August 9, 2012

Zachary's Pizza - milk-free options and a dream come true!

One thing that had always saddened me about my kids' milk allergy was missing out on Zachary's Pizza.  For those of you who aren't familiar with Zachary's, it is a Berkeley fixture, a Bay Area landmark that many diners believe serves the finest deep dish pizza west of Chicago.

Zachary's is celebration food for me.  It's one of my favorite treats that holds a lot of great memories for me.
I remember having Zachary's for the first time during a visit to the Cal campus in my senior year of high school.  Zachary's deep dish had won me over to Cal just as much as the beautiful campus, laid-back alternative vibe, and cast of crazy characters (including my favorite).  In subsequent years I shared many laughs with my brother, my college sweetheart husband, and friends as we dined on Berkeley's finest pizza amidst the colorful customer-made posters and constant chatter of college students.

My husband and I have always hoped to share the Zachary's love with our kids.  But with their severe milk allergies, it just wasn't meant to be.  We continued to visit Zachary's on date nights (I know, I know -- I am a simple gal.)  I have even tried my hand at making Zachary's-styled pizzas with mixed results: they were tasty but compared to the restaurant's impressive Zagat food score of 24 out of 30...well, there is no point in comparing.

When I found out earlier this year that Zachary's was now offering Daiya Vegan Shreds as a cheese alternative, I almost screamed out with joy!  Was it possible that my kids could now experience my favorite food in the world?  My excitement was soon muted when I talked to a server about cleaning practices.  She shared that Zachary's only washes their pans thoroughly twice a week (ewww) and she couldn't guarantee that cheese wouldn't bubble over from one oven rack and spill onto our pizza below.  I decided it was just too risky for the kids to try.

Last week we were expecting guests from out of town.  When we have visitors, I immediately think of the must-dos and must-eats for their trip.  My mind came to Zachary's because I truly feel that no visit to the Bay Area is completely without it.  I decided to call and inquire about their practices, just in case things had changed.  I spoke at great length with Christo in two separate conversations -- once for my initial questions and a second time for ordering -- about my kids' milk, peanut, and tree nut allergies.  Christo patiently and enthusiastically answered all my questions.  At times, he would put me on hold to run into the kitchen and make sure the staff could go the extra milk to avoid cross contact with cheese and milk.  (He was certain that nuts weren't a concern for the pizzas we ordered.)  I really appreciated that if he didn't just write down my order or concerns but he personally went over everything with the kitchen staff.

Here were my concerns and how they were met:

Are the pans safe to use?  I heard they are only washed twice a week.
Normally greased with butter, the pans are used repeatedly throughout the day for various pizzas.  (The server I had spoken with a few months ago was mistaken.  The pans are wiped and washed every night.)   Zachary's will thoroughly clean the needed pans if its staff is made aware of a severe food allergy.

How can you make sure the ingredients used in my pizzas haven't come into contact with milk?
This was a biggie for me.  Christo explained that Zachary's "encouraged its employees to wash their hands after preparing each pizza" but there was no guarantee this would be done.  Here is what worked for us:

(1)  Have the staff who took your order (hopefully, you can get a manager) explain to kitchen staff of your food allergies.  The pizza makers should thoroughly wash up and only use ingredients from their new stock-- chopped and sliced ingredients that can go straight from refrigerator storage to your pizza without touching cheesy surfaces.
(2)  Ask if your pizza can be baked on the highest rack to avoid any melted cheese dripping into your pizzas' pans.
(3)  Ask that your pizza not be cut along with the other pizzas.  I had completely forgotten about this but good ol' Christo remembered and had asked the kitchen staff to leave it whole.  We easily cut our pizza at home.  If you are dining at one of Zachary's three locations, ask for a clean pizza cutter and do the slicing yourself right at your table.

Is there milk in any of the other ingredients?
We ordered the Chicken Special which normally does not have any milk products except for the pizza's cheese.  We also wanted a milk-free Spinach and Mushroom, which is trickier as it is made with a pre-made mix of three dairy cheeses plus the two main vegetables.  Spinach, in fact, isn't even listed as a regular topping choice.  If your heart is set on the Spinach and Mushroom, ask if they can create a milk-free mix with Daiya Vegan Shreds, fresh mushrooms (from the new stock), and the chopped spinach that's usually reserved for their spinach salad.  This is what Christo had employees do, and the pizza still turned out delicious!

If you plan to order sausage, pepperoni, salami, or other meat, ask if the staff or you can check the label.  Deli meats may contain milk products such as nonfat milk powder, whey, or cheese.  We learned this the hard way!  If there is no ingredient label, please take precaution and order something else.
How can I be sure the people prepping the pizzas understand that this is a pizza for milk-allergic diners, not just people who eat dairy-free by choice? 
It is of utmost importance to thoroughly explain your child's milk allergy.  Just ordering a vegan pizza alone will not do because of the risk of cross contamination from the cheesy hands reaching into other fresh ingredients, the shared cutting boards, pizza pans, and pizza cutters.  I always pull out my food allergy alert cards.  These are handy for enabling wait staff to show kitchen staff exactly how serious the allergies and the great need to check labels and avoid cross contact.

Have other milk-allergic people eaten had the Daiya substitute and emerged unscathed?
We have!  I am so excited to report that my kids had no problems eating their Zachary's deep dish pizzas.  While veggie-abstaining Callan couldn't reconcile with the tomato topping, Ryken enjoyed the pizza more and more with each slice.  We had some extra slices that lasted us three days.  Woo hoo!

I make it a point to share with my kids all the details of how I make food or choose food in restaurants to prepare the safeguard against accidents and cross contamination when we eat out.  Start getting them involved in what they eat when they are young -- it will help build this awareness so that they can ask the right questions and make safe choices when they are adolescents and beyond!  After my initial conversation with Christo, I shared with Ryken the steps that Zachary's would take to avoid cross contamination with milk.  I told him I felt comfortable with trying it -- we have our Benadryl Allergy and Epi-Pen Jr. set at the ready should things look bad.  Ryken felt okay with this so we placed the order. 

Remember, though.  It was not so simple to get a truly "vegan pizza".  Being completely upfront about the kids' allergies and asking many, many questions -- these were key to ensuring that the safest practices were used.  We are so grateful to Zachary's enormously responsive staff and our personal pizza guardian angel Christo!  We definitely will order milk-free Zachary's again.


  1. Go Zachary's! Love the happy camper at the end of the post.

    Boy do I miss Zachary's...nothing comes even remotely close to it over here in the UK.

  2. Nothing comes close anywhere in the world, I'm thinking. Maybe it's time for you to make return visit!

    Zachary's has opened a third location in San Ramon and will open a fourth in Pleasant Hill. Baby steps of expansion so I'm guessing they will never make it out of the Bay Area. Fine by me for the sake of preserving quality! It was great when they started offering Daiya vegan cheese. I think it still suits them well!

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