I have several vivid memories of San Francisco restaurants from when I lived there, back in the days of yore. I often wistfully recall the sight of the cook hand-pulling noodles at Kirin and the incomparable dry fried squid my friends and I would fight over. At other times, I daydream and find myself in North Beach, inhaling garlic vapors before walking into Caffe Sport just as lunch hour ends and sharing shrimp and pasta with an old friend. Such culinary thoughts set me salivating, as if I were one of Pavlov's dogs.
One memory, though, that is missing is the memory of any really good pizza. Happily, this past summer, I filled in a few of the remaining gigs of memory storage with mouthwatering pizzas from Tony's Pizza Napoletana, A16, Delfina, and Pizzeria Picco. And now, having returned to Pizzeria Gialina a second time for confirmation purposes, I can confidently endorse Alan Richman's choice of this cozy, neighborhood restaurant as one of the country's best pizzamakers. Richman's opinions, as expressed in the June GQ article, may suffer from a serious case of fill-in-the-blank-with-a-syndrome-of-your-choosing, but at least some of his choices did merit the attention, if not the ranking, he bestowed on them. Whether Gialina is my 14th-best pizza, Sharon Ardiana, who opened it in January 2007 and dedicated the restaurant to her Nonna Lina, is unequivocally producing some of the most imaginative and flavorful pies that I've had the gastronomic pleasure of consuming.
Although visitors to San Francisco may feel Gialina is located in a remote neighborhood, in reality, Glen Park is just beyond the Mission and conveniently accessible by BART. It took me 20 minutes to get there from downtown, and, a few hundred steps later, I arrived around 5:30 p.m. to find a still mostly empty restaurant. By the time my partner in pizza passion finally joined me, I had already become intoxicated by the pungently maddening aromas wafting my way.
When it came time to order, I unexpectedly decided to open with the potato pie ($15), rather unusual for someone who has always gone with the Margherita in order to test the pie-maker's fundamentals. (Ya gotta be able to create beauty with the simplest of ingredients.) Yet, like Carmen McRae, who used to sing, "I'm Always Drunk in San Francisco," I was high on pizza fumes, so my ordering rules had been seriously impaired.
Nevertheless, the heartiness of this unorthodox choice perfectly complemented the wintry June weather. Slivers of potato, plentiful chopped bits of applewood smoked bacon, red onions, rosemary, and a tangy gorgonzola (the cheeses come from either local purveyor Cheeseworks or from Ital Foods) mingled in each delicious bite. The dough, a blend of tipo "00" and another unidentified flour, baked at 700 degrees in a conventional gas oven, yielded a firm and tasty crust. More crunchy than chewy, it had ample hole structure, a browned cornicione, yet, surprisingly, the upskirt shot (above) reveals a rather pale bottom crust.
Still, the proof is in the taste, and, though not my favorite crust in San Francisco, it was utterly satisfying. Next, the Atomica (above, $15), made with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, mushrooms, spicy chiles, and red onions, exploded with flavor. Spiciness and saltiness inundated our taste buds. I would ask for a bit more sauce the next time, but otherwise, this pie was faultless.
Finally, the beast in me demanded meat, and I ordered the sausage pie ($15). The sweet Italian sausage, in chunk form, along with the other meats, comes from local producers Framani and Bocalone. By this point, my guest had happily reached his limit and could only digest one more slice. Ah, three sausage slices for me and two more for the road. What joy! And in the name of full disclosure, I admit that a few hours later, I ate those two slices cold and they were still quite good.
As good as those pies were, I had to repeat the procedure to rule out any aberrations, positive or negative, that may have skewed my judgment. So I went back to San Francisco for another pizza quest in September. Again, a wintry chill greeted me, this time on the Labor Day weekend, as I ventured out to Glen Park on BART and made my way to Gialina.
Of course, it was that icon of American literature, Mark Twain, who is alleged to have remarked, "The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." I guess not much has changed in the City by the Bay in more than a hundred years.
