San Francisco Pizza Safari Part 2

They say the best cure for a pizza hangover is more pizza, so Day 3 of my San Francisco pizza bonanza started right where Day 2 left off. The Godfather made a delicious breakfast of leftover focaccia topped with an egg! The most impressive part of the process was when he donned his cheese grating glove, which he has been using ever since “The Incident.” You can draw your own conclusions as to what that means.

After jump-starting the day with focaccia, we rocketed toward our first pizzeria: Pizzetta 211. This place only has four tables, so get there early to avoid the lunch rush. We were lucky because the rain kept our wait time to a minimum. Pizzetta changes its menu to reflect whatever is in season, so don’t expect to see these pies available every time. We went for three pizzas: a Margherita (listed as “tomato, mozzarella, basil”); a pie with house made sausage, green garlic, fingerling potatoes and shaved Parmesan; and one with fresh farm egg, braised fennel, onion, currant and ricotta salata. All three were delicious, but I preferred the sausage pie. I have really come to appreciate good sausage after having too many disappointing “mystery meat” experiences on my recent New Jersey Pizza Patrol trips.

The incredibly high quality toppings on these pies were the star of the show, so I almost wish we picked a funkier pie than the Margherita. But as you can see from the photo below, it was the favorite pizza of the two most adorable pizza pals I met with on the entire trip: Kai and Ming.

I practiced some self-restraint and donated the leftovers to my companions, then hopped into the car and headed North to Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur. This place was recommended to me by a serious pizzanatic and SPT alum named Joe. The best part of taking trips like this is meeting up with the people who told me to visit these pizzerias in the first place! Besides Joe, I was also joined by PizzaHacker and Brian and Ramona (they got engaged on a pizza tour a few months back). More on all these pizza buddies later, but now we’ve gotto get to the PIZZA!

Since there were so many of us, we were able to order more pies to sample. We went with a Margherita, Marinara, Marin (roasted garlic, young organic potato, mozzarella, Parmesan, rosemary oil), Cannondale (house made sausage, roasted peppers, roasted onion, mozzarella and basil) and Surly (hog island clams, tomato sauce, garlic, soppressata, pecorino, parsley, Calabrian chile). Pizzeria Picco is definitely on my list of top Bay Area pizzerias. Unlike many of the other NEOpolitan spots, Picco pays a lot of attention to the crust in both its flavor and texture. They bake in a wood-fired oven using a softer flour than most of the like-minded places I visited in California. The crust is soft and interactive, with plenty of bounce-back in the rim. Toppings are applied very evenly and with great attention to balance as to avoid compromising the other ingredients. I don’t really like to think of these pizzas as having toppings, which usually makes me think of a cheese pizza with a bunch of things on top to substitute flavor that was lacking in the original pizza. Spots like Picco and Pizzetta have instead constructed entirely new structures atop a non-intrusive bread base.

The pizzas are all great and the menu cracks me up (on the bottom it says “Salad on pizza is always OK!”) but you cannot leave without getting some Straus Dairy soft serve with olive oil and sea salt. It is absolutely amazing! If you don’t want olive oil on your soft serve, it’s perfectly acceptable to go with caramel instead. I’m reliving the flavor sensation as I type this. Oh no, I just drooled on my keyboard.

The final stop of Day 3 has been at the top of my list since the moment I started planning. A16 began serving Southern Italian cuisine to San Francisco’s Marina neighborhood in 2004 and continues to appear on everyone’s “must eat” list. We ordered a classic Margherita as our first pie but our second pie selection was a real doozey! There’s an item on the menu called “Trust Your Pizzaiolo” and I knew from the moment I read those words that I just had to try it. It’s my personal philosophy to “play with trust” so this option sounded thrilling! The pie we received was called the Widowmaker: tomato, garlic, dry chili, fried Calabrian chile, panchetta, sausage, mozzarella, grana padano and arugula. WHOA!!!!! Yes, seriously a rad pie. Just like Picco, the pizza here sticks closer to the Neapolitan tradition. Just check out all those blisters caused by radiant heat off the dome of A16’s wood-fired oven! Definitely a great end to a thrilling pizza day.

Day 4 begins with a bang: Chez Panisse. San Francisco takes a lot of pride in its food, having developed a real appreciation for fresh and locally sourced foods. While heavyweights like Wolfgang Puck often get the credit for applying this concept to pizza, the true source is Alice Waters. Established in 1971, Chez Panisse represents the origin of California cuisine. Their menu changes seasonally but there is always a pizza on the list. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce the thick smoked bacon, egg, parsley pizza…

Simple. Elegant. Classy. After eating pizza at Chez Panisse, I can see very clearly how spots like Pizzetta 211 came to be. Even though I enjoyed the pizza at Waters-derived restaurants more than those at their origin point, they only stand on the shoulders of a giant. Before we split, there was just enough time to eat a glorious apple-cherry tart and the BEST ice cream I have ever had. I know you can’t taste it by licking your screen, but we also eat with our eyes.

The next pizzeria is the complete opposite of Chez Panisse. Every time I have guests on the tour from the Bay Area, they all recommend Zachary’s for Chicago style pizza. I’m not a big fan of deep dish, but I just had to see what all the hoopla was about. Sure enough, it was the real deal! These pies are so THICK they have to be cut with a machete. And they take about forty minutes to bake in the revolving deck oven, which spin pies around as if they were riding a Ferris wheel. It’s so cool!

The crust is actually much thinner than I anticipated, with tomato taking up most of the vertical real estate. I can see why there’s so much of it, since the tomato is incredibly tart and tangy and delicious. The big difference between deep dish and other styles is the crumbly, biscuit-like consistency of the crust. You have to cut it with a fork and knife and the last bit really snaps when you break through the final barrier of bread. It’s something altogether different and deserves respect, even though it is not my personal favorite.

There are still two more days of Bay Area pizza to report PLUS a Los Angeles pizza roundup so stay tuned for more hot pizza action!

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