt's Signature Pizza

Matt Molina with one of his signature creations at Graffiti Pizza in Oakland. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: Then for a number of years, they were on Houston Street in Lower Manhattan. That was my neighborhood at the time, and I remember when they opened up there.

MM: I was never there, but I worked for them when they were opening in Tucson, which was one of the first locations that they opened as a chain. That was cool, because I met my first real pizza mentor there. His name is Jamie Culliton; at Pizza Expo this year, he took gold in the Masters for pizza acrobatics.

He owns a pizza shop in Florida now. He’s the one who really got me in tune with the world of pizza. He was always like, “Oh, you’ve gotta go check out Pizza Expo!” But I never did back then. He trained me to do a lot of the acrobatic stuff, and showed me that there was a world to pizza that wasn’t just Domino’s or Pizza Hut. That there were actual people out there who gave a shit. And I wanted to be one of those people.

He taught me a lot, and I worked with him for a long time.

When I left Grimaldi’s, I managed a pizzeria called Empire Pizza. At the same time, I was working another pizzeria called Time Market. So now I’ve got all this experience, and I know how to use all these tools: wood-fired ovens, coal-fired ovens, gas ovens. I know how to make the pizzas, and exactly how to balance everything out, and put it all together.

I was 23 years old, and that’s when I got the call from a friend out here. He said “I’m working for Tony Gemignani in San Francisco, and he’s about to open a Chicago-style pizzeria called Capo’s. I told him about you and your background in pizza–and he said you’ve got the job as chef if you want it.”

I had just gone through a break-up, so I was ready for something new. I bought a one way ticket; I had never been to San Francisco before.

JB: That’s incredible.

MM: Yeah! It was crazy. It was a real life-changing move.

JB: Tony didn’t even bother with the interview.

MM: I had the job. We had never met or talked. My buddy had worked with me before, and Tony trusted his opinion. “Alright. Bring him out here.”

So I came out, and I lived in his sun room, or whatever he called it, with two other guys while I saved up for a place. I moved here February 1st, 2012, and I started working at Tony’s on February 3rd. Boom, right to work.

Capo’s wasn’t open yet, but we were helping to design the layout and get it ready. Meanwhile I was working the coal fire line, the wood fire line and the slice-pie line at Tony’s, because I had the background in all of that.

Then Capo’s finally opens. And I was there for six years to the day when I worked my last shift.

JB: To the day?

MM: Yep, to the day. It was our sixth anniversary, and it just happened to be my last day. I left on good terms, I just really wanted to pursue something different. I really like getting creative with different flavors, and I became good friends with the people at Columbus Cafe, and they were willing to teach me to bartend, and start mixing drinks.

So I thought I was going to go down that route, and start bartending, just to keep building up my skills.

Then a friend of mine asked me if I could do some consulting work for a shop that he wanted to open up in Oakland. I agreed to it, and we got started on Graffiti Pizza. And the more he caught on to how time consuming pizza is, the more he started looking at me as a potential partner.

JB: Saw that coming. How long did that take?

MM: Maybe a couple of months. And I realized that I still love what I do. I love making pizzas and being creative with it.

So Graffiti has really taken off. It’s so fucking awesome. What was a bummer is it took us almost a year to get all of the licenses and permits to operate. At the time, the trial for the ghost ship fire was going on, so the fire marshals in Oakland were crazy– everything had to be totally on-point.

JB: When did you finally get open?

MM: October 4th, 2019. But I had been there since 2018, working in the shop, getting everything dialed in. They’re all my own recipes.

Graffiti Pizza

Graffiti Pizza’s popular Old Skool, with pepperoni, sausage and mushrooms. | Photo: Shayla B., Yelp

JB: So you finally get open in October. And come March, you’re getting shut down by Covid. What was that like?

MM: The interesting thing about that time, is that nobody knew what was fucking going on. As service workers, we had to change our setup. Instead of having people come inside, we had to sell everything out the door, from behind plexiglass. We still had delivery with all the third-party delivery apps, of course. But we did zero advertising, it was all word-of-mouth.

We had an article that came out in the East Bay Express talking about my opening a shop there, which was good. But one week after that, everything shut down.

Because of my partners, we fell under the category of black-owned businesses. But when the protests started after the George Floyd killing, we had riot cops out here–and we were inside the perimeter of the protest barriers.

Then some people were convinced that I was the sole owner. We got challenged on Yelp and Instagram, and it became a huge problem. Yelp actually paused our reviews at one point, because we were getting shamed on the internet for something that wasn’t true. They were like, “Matt Molina’s not black!” I had people online calling me White Boy Matt!

JB: No way.

