San Francisco is a pizza town. We’re obsessed with our pies, particularly the Neapolitan kind. Getting into favorites is a tricky subject as one has to dig through a sea of styles: Neapolitan, NY slice, Chicago deep dish, California creative, and so on, to begin to categorize “bests.” We won’t list all-time favorites now, but scouring joints new and old has taken me from Oakland’s recently opened Nick’s Pizza (the highlight actually being local Temescal Kombucha in jars) to brand new Hayes Valley Bakeworks with potato quinoa crust pizzas (big kudos for their business model: providing employment and training to those at risk or with disabilities).
A winning new truck in town? Casey’s Pizza from an East Coast native seeking to create, “East Coast inspired, Naples born, super old world, gritty NYC dream pie”. Alternately parked between three downtown spots, they hand craft pies with ultra-fresh ingredients, like an arugula pizza, bright with spring onion, and three cheeses (aged mozzerella, fior di latte, Grana Padano), perfected with chili flakes, olive oil and lemon juice. At $17 for a 12″ or $9 for a half (two slices), if you hit up the truck from 1pm on, you can order by the slice.
Most anticipated is Capos, a sister restaurant to unparalleled Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, soon to open in North Beach serving the one style not done at Tony’s: Chicago deep dish. Recently returning to an SF classic, A16‘s pizzas continue to evoke travels in Italy, alongside Campania-style dishes (those melting-ly soft pork meatballs!), and wine director/owner Shelley Lindgrens impeccable, Italian-centric wine list. I value A16’s consistency over the years, cooking authentic Neapolitan pizza before it was trendy, particularly a joy during lunch when the skylit space is mellow and sunny (note the new 3-course, $20 tasting menu at lunch – a steal).
Of the new pizzas in town, Del Popolo is exceptional. Their much-hyped (and expensive at over $180,000) pizza truck boasts a 5000 lb. wood-burning oven from Naples. Already garnering national press of course means long lines. But even when parked downtown in Mint Plaza (follow on Twitter for locations @PizzaDelPopolo), I find if I arrive a few minutes before “opening” at 11:30am, I avoid a line and have my pie within 10-15 minutes. Serving only two to three basic pizzas ($10-14), what is essentially a classic Italian margherita is a glory of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil.
More akin to the incredible pies at Una Pizza Napoletana than thinner, but still bona fide versions at say Beretta or Gialina, Del Popolo is reminiscent of the best in Italy: doughy, dense, charred crust with luxuriously laden with pools of quality olive oil.
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GIOIA PIZZERIA, Russian Hill (2240 Polk St. between Green & Vallejo, 415-359-0971)
Cooked in a deck oven vs. wood-fired like the dearth of Neapolitan pizza around town, Gioia’s pies hearken to the East Coast. Not your greasy, fold-in-half NY slice (such as you’ll find at Arinell), but New York-spirited with hearty crust and California-fresh toppings – think Brooklyn’s Roberta’s, but years before Roberta’s existed. Opened in 2004, North Berkeley’s Gioia has long been on my list of beloved places I don’t get to often enough due to proximity. I was delighted when I first heard they were opening a San Francisco location, dramatically different as it is from the Berkeley original which mainly serves pizzas to go. Husband/wife owners Will and Karen Gioia have made the SF locale a full-on restaurant rather than take-out shop. The bright, open space, with marble bar countertop, gleaming white tiles and jars of house pickled items lining the walls, is industrial yet not cold, the kitchen in full view.
Gioia’s pizzas (12″ – $16, 18″ – $27) are thankfully sold by the slice as well as whole pie. I know it can be impractical, but I long for all pizza joints to offer slices of every pie they make. Obviously, I have professional reasons to taste as much as possible, but even when I didn’t, I’d sample the entire menu at any given place if I could. There’s the fishy fun of acciughe (Sicilian anchovy) pizza doused in Calabrian chiles and oregano, next to a gorgeous asparagus ricotta pie laden with asparagus, red onions, chiles, ricotta, pecorino cheese. The “white” (sauceless) Julian is heartwarming with fatty prosciutto cotto, parsley, red onion, garlic, aged provolone, chilis. Alongside asparagus ricotta, my favorite reflects the other side of the coin, the salsiccia: housemade Sicilian sausage, pecorino, and Ryan’s pickled peppers.
Suffice it to say, pizza is still the number one reason to visit Gioia – just as satisfying and special as it has been in Berkeley these eight plus years. In addition to the pies, they make a classic Caesar ($9) with no visible Sicilian anchovies (though listed), merely a hint in the dressing. At lunch there’s sandwiches, at dinner, joys like fried squid with broccoli di cicco, spring onions, pimenton, and Meyer lemon aioli ($12), or pasta shells stuffed with ricotta, spinach and nettles in red sauce ($17). The just-launched brunch (naturally) tops pizza with an egg, but also dishes up buttermilk flapjacks and frittatas.
As is typical, I prefer to go off hours, midday or whenever I can avoid the crowds already flocking here. No reservations means dinner hours can be rough although add your name to a waiting list and they’ll text when you’re up. Grabbing a slice to go is ideal any time as Gioia is blessedly open all day. In a city awash with world class pizza, Gioia is a refreshing and welcome addition.