211 23rd Avenue, San Francisco, CA, 94121 (map); 415-379-9880; Pizzetta211.com
Pizza style: California-style
Oven type: Gas
The Skinny: An intimate setting for creative pies, but a crust that doesn't stand up to the best.
Price: $11 to $14 a pie
For me, Pizzetta 211 was the source of a pizza paradigm shift. In 2003, as a Brooklyn kid freshly arrived in the Bay Area, I carried myself with more than a bit of New York pizza snobbery. I knew good pizza, and I sure hadn't found it after a few months in my new home. So when friends took me to Pizzetta 211, where the menu offered things like eggs and potatoes on the pizzas, I responded derisively: "That's like putting blueberries in a bagel!"
But here's the thing—I liked it. Suddenly, the world of toppings had opened wide. I still carry a little bit of that New Yorker's chip on my shoulder, but these days, thanks to Pizzetta 211, I'm decidedly pie-curious.
It probably helped spur my awakening that Pizzetta 211 is the kind of place that makes you feel like a food insider. Located on a residential block in the Outer Richmond, it's a shoebox of a restaurant with four tables, four seats at the bar, and a few tables outside for when the weather is good. Adorable and intimate are the adjectives that leap to mind. Back in 2003, I had that special I'm-in-the-know excitement sitting down to eat, and it still feels that way today, even though the secret is certainly out—Pizzetta 211 took top honors for pizza in the most recent Zagat survey. It was with a pang of nostalgia that I stopped by for lunch this past weekend.
Pizzetta 211's menu, which changes weekly, always carries several California-style pies with interesting topping combinations. The braised baby artichokes with hazelnut pesto and creme fraiche caught my eye, but it seemed fitting to order the way I remembered from my first visit: a farm egg pie, a potato pie, and a tomato-mozzarella-basil pie.
Pizzetta 211's pies are cooked in a gas oven from dough made of all-purpose flour and plenty of olive oil. The pizzas came to the table nicely tanned, though the egg pie was a little pale for my liking. The cornicione, which had a slight puff, was crispy on the outside, a bit too airy on the inside. The bottom-crust was ultra-thin. The taste was pleasant, but the richness from the oil and the cornmeal on the base were the dominant notes. I found myself wishing for a greater depth of flavor and also more chew.
As with the crust, or likely because of the crust, I was a bit disappointed by the tomato, mozzarella and basil pie. The sauce was extra tomatoey—maybe too much so, but with plenty of flavor. The olive oil that had been tossed on top showed through favorably. The cheese, well, I hardly noticed the cheese until I consciously pulled off a piece to taste alone. Good enough, but nothing special. The parts were all at least adequate, but it would have taken a really good crust to elevate them.
But the more unusual pies showed better. The potato pie featured housemade sausage, Gruyere, sage, and garlic alongside the spuds. The sausage was nicely porky, though I would have liked a few other spices to liven it up. The sage delivered a surprisingly herby oomph. Given the ultra-thin crust and the lack of sauce, this felt somewhat like eating flatbread rather than pizza, but it was rich and satisfying, and no one at the table was complaining.
The egg pizza came with came with a Tunisian pepper sauce, lardo, and parsley. It was cut bar-style, rather than into traditional slices, to avoid breaking the yolks. The sauce was made of red gypsy peppers mixed with San Marzano tomatoes, and the entire effect was somewhat like Eggs in Purgatory. I prefer my egg-topped pizzas sauceless or with a pesto, but this was tasty enough for us to finish it.
Just as it was in 2003, Pizzetta 211 is an absolutely lovable little place. It's a surefire hit for a romantic date, or to make your out-of-town guests feel as if you're giving them a peek at hidden San Francisco. But the Bay Area pizza scene has changed quite a bit in the seven years since I had my California-style pizza epiphany. There are a number of other places that offer creative topping combinations to rival those at Pizzetta 211, and there's certainly better crust to be found. Pizzetta 211 will always hold a special place in my heart, but I don't think I can put it in my pizza pantheon.