MM: Yeah. Finally, one of my partners started responding to these messages. “By the way, Matt Molina is Mexican. Just so you know, he’s NOT white boy Matt.”

It was a nightmare. I had never experienced trolling on the internet like that. It was so stressful, and here we were just trying to get by during Covid. Finally we ended up doing this story about it with a food critic from the Chronicle, and that was cool because it got a lot of attention, and made it clear that we were legitimately a black owned business.

The governor apparently read the article, because we got a call from his office the next day.

JB: Are you serious?

MM: Yeah, they were like “the Governor wants to come to your shop. There’s going to be a lot of press.” And that was fine with us, if it was really going to happen. Then the next day, this press crew comes through, along with the head of the Highway Patrol. And I just thought, this is real.

That Thursday morning, the Governor shows up. I taught him how to stretch pizza, and we tossed dough together, and had a press conference on the back patio. It was all about California being open again.

JB: Tony must have loved that.

MM: Yeah, he texted me: “You’re fucking kidding me.”

JB: (Laughter) That’s great.

MM: It was. Unfortunately, on his way out, I guess someone threw a water bottle at him. So these articles come out about him being at the pizza shop, and reopening California. Then the next round of articles come out about him getting assaulted in front of the place.

So we got a wide variety of press coverage, I’d say. But the guy was super cool.

After that, my partners and I decided we were open for indoor dining again, and on the back patio. And we just ran with it. We had to adjust our hours a little bit, but it has been cool. On the weekends, we really are on an hour-and-a-half, two hour wait for deliveries.

JB: Wow. What kind of changes can we expect going forward?

MM: So I do have plans to introduce pastas, starting with a Spaghetti Sunday. I may reach out to Tony initially to pick up some of his fresh made spaghetti. I recently worked on an Italian beef sandwich, because I make my own bread in-house, and we make a meatball sub also.

I’m also going to be introducing a cast-iron style pizza, which is what I’ve won with in competitions. I’m partnering up with (former NFL player) Marshawn Lynch, who owns the building next to ours. We’ve become friends, and we’re going to make a Beast Mode pizza, with extra sharp cheddar burned on the outside to make a crust.

The sauce that I’ve been working on is a Hennessy-honey-mandarin glaze, and it will have two different kinds of pepperoni, two kinds of olives, green onions and mandarin slices, with gold flakes sprinkled over the top. It’s a really pretty pizza, and there will only be so many offered per day. It actually takes 40 minutes to bake and put it together, so you may have to preorder it.

But as it is, we’re doing 14- and 20-inch, what I call my take on New York style pizza. But I remind people that I’m not labeling it as New York style, it’s just my take on it. There’s a crunch to it, and a chew.

Matt Molina of Graffiti Pizza relaxes

Matt Molina of Graffiti Pizza relaxes at Belle Cora in San Francisco’s North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

JB: So what did Tony think?

MM: I think he liked it. I remember feeling like I did a good job, because I watched him eat that slice of pepperoni from start to finish. He ate the whole slice, and I know how he does. He’s got to try the crust, and needs to get a vibe for the sauce, and the balance of the whole thing.

But I was honored that he ate the whole slice. That was exciting. He grabbed a slice of cheese for his son, and than he sent me a video when he gave it to him.

JB: Did he destroy his slice?

MM: It didn’t quite go that way. His kid was like “You didn’t make this!” JB: Oh! Oh, man… (Much Laughter)

——

When I finally made it over to Graffiti Pizza last week, I was duly impressed with what Matt’s team is doing there–and I understand the long wait times. Happily, we showed up after the rush on a weeknight, so we could sit at the bar and enjoy our pizza with a proper cocktail.

And what pizza it was. We tried two of Graffiti’s signature styles: first the SG-7, a combination of marinara, mozzarella, garlic, salami, pepperoni, balsamic reduction glaze and banana peppers. A unique pie with intense flavors, I’ll order the SG-7 again– but the second pizza, Matt’s take on a Margherita, knocked me out. It wasn’t at all what I expected: a 4-cheese pie with mozzarella, ricotta, extra sharp cheddar, Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh basil, it’s also on a sturdier crust than your typical Margherita, with just the right amount of crunch. This pie was an immediate favorite.

For next time I’ve got my eye on another of Matt’s signature creations, the Tagger’s Delight: a white pie with mozzarella, ricotta, Parmigiano Reggiano, extra sharp cheddar, crushed tomatoes, fresh basil and oregano.

Just a few minutes walk from the 12th Street BART station, Graffiti Pizza opens at 5:00 PM every day but Tuesday, closing at 10:00 PM during the week and Sundays, and at 1:00 AM on Friday and Saturday nights. See you there!

Graffiti Pizza
719 Washington Street
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 250-9303