I won't go quite as far as calling it a trend, but San Francisco restaurants of a certain class* sure seem to be having a love affair with "flatbread" these days. Or maybe my perspective is skewed because I'm perpetually on the lookout for any foodstuff that nominally resembles pizza?
I say nominally, but sometimes I order the "flatbread" and find myself staring at something that might as well be a pizza, and other times it doesn't even come close. Which got me wondering, as it appears others have before me, what the hell is the difference between flatbread and pizza anyway?
*Think upscale-ish, with entrees that go for more than $20, but no tablecloths.
It's All About the Dough
The formal definition doesn't help much. Look online and you'll see "flatbread" as something that's, well, flat. It's usually made of unleavened dough, without yeast or sourdough. But that usually is a big deal, because something like pita bread still falls under the flatbread umbrella, yet it contains yeast in the recipe
At Coco500, a restaurant that actually serves both pizza and flatbread, they seem to subscribe to this leavening theory. Sort of. Their flatbread offers less puff around the rim than their pizza, but both have yeast in the dough. In fact, they use the same exact dough for both. The staff told me that the flatbread gets made from leftover pizza dough that had been over-proofed and likely over-worked, and so rises less in the oven. (Truthfully, even their pizza, pictured above, doesn't offer much air in the crust, so you'd only notice the distinction if you compared the two dishes side-by-side.)
It's All About Expectations
Of all the flatbreads I've tried in San Francisco, the version that NOPA pulls out of its wood-fired oven has a crust that most closely resembles what I'd call pizza. Our waiter there explained that pizza is a specific type of flatbread that was born in Naples and comes topped with sauce and cheese. NOPA both wants to honor that distinction, and also to avoid disappointing customers who would look for tomato sauce and mozzarella if NOPA called their creation a pizza. Of course, I can find you a flock of restaurants around town that will serve up pies without sauce or cheese and call it a pizza.
It's All About Toppings
Judging by the restaurants we visited, flatbreads tend to get topped with ingredients that fall outside the bounds of the traditional pizzeria. A rotating crop of seasonal ingredients seemed to be the rule. However, California-style pizza places have been doing that for years, so that distinction doesn't quite work.
But there's something to this, because I find myself far less judgmental of flatbread "crust" than of pizza crust. So maybe flatbread isn't defined by the toppings, but the name may release us from the expectations we'd normally place on the crust, freeing our minds to concentrate on the toppings.
It seems pretty clear that flatbread is up for interpretation, or maybe just the whims of the fellow writing the menu. Though I'd argue that other times you simply know it when you see it. Click through the slideshow to see a sampling of flatbreads on offer in San Francisco restaurants. How many of these would you be willing to accept as pizza?