San Ramon pizzeria On Fire
By Lou Fancher
Pizzas are perilous. Especially the delicate art of the Neapolitan: one wrong move and stretched dough snaps, expertly charred crust is burned, modestly bubbly dough blooms into a beach ball and sun-dried tomatoes resemble raisins.
If the cheese is rendered wrongly, well, don’t even go there with On Fire Pizza owner Bill Celli, 53, of Alamo, who opened the wood-fired oven-baked artisan pizza restaurant in September 2014. But if pizza-making is filled with thin-versus-thick-crust debates and other perils, it’s also profoundly gratifying. A pie made under Celli’s careful guidance has family history baked into every slice.
Sliding out of the restaurant’s 900-degree Stefano Ferrara ovens imported from Naples, the baked-in-90-seconds pizzas are testimony to an Italian grandmother who cooked her homeland’s cuisine with vision and without recipes. Contemporary influences reflected in the “build your own pizza” trend give nod to a mother who “cooked whatever two boys running around like crazy wanted to eat” and father-son trips made when Celli was 10 with his dad to San Francisco for pizza, he says.
“My dad used to take me to a place, it had a wood-fired stove, and I just loved the way the crust all bubbled up,” he recalls.
A rare, all-organic produce salad bar, creative pizzas that include, among other options, The Kicker (San Marzano tomato sauce, shredded mozzarella, chorizo, linguiça, banana peppers, jalapeños and Cholula hot sauce) and The Hornet (tomato sauce, Asiago cheese, Calabrian chilies, honey, chili oil), and a closely guarded blue cheese salad dressing recipe add health and personality to the menu.
Celli was born in Piedmont and moved to Alamo when he was 13. He attended Stone Valley Middle School, Monte Vista High School and Diablo Valley College before joining Cochran and Celli Auto, the family’s Oakland car dealership owned since 1906.
“They built buggies, then started selling cars. They built things that until then didn’t exist: milk trucks and wood trucks with trailers. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it’s always been the story in our family, you just couldn’t shake it.”
But the Celli family did “shake it,” when his dad up and sold the dealership and Celli finally felt free to admit that he disliked the industry. ”I hated the car business because everyone who walks in thinks you’re trying to screw them. You know, (they think) every time you ask a car dealer if he can’t do a little better, he can always do a little better.”
Celli proved savvy when he subsequently walked into an East Bay fast-casual Togo’s sandwich establishment and offered to buy it from the owner.
“It was 1999. I found out how hard the restaurant business is. Had it for 10 years.”
He had a good run, but was always envious of pizza purveyors, whose margins were better. “Every sandwich I sold cost me 37 cents per dollar. With a pizza, it’s 25 cents. Plus, I’m Italian, and I always wanted to do pizza.”
Haunted — or more accurately, inspired — by his childhood memories of wood-smoke flavored pizza and an outing with his three kids that landed him with an $80 tab for pizza for four, he started doing the math. Could a pizza made with authentic ingredients and baked in 90-seconds be affordable for customers and profitable for the maker and his employees?
At On Fire, the “investigation” involves a business model Celli says would transfer to any cuisine — maybe even to a hardware store or other retailer. The less-is-more process includes systematically putting out “a killer product using top-end ingredients: curated meats, OO flour and tomatoes from Italy, and Grande cheese sold by Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco because it’s the very best.”
The restaurant’s Sicilian pizza squares off, adds a second dough to the Neapolitan that gives it a double-thick, sturdy crust and is cooked in an electric oven also used for gluten-free pizzas. All others are cooked in the red-domed wood fired ovens. The Neapolitan-style Margarita’s simple, under-500 calorie formula (see recipe attached) — San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, basil, olive oil and sea salt — makes it the top seller.
Each single-serve 12-inch pie is made to order. If you prefer your crust lightly charred, say so. Accompanied by a locally brewed beer, wine or upscale teas and sodas, Celli says, “If you try the Hornet, I’ve got you hooked.”
Local organizations that have benefited from fundraising events display logo-adorned pizza paddle boards above the restaurant’s four HD TVs and casual dining tables.
“It’s upscale pizza, but for me, it’s service to others, it’s giving back. I’ve always had that in me. You just take care of people. We all have to do what we can to make our community succeed.”
Expectedly, Celli says Yelp is a welcome forum for educating people about the unique attributes of Neapolitan pizza, but wields too much power.
“If you want to take down the whole crew because someone spilled wine on you — it has such an effect on everyone. People’s livelihoods are in the hands of random people. If less people come in and sales drop, you have to cut hours. I happen to have really good Yelps, but I have friends who don’t.”
He responds to every post. If customers want extra char or don’t get expected onions, he says, “Don’t wait to Yelp: tell me. I’m building here. I want people coming back.”