Feast: A refulgence of pizza

› paulr@sfbg.com

You might think a city with broad and deep Italian roots would be a city with great pizza, and you’d be right — if you were thinking of New York or Chicago, havens of thin crust and deep-dish, respectively. But San Francisco? Despite the obvious Italian character of this town, despite its being named for an Italian saint, Francis of Assisi, pizza here has long tended to be a little rummy, as the English are wont to put it — and the English know from rummy food, and especially from rummy pizza. Pizza in England? Let’s get some fish onto bicycles.

The crusts of too many of our local pies have tended to be too thick, bready, or spongy, and they’ve often turned soggy from too much sauce. Toppings have been relied on to make up in point-warping bulk what they lack in inherent interest; sausage has generally meant Italian sausage, reeking of fennel seed, with mushrooms of the button variety, presliced and quite possibly frozen, and the highly suspect cheese an industrial-process mozzarella. Then there is the terrible take-out question: it doesn’t help any pizza to be birthed from a cardboard box, after a long gestation period in a car driven by a teenage delivery boy with pimples.

Even in the dark ages of pizza, of course, when bad pizzas were enjoyed with bad pizza wines poured from ignominious jugs, there were points of light, monasteries of wondrousness. When Rose Pistola (532 Columbus, SF; 415-399-0499, www.rosepistolasf.com) opened in North Beach in the mid-1990s, the place was almost instantly notable for the pizza-style flatbreads emerging from the wood-fired oven, whose smoky perfume filled the entire restaurant. Crusts were elegantly thin and crisp, while toppings were imaginative without becoming silly and were laid on with some judiciousness. Restaurant LuLu (816 Folsom, SF; 415-495-5775, www.restaurantlulu.com) too had it going on, with first-rate pies emerging from its wood-fired oven (were we seeing the beginnings of a pattern there?), including one with an unforgettable topping of calamari. And over in the Gold Coast, toward the frenzied end of the 1990s, you could find a first rate tarte flambé — an Alsatian pizza, finished with blue cheese and caramelized onions, at Adi Dassler’s gorgeous if dot-commie–swamped (and now defunct) MC2.

And so it went. If you wanted good pizza, you could get it, but you’d have to go to one of just a few pretty nice restaurants with white-linen napkins, and you’d pay. While doubtless these places were flattered by your interest in their pies, they were also hoping you were interested in, and would order, something more, something pricier. Lately, though, one has noticed a definite surge in artisanal pizza and in pizza for its own sake.

The renaissance might have begun in the Marina, of all places, with the opening of A16 (2355 Chestnut, SF; 415-771-2216, www.a16sf.com) in the space (with a wood-fired oven!) long occupied by Zinzino. A16’s inaugural chef was an authentic pizzaiolo, certified by Neapolitan authorities, and although the restaurant offered a full menu of dishes that owed much to the Italian region of Campania, you could go there for pizza and not be ashamed.

The pizza-friendly trend among full-spectrum restaurants has only accelerated. At La Ciccia, which opened two years ago in Upper Noe Valley, the pizza (like the rest of the food) has a Sardinian slant, and in a retrograde pleasure, you get to butcher the pies yourself, with a steak knife. And at the freshly opened Farina (3560 18th St., SF; 415-565-0360), in the Mistro, you can treat yourself to a Ligurian-style flatbread that’s as good as any thin-crust pizza you’d find in New York’s Little Italy.

But the real revolution has been the blooming of pizzerias, restaurants that emphasize pizza but not take-out pizza (though takeout, box and all, tends to be available at them). Rome is full of such places, and such places are usually full of Romans, sitting at sidewalk tables in the warm evenings with sweaty bottles of Nastro Azzurro beer, waiting for their pies. Maybe our dearth of mild evenings helps explain our dearth of pizzerias, or maybe it’s the lack of Nastro Azzurro. But if evenings haven’t grown balmier around here, the shortage of pizzerias appears to be ending.

Our first stop is Pizzetta 211 (211 23rd Ave., SF; 415-379-9880, www.pizzetta211.com), which has been packing them in for several years despite the un-Roman fog that so often shrouds its Richmond neighborhood. Fog or no, you can sit, Roman-style, at sidewalk tables at Pizzetta 211 — and you might have to, since the pizzeria occupies a modest storefront and most of the space is given over to the kitchen. There are just a few tables, along with a counter set with a globe of olives and books about Italian wine, and the indoor seats fill up quickly. The pizzas themselves have a Zuni-like quality, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the pizzas are the sorts of pizzas you’d expect to find at Zuni, if Zuni were a tiny pizzeria deep in the Avenues. Organic ingredients are stressed, and each pizza crust is tossed by hand while you watch. Hunger pangs while you wait? Nibble some olives.

