Traveling south on Webster Street, Villa York Pizza appears like a shock of red, green and white among the dusty storefronts on the edge of Chinatown. Their fliers, which residents of my apartment building often find under their doors, describe the food as "The Real East Coast Taste." The sunshine makes the chrome tables outside gleam.
Inside is still except for someone clattering around in the kitchen. I peer around the corner and see a man with cropped black hair in a white apron opening industrial-size cans of tomato sauce.
"Oh, sorry," he says, wiping his hands. I put his age at about 28.
"Do you have anything fresh?" I ask, looking at two half-finished cheese pizzas in the glass case.
He tells me yes and says I should choose which toppings I want. "It will only take a minute," he adds.
Suddenly I am anxiously trying to decide between the "Webster" (pesto, spinach, mushrooms, tomato and garlic) and "Alltmeat." I finally settle on "Veggie."
He disappears into the kitchen again, reappearing occasionally to wash a dish or pot.
A camera allows him to keep an eye on the front, which is big enough for about six people, two bistro tables and four chairs. I take a seat in one of them and scan the interior.
The fluorescent lights overhead hum with electricity, mingling with the gurgle of a fish tank and the rumble of trucks heading down 12th Street. The scent of oregano, bread and tomato sauce fills the room painted in deep red and poppy yellow. The place reminds me of hole-in-the-wall pizza joints in New York.
Except the tip jar — a plastic tub taped into a ceramic ring of frogs that form a base — is tethered to the cash register. The owner tells me people kept trying to make off with both. They tied the cash register to the pizza case.
A few minutes later, the man returns and holds out a paper plate covered by the slice of pizza. Freshly melted cheese oozes over slices of red onion, green bell peppers and mushrooms.
It's hot and crunchy, even though I find old cheese and sauce underneath the vegetables.
When the smell of sizzling garlic begins to fill the room, I peek into the kitchen again out of curiosity.
"It's a recipe from France," says the owner, Salim "Sal" Zouai, offering a sample of chicken in a spicy red sauce and green beans sauteed with garlic, parsley and "a little bit of soy sauce."
Is it on the menu?
"Oh, this is for us," he replies, meaning his staff.
Zouai, who is 49, trim and of French and Algerian descent, left Paris more than a decade ago. Like his staff, Zouai speaks English with an accent when not speaking rapid-fire Arabic or French.
Originally, he started out as a computer engineer, working for the big developers like IBM. He rode the dot-com roller-coaster until he got laid off after Sept. 11, 2001.
When Circuit City (the now-defunct consumer electronics retailer) offered him a $12-an-hour job, he decided to go into the restaurant business. He already had helped his brother launch two pizzerias in San Francisco. "I knew how to make pizza," Zouai says.
He opened Villa York in May 2009. He found the lease on Craigslist after a frustrating stint running two pizzerias in Las Vegas, one called Goodfellas.
"I lost money on that," he says.
He had visited Oakland only twice before he decided on the location, 351 12th St. Previous incarnations included a bakery and the I Love Sushi restaurant, so he didn't have to worry about zoning for Villa York.
His hours — open until midnight on weekdays, 2 a.m. on weekends — and menu cater to the people finishing long nights at the clubs: 12-inch Philly steaks, calzones, fish and chips, foot-long subs, chicken parmigiana, gyros, as well as "burges" and "desert."
On a good day, Zouai says, they go through a 50-pound bag of flour.
The sandwich bread comes from Concord, and he prefers Spanish olive oil over Italian. "Tunisian is good too," he says.
Zouai says he would like to expand and offer more seating. Storage is so limited he has to shop for supplies every two days.
That, he says, explains the stacks of pizza boxes piled on shelves and in the corners, giving the place the look of a disheveled bachelor pad.
Overall, though, he seems like a content businessman trying to make a stake in Oakland. At least he prefers restaurants to computer programming.
The hours are about the same, he says, "but without the headache."