San Francisco: Giovanni's Pizza at Club Deluxe

Va Fa Napoli

[Photographs: Mike Turitzin]

Giovanni's Pizza at Club Deluxe

1511 Haight St, San Francisco CA 94117 (At the corner of Haight and Ashbury; map) 415-552-6949;
Pizza style: Somewhere between Neapolitan and bar pizza
Oven type: Gas
The skinny: Fantastic artisanal pizza at a dimly lit, cool-yet-unpretentious jazz club at the galactic center of hippiedom
Notes: Open Tuesday through Sunday, family operated and run.
Price: Pizzas $15 to 18, tax included. Order drinks at the bar

I know of no other place like Giovanni's Pizza at Club Deluxe. This well-kept secret is the bar-food half of a jazz club called Club Deluxe, about 100 feet from the famed corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco. And despite the unlikely setting, Giovanni's offers some of the best pizza in town.

Like other past and present residents of the area, Giovanni Iaccarino was not afraid of trying new things. A native San Franciscan of Italian heritage, Giovanni studied pizzamaking in Italy, got married at San Margherita Castle, and came home to ply his craft. He chose to work within Club Deluxe, a non-descript jazz bar that sounds like a strip club in an area that is better known for hippies than pizzaiolos.

When I walked into Club Deluxe for the first time, I had to check around to make sure I was in the right place. There were only a handful of tables in the dimly lit space, none of which were big enough to handle our group of six. The woman who waited on us, Giovanni's mom, struck that delicate balance of being pushy and charming at the same time. She told us that they only had enough dough for six more pizzas, so we should order fast.

The pizzas were about 15 inches wide, cut into eight slices, and cost between $15-18, which included tax. Ingredients are top-notch. San Marzano tomatoes, imported 00 flour, and other high quality basics shine through the extensive menu.

The last item on the menu is the Don Giovanni, which is a chef's choice pie (both meat and veggie options are available). It's an omakase pizza, if you will. We ordered one of each, and added a Margherita By Moonlight (tomato, mozzarella, basil, olive oil, roasted garlic, and sea salt) and a Va Fa Napoli (tomato, mozzarella, anchovies, capers, basil, olive oil, and sea salt).

Margherita By Moonlight The first thing I noticed about the Margherita By Moonlight was the addition of huge, gooey garlic cloves that covered the center of the pizza. Dripping with warm olive oil, these heavenly tidbits got the first bite of each slice off to a great start. Olive oil was very liberally applied throughout the entire pizza, giving it a richness that is uncommon for thin crust offerings.

The thin crust held its own without falling into the droopy category, with a nice balance of crunchiness and chewiness. Giovanni uses a conventional gas oven with pizza stones (purists, don't barrage me with your hateful comments just yet) but manages to produce an outstanding crust. There isn't as much of the blistering effect as might find at other Neapolitan-style pizzerias, but the crust keeps its character while letting the San Marzanos and basil assert themselves nicely.

The Va Fa Napoli was similar to the Margherita, but with anchovies and capers, and without the roasted-garlic-bombs. I love anchovies on pretty much anything, and they certainly elevated this pizza to something quite impressive. The pungency of the anchovies and the capers balanced out the smoothness of the rest of the pie. All of the anchovyphiles in our group were very pleased with this selection, and it was my favorite pizza of the evening.

Meaty Don Giovanni

The first Don Giovanni to emerge from the kitchen was the meaty one, featuring a surprise combination of sausage, Canadian bacon, and cherry tomatoes, as well as the luscious roasted garlic we'd tried earlier on the Margherita. This pie was quite popular with our group, although a few people thought that there was a little too much going on. The sausage was well-seasoned and moist, delicately fennel-scented and served in medium-sized crumbles.

Veggie Don Giovanni

The veggie Don Giovanni was a white pizza with mushrooms, roasted garlic, basil, Parmesan, ricotta dabs, and truffle oil. Even those who don't usually love white pizza were raving. No one missed tomato sauce, and all the flavors were interesting and well-balanced.

As we wrapped up our meal, the band began to set up. Club Deluxe features Brazilian jazz on Sunday nights, and the dimly lit venue was a perfect fit for the smooth music. I have an irrational love for "The Girl From Ipanema", and the band pulled it off without sounding cheesy, which is just as impressive/unlikely as creating world-class pizzas in a conventional oven in the back of a bar. The band really tore it up, enough to inspire a few unlikely dancers and to set heads bobbing and toes tapping throughout the cozy little venue. Although we planned to leave after a song or two, we lingered for longer.

It's amazing that Giovanni's has such fantastic pizza and such incredible music and still remains relatively unknown, even though it sits at the city's most famous intersection. As we finished our meal, we discussed the ramifications of a positive Slice review and how the vibe of the place might change when a city full of food lovers, hipsters, and musicians see what they've been missing. But Giovanni deserves every bit of success that may come his way. His passions for food and for jazz are palpable, and his establishment is pretty close to perfect.