Feast: A refulgence of pizza

We bear witness to a renaissance of Italy's favorite savory pie
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Gialina
Photo by Rory McNamara

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.

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