On this occasion, I again eschewed a traditional approach, preferring to "get a little crazy," after all, I was in SF, so I ordered the much talked about wild nettle pie (above, $16). Though I still am not sure exactly what a wild nettle is, I know it's green and was baked to such a crispness that it seemed to disintegrate on contact without imparting much discernible flavor. While that pizza provocateur Alan Richman raved about the wild nettles, calling it "perhaps the best vegetation—OK, second to broccoli rabe—to put on pizza," I have to admit I was underwhelmed. I do, wholeheartedly concur with his praise for the pancetta, portobello mushrooms, red onions, and aged provolone that shared the crust with the greenery. The long strips of pancetta, stretched across each slice like Band Aids, generously offered up porky essence with every mouthful. The crust had the same somewhat too-crisp quality as on my first trip. A minor complaint, I admit.
The broccoli rabe and sweet Italian sausage pie (above, $15) may have been my favorite of all the pizzas I tried on these two visits. Chunks of spicy, sweet pork and the bitter flavors of the greenery made for a rambunctious pizza. (Did I really just describe pizza as rambunctious?) I attribute any verbal excesses to my pizza delirium, a condition that regularly plagues me. OK, this was one fuckin' good pizza. Excellent crust, maybe even a bit more crisp than on my first visit, though.
Last came the heirloom tomato pie ($17) with apple-smoked bacon, basil, and wild arugala. This pizza just had too much on it. While tasty, the tomatoes were too thick for my taste and, combined with the pile of arugula on top, transformed the pizza into an open-face sandwich. The overly dense crust, uncharacteristic of any of the other five pies I had there, further lowered the score for this pizza. It was the most expensive of the pizzas yet the least satisfying. So it goes!
For both of my meals, Gialina delivered a great dining experience. The staff was amiable, efficient, and generous in answering my questions. They imbued the restaurant with a conviviality that encouraged table-to-table conversations. In fact, my friend and I made the acquaintance of a Chinese foodie couple who not only shared our pizza obsession but also offered up this highly complimentary observation about Gialina's pork belly appetizer, which I will most definitely order next time. In the husband's opinion, it was as good as the pork belly he ate in his native village in China.
For the inexperienced, I will add that the restaurant opens at 5 p.m. and takes no reservations. However, I learned that people swing by, put their names on a list, and wait at a nearby bar. It's worth planning your visit carefully. On my second visit, I didn't think ahead and ended up waiting for an hour.
A Summary of Summertime Slices
Summer's long since over now, and I've tasted pies from five of the best pizzerias in the Bay Area. While three of the five used wood-burning ovens, each delivered great pizza made from predominantly locally sourced, often uncommon, ingredients. Interestingly, of all the owners, only Tony Gemignani personally made any of the pies I ate. It may or may not be a coincidence that my favorite pie of all was the Margherita with sausage I devoured at Tony's Pizza Napoletana.
In descending order I would rank the sausage-and-pepper pie at A16 next. Then, the Cannondale (sausage and red peppers) from Pizzeria Picco, followed by the potato, broccoli rabe, and sausage pies from Gialina's. The Delfina pies were close to heading the list, but, for me, the wood-burning ovens of the top two picks made the difference in the flavor and texture of the crusts. On an emotional level, I unquestionably derived great satisfaction from seeing a passionate pizzaiolo like Signor Gemignani presiding over my pie every step of the way.
And as if the pizza scene in San Francisco wasn't already smoldering, here comes the news that the legendary pizzaman of Una Pizza Napoletana, Anthony Mangieri himself, is due to birth his new pizzeria in the SoMa district in March 2010.
Whoopie! Now that will be insane. Just imagine feasting in North Beach on one of Gemignani's prize-winning Margheritas for lunch and then walking it off, as much as possible anyway, on the way to Mangieri's SoMa outpost for dinner. I know where I'll be spending part of my Easter vacation.