The highest profile of new pizzerias has to be Pizzeria Delfina (3621 18th St., SF; 415-552-4055, www.delfinasf.com), which opened three summers ago next door to the mother ship, Delfina, in a tight space appealingly trimmed with stainless steel, blond wood, and plenty of glass. If Pizzetta 211 is urban rustic, with a certain bohemian air, then Pizzeria Delfina is modern Milanese: chic, sleek, slim, knowing. The place was a scene from the moment it opened, and while the sidewalk tables (within little stainless-steel corrals) help alleviate overcrowding inside, they also raise the watch-me factor. It’s almost like a cruise bar, except with pizza, and the pizza is superior: wonderfully thin, with blistered crusts and toppings both innovative and traditional. And there is a wealth of well-conceived, well-made side dishes that emphasize our local trinity: seasonal, local, organic.

A little homier is Gialina (2842 Diamond, SF; 415-239-8500, www.gialina.com), which opened earlier this year in the Glen Park village center. That village center has been utterly transformed in the past few years by the arrival of such concerns as Canyon Market — a kind of cross between Whole Foods, Rainbow, and Bi-Rite — and Le P’tit Laurent, an au courant French bistro, and Gialina reflects the new ethic. The clientele appears to be young and well-off; more than a few have small children. Gialina accommodates the tot community and is the noisier for it, but the pizzas — not quite round, not quite square — are more than enough to compensate. Crusts are brilliantly thin, and toppings tend toward the seasonal and eclectic (green garlic in springtime, say). They’re also bold. If the menu says that some combination is spicy, take this seriously. Gialina also offers a few nonpizza dishes, including antipasti and a nightly roast of some sort, but pizza is the main attraction.

Far across the city, in the onetime industrial wasteland of Dogpatch, we find yet another avatar of first-class pizza. The purveyor’s name is Piccino (801 22nd St., SF; 415-824-4224, www.piccinocafe.com), which suggests smallness, and the place is indeed small: no more than a few seats bigger than Pizzetta 211, if that, and much of the space likewise given over to the kitchen. And — again likewise — there’s sidewalk seating. Since the weather in Dogpatch can actually be warm and sunny from time to time, with little or no wind, eating alfresco isn’t quite the exercise in chilled futility it can be in the city’s more windward quarters.

Piccino is, perhaps, slightly less a pure pizzeria than Pizzeria Delfina and Gialina. Or we might say the menu is pizza-plus. In the evenings, particularly, the cooking broadens to a wider palette of Franco-Italian dishes, and you might have a brief vision of being at some junior offshoot of Slow Club. Then the neighbors start showing up to claim their take-out pies, duly boxed — pies topped with arugula, maybe, and speck (a smoked prosciutto-style ham), or maybe with just tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil (the faithful margherita pizza) or capers, black olives, and anchovies (a Neapolitan-style pie). Crusts, of course, are wafer-thin and crisp.

The horse having galloped from the barn, let me now pointlessly close the door by disclosing that I prefer, strongly, obviously, thin-crust pizza. It is more elegant, less starchy, and harder to make well. Also, it does not thrive in boxes, which means it is, in a sense, as perishable as a delicate piece of fruit. A good thin-crust pizza has to come right out of the oven and be hurried to the table, where people are eagerly waiting. Anticipation is one of life’s most impressive pleasures, especially when the pleasure we’re anticipating is subject to rapid depreciation. The moment will pass, the ship will sail, we made the train or we missed the train, and the crust is soggy, and we will have to wait until next year — or if not next year, a little while, at least.

I like deep-dish pizza too, though it resembles a macho quiche at least as much as pizza and has never been much of a player here. Zachary’s (1853 Solano, Berk.; 510-525-5950, www.zacharys.com) wins regular plaudits, and even people I know who’ve lived in Chicago and eaten Lou Malnati’s deep-dish pizza speak respectfully of it. This must count for something. On the other hand, competition is minimal. For some years, the Chicago chain Pizzeria Uno operated an outpost on Lombard; I went once and found it satisfactory in the way that McDonald’s cheeseburgers in London are satisfactory: the food is a recognizable and edible simulacrum of the authentic item, a credible counterfeit. The Uno on Lombard closed and became something else. Deep-dish pizza remains a mystery here. Thin is the word.*