260 Valencia Street, San Francisco, CA (map); 415-552-2050; paulinespizza.com
Pizza style: California-style
Oven type: Gas
The skinny: Pizza with creative toppings that often come fresh from one of their gardens
Price: Large pie with one topping, $19.75; Large pesto pie, $20.50
In my mental continuum of California-style pizza, I place California Pizza Kitchen at one end and Chez Panisse at the other. It's a spectrum that runs from fancypants and high-minded to casual and barbecue sauce-y. Sitting about dead center between these two poles is Pauline's Pizza.
This San Francisco pizzeria serves family-style pies out of the kind of gas-fired deck oven you'd expect to find at the corner slice shop. However, along with traditional pizzeria toppings, they offer a list of options they label "eccentric," including andouille sausage, Danish Fontina, and spiced pork shoulder. Even more interesting than these creative topping choices—and, in my mind, more evocative of California—is the rotating crop of seasonal vegetables that Pauline's brings in from their own gardens. These end up on the pizzas in the form of ever-changing nightly specials.
Along with a ready supply of crayons on every table, these pies with creative, seasonal toppings have kept Pauline's in business—and busy—for over 25 years.
From previous visits, I remember the crust at Pauline's as rising quite high, with large air bubbles and a decided crunch. At this most recent visit, however, besides some crispness around the edges, the end-crust came out softer and chewier, sporting the flavor of homemade French bread.
The underside of the pies at Pauline's gets lightly dusted with cornmeal. On this visit, they had a paler hue than I'd typically prefer, though the tip didn't waver when we held a slice from the outer edge.
It's telling that Pauline's does not even feature a plain pizza on their menu. Pricing starts at the cost of a pie with one topping. In fact, Pauline's refers to their Pesto Pizza as their "signature" creation. This pie comes with a layer of shredded mozzarella cheese that has been topped with a bright green pesto, then scattered with Parmesan and toasted pine nuts. This pizza sure is pesto-y, and salty too, but I find it incredibly comforting despite the strong flavors.
It seems tradition to order from Pauline's nightly specials. This often includes some sort of pumped-up meat pie, like the combination of double-smoked ham, Meyer lemon, feta and mint that they offered during our visit. But since the garden-fresh produce is half the appeal of their operation, we opted for the vegetarian special.
This pie came topped rosemary, sage, thyme, and oregano, all from one of their gardens, as well as roasted brussel sprouts, shallots, and Gruyere. Truthfully, all of these herbs seemed to fight each other for attention a bit, producing a flavor profile that my dining companion unfortunately referred to as soapy. The cheese and the dark red, thick tomato sauce didn't figure too prominently in the flavor of this pie.
Whatever the shortcomings of a given pizza, they're likely to be remedied tomorrow night when something new appears on the specials board. So, when you're in the mood for that middle-of-the-road pizza that still has the sparkle of the fresh and interesting toppings we've become accustomed to in San Francisco, pull up a chair to one of Pauline's tables and grab the jar of crayons.