As if the Neapolitan, artisanal, wood-fired pizza wave of the past decade weren’t enough, pizza openings continue to come on fast and furious. A recent interview I read with a New Yorker said they couldn’t live on the West Coast because they’d have to miss pizza. Having grown up in NJ (near NYC) and California both, and as a frequent traveler studying food and drink in cities the world over – and certainly all over Italy – San Francisco is easily one of the great pizza cities. The list of pies that are very good to excellent is long.
Amongs the newcomers, From a greasy NY slice to yet more Neapolitan-influenced havens, here are eight new pizza outposts open mostly between Fall 2013 and February 2014, from as far north as Philo in Mendocino County, all the way down to Los Gatos in the South Bay (hint: those two are the standouts of the crop).
North, South, East
OAK & RYE, Los Gatos
The best of the new pizza ‘comers, Oak & Rye, at first glance looks like just another wood-fired outpost with slick, white walls, sunny space and service. Open since October 2013, it could just be yuppy-peaceful Los Gatos’ first foray into that oft-done territory. There’s no shortage of world class pizza places around the Bay Area, but Oak & Rye, since my first visit back in December, immediately made an impression.
On the drink side, they are strong on cocktails ($10), the exception, not the rule, in the South Bay. Case in point: the anise-laced balance of a Blackout uses SF’s own Emperor Norton absinthe soft with lemon, egg white and a splash of Prosecco. It’s a bright, bracing delight.
There’s ubiquitous small plates and sides like fried brussels sprouts ($8) gussied up with Nueske’s bacon, pecan and maple, or at dinner, a lightly-charred half chicken ($18) with braised kale and humble lemon wedge. Their custom, wood-fired oven glistens, covered in shiny pennies.
But it’s those pies that stay with you: their red sauce is perfection, ideally sweet and savory. The crust is that fine line of bubbly char and chewy depth. Angelo Womack, of famed Roberta’s in Brooklyn, recently moved across the country, bringing his mad pizza skills with him.
I adore the boquerones (fresh anchovies) brine and salty caper notes of the Puttanesca ($11), a red sauce pie liberally graced with garlic, oregano, onions and Parmigiano cheese. I’m in love with the Scotty 2 Hottie pizza ($16), despite its silly name. Tomato, basil and mozzarella undergirds a brilliant trio of meaty sopressata (dry Italian salami), sweet honey and hot pepperoncini oil. Sweet, spicy, savory… it’s perfection. Oak & Rye is worth driving down to Los Gatos for.
STONE & EMBERS, Philo
The other great of the newcomers? Stone and Embers, in the small town of Philo in beautiful Mendocino County. Sad I am that this place is just far enough from home. Call ahead to make sure there’s pizza left – or go for lunch to ensure you don’t miss out (the place closes early anyway, typically by 8pm). As a one man show, Patrick Meany can only fit enough dough for about 60 pizzas a day in the small fridge next to their wood-fired oven. There’s merely three tables and a few bar seats in full view of the pizza-making action.
The restaurant opened in fall 2013 – I made it up there in December. Here I first tasted Boonville Bite Hard Cider, a vibrant local cider that is both dry and brightly fruity, showcasing fresh apples and dry bubbles simultaneously. I went next door in the idyllic Madrones complex housing the restaurant, a hotel and a couple shops, to Signal Ridge‘s tasting room, where I stocked up on 6-packs of the cider.
Meany’s crust is some of the best I’ve had from Italy to NY. He works thoughtfully on every aspect of dough-making to ensure balanced, complex crust. Turducken sausage is crumbled atop The Jeffer pizza ($19), layered in tomato sauce under smoked mozzarella and Parmesan, red chili pepper adding heat intrigue. Another pie, 707 1.3 ($16), refers to the area code and all things local. This time it’s the tomato sauce that’s smoked (as A16 Rockridge does in their Montanara Rockridge pie), while local mushrooms, goat cheese from Pennyroyal Farm, and Boonville piment d’espelette (a variety of chili pepper) enliven another fantastic pie.
Small plates are no afterthought. In fact, they feel plucked from San Francisco, easily at home with many hot restaurants of the moment. A risotto of barley and rye ($9) is earthy with local, roasted mushrooms, perked up by green apple and Parmesan. Likewise, fire-roasted brassicas (in this case, cauliflower and brussels sprouts) with baby carrots ($8) are lively with vadouvan spice and citrus, cooled by house yogurt. A snack of crispy mushroom “chicharrones” ($4) dusted in Parmesan and porcini salt is just a great idea. Only pretzel rolls ($1.50) tasted lackluster compared to pretzels I’ve had from places like Esther’s Bakery.
Dessert holds up, particularly house ice cream and sorbet ($3) in fun flavors like green tomato, local goat cheese or yuzu (Japanese citrus). Decadence joyously comes in the form of a pumpkin cinnamon roll ($8) with malted milk ice cream.
