The Biz Beat: San Jose pizzeria unites generations
Creative Director Michael Jacobi and owner Ed Rathmann at Willow Street Pizza in Los Gatos. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    Founded in 1991, Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza in San Jose is a successful combination of traditional and trendy, with a friendly atmosphere, quality ingredients and an innovative menu that will please families and foodies alike.

    Take the Willow Burger. It might seem odd that a hamburger is one of the best-selling items at a pizza place, but the nine-ounce burger is anything but ordinary. Made with bacon, caramelized onions, gorgonzola and roasted garlic aioli, it comes wrapped inside wood-fired flatbread made from the restaurant’s pizza dough.

    The Willow Burger. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    It is an epic burger and, along with the garlic fries, one you might need help finishing.

    “I’ve been in the restaurant business for a long time, and I already had a fine dining place,” owner Ed Rathmann told San José Spotlight. “But I wanted something simpler. I wanted  a restaurant with basic food like pizza and pasta. I didn’t want tablecloths. I wanted something that was really accessible and neighborhoody.”

    The first location of Willow Street Pizza in San Jose proved such a success that Rathmann, 70, opened a second location two years later in Los Gatos.

    Willow Street Pizza in San Jose. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    Michael Jacobi, the restaurant’s creative director, credits the family atmosphere to Willow Street Pizza’s longevity.

    “You look at restaurants in the valley that are over 30 years in business, and it’s a very short list,” he told San José Spotlight. “So we must be doing something right.  Rather than being ‘location, location, location,’ we are ‘community, community, community.’ And we have kept close to the community over the years. We have fed generations at the restaurants, and some of those people we started with now bring their grandchildren, so the place is filled with warm family memories.”

    While the design and atmosphere of the restaurants have an upscale appearance with their open kitchens and backlit bars, they remain family-friendly, particularly on Tuesdays when children 11 and under eat for free from a special menu. The restaurant has offered that special since it opened.

    One of those children, now grown up, is General Manager Ian McDonald, who grew up in Willow Glen.

    “I remember coming here as a little kid. Looking back on it, I’m sure kids eating free on Tuesdays was part of why we came,” he said. “But I love the food here, and I love just the atmosphere and the energy that we have here.”

    McDonald said he applied to work at the restaurant out of his love for the Willow Burger, which he used to eat once a day. His current favorite is the Short Rib Mac and Cheese, braised short ribs, with swiss, fontina, gorgonzola, cheddar and parmesan cheeses.

    “I’m a big fan of mac and cheese in general,” he said. “It is incredibly filling, and all the different kinds of cheeses work really well together.”

    The Italian Sausage Rigatoni is another excellent choice, with an intensely flavored, medium-heat sausage, housemade marinara, mushrooms and strips of red bell peppers and red onions. The portion is generous and is another dish that could easily feed two people.

    Italian Sausage Rigatoni. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    The restaurant’s pizza, accounts for about 40% of the orders, with the Combination Pizza being the most popular, McDonald said.  The local Italian sausage, Sopresatta salami, pepperoni and mixed mushrooms, combined with the light, chewy crust, bring back memories of the fine old-style Italian pizza parlors in San Francisco’s North Beach region.

    The pizza menu has some fun twists and turns, like the Thai Chicken Pizza with spicy peanut sauce, roasted chicken, shredded carrots and red onions, or the Mixed Mushrooms and Pistachio Pizza with smoked gouda cheese.

    Thai Chicken Pizza. Photo by Robert Eliason.

    The restaurants offer salads, vegan and vegetarian dishes as well, like their Wild Mushroom Pesto Penne, and can substitute gluten-free pasta and gluten-free crusts, along with vegan mozzarella, on request. There is also a full dessert menu featuring a new item, the Warm Chocolate Chip Cookie, served in a cast iron pan with ice cream.

    For Rathmann, the emphasis is on quality, with locally sourced products and quality value for the customer.

    “Our prices are certainly not the highest compared to other places,” he said, “and our portions are bigger than most places. People know they are getting their money’s worth. I want that kind of continuity of service and to know that the customers are comfortable here, and that they have a feeling of ownership.”

    Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected]

    Editor’s Note: The Biz Beat is a series highlighting local small businesses and restaurants in Silicon Valley. Know a business you’d like to see featured? Let us know at [email protected]

    Willow Street Pizza




    Willow Glen location

    1072 Willow St., San Jose, CA 95125

    (408) 971-7080


    • Sunday to Thursday 4-9 p.m.
    • Friday and Saturday 4-9:30 p.m.

    Los Gatos location

    20 S. Santa Cruz Ave., Los Gatos, CA 95030

    (408) 354-5566


    • Sunday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
    • Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
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