Though this tiny haven runs out of pizza all too quickly and closes way too early, it’s a food lovers’ treasure surrounded by the woods and farmland of Mendocino County.
Open since fall 2013, Slicer Pizzeria, helmed by Colin Etezadi (former chef de cuisine at Boot & Shoe Service), churns out pies that are not so much authentic NY or Neapolitan pizza but what feels more like Cali-meets-NY, thin crust pizza with interesting but unfussy toppings (slice $3.50, whole $23).
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BUILD PIZZERIA ROMA, Berkeley
The oldest “newcomer” of this group, BUILD Pizzeria Roma, opened in April 2013, dramatically revamping a downtown Berkeley space into a sprawling, cavernous room. The dining room is centered by a pizza bar where staff build pies to your specifications, with ingredients like silky anchovies or Italian truffle. Husband/wife owners Lisa Holt and David Shapiro (she grew up in Rome) hope to open a series of BUILD – I can see how giant black and white wall photography punctuated by yellow, and build-your-own pizzas, appeal to a range of people.
So in full honesty, I’ve had better pizzas around the world. This is not so much a gourmand’s pizza den, although it will work for the pizza snob, too. It is fun, interactive and the pies certainly satisfy. With a base of rosso (red sauce), bianca (white/no sauce) or pesto, choose cheese and toppings from the line-up before you.
There’s plenty to drink on the craft beer and cocktail front, like a special beer cocktail one night I visited when Bison Organic Brewing was a featured brewery (something they do regularly with local breweries and distilleries): a Gingerbread Flip ($8) of spiced rum and raw ginger, was creamy with whole egg, effervescent and spiced with Bison’s Gingerbread Ale.
LONG BRIDGE PIZZA CO., Dogpatch
Just opened mid-February 2014, Long Bridge Pizza Co. is an airy, small shop in the heart of Dogpatch, a welcome addition for the neighborhood, cooking pies ($12-14.50 for small, $22-26 large, no by-the-slice) all day long. I wouldn’t call it a destination for those in other parts of the city, but these are gratifying pizzas. They strike a fine balance between greasy NY and Cali-fresh in their straightforward pepperoni, sausage or margherita pizzas.
PIZZAHACKER, Outer Mission
Cult pizza favorite, Jeff Krupman, a.k.a. The Pizzahacker, finally opened a brick-and-mortar spot for his beloved pizza in Outer Mission on the edge of Bernal Heights this January. Despite crowds descending on the lofty-yet-intimate space (formerly Inka’s), PizzaHacker staff are upbeat and friendly, and the vibe festive under blue ceiling and walls illuminated by strung colored lights and communal picnic tables.
There’s about five rotating pies each day ($12-16 each), with wonderfully bubbly crust and engaging toppings. One example: Yo Vinny! is laden with marinated onions, nearby butcher Avedano’s hot Italian sausage, and for lively contrast, pickled Goat Horn peppers.
THE PIZZA SHOP, Mission
Opening weeks ago in February, The Pizza Shop on 24th Street, is the most “real deal” NY of the thin slice newcomers, in the same class as long time, NY slice fave Arinell. I feel transported back to NY walking down the street eating a sopping (with appropriate grease, yo) pepperoni slice ($4 each, $19 for a pie), folded in half on a paper plate, not shy on the cheese.
Chef-owner Thomas Jividen comes from New Jersey and having partly grown up in the Garden State myself, I couldn’t help but cheer for the place when I saw the wood-carving of Jersey on the soda machine. Jividen comes from San Diego’s Bronx Pizza, while he’s running the shop with Laurie Badger from SF’s beloved Golden Boy Pizza. Whole pie delights include the Meat-O, laden with pepperoni, sausage, and, yes, meatballs.
PRESIDIO PIZZA COMPANY, Western Addition/Pac Heights
Presidio Pizza Company had a soft opening in December 2013, which I hit up a couple times in initial weeks. The staff has been so friendly every time, asking for honest feedback on the food. I truly appreciate their desire to improve and hone during those initial weeks.
Their pizza style is NY/NJ-influenced – there’s even calzones ($8) and cannoli ($5) – though I noticed most of the staff are from Boston or the Bay Area.
Though I could use more tang and sweet-savory bite in their red sauce, meatballs ($6 for 3, $9 for 5) are tender, dotted with basil and Grana Padano cheese. As for the pizza, it’s more gratifying than a game-changer, ideal mainly for those in the neighborhood. My favorite pie has been Frankie’s ($4 slice/$22 pie) with its juicy slices of sausage with rapini, garlic, onions and cherry peppers over mozzarella. The Grandma ($3.50/$20), a thin, square pie could use a lot more red sauce, as could The Sicilian ($4/$22), another square pie, both blessedly straightforward with cheese and basil, or in the case of the Grandma, with pesto and red sauce (add any topping).