Amici's East Coast Pizzeria
Multiple Bay Area locations, plus one arriving soon in San Diego; location reviewed: 216 King Street, San Francisco, CA 94107 (map); 415-546-6666; amicis.com
Pizza style: New York-style
Oven type: Gas
The skinny: It's not the standout pizza it may have seemed when it opened 25 years ago, but it's far better than typical chain pie.
Price: Large pies: $21.75 to $27.75
For certain long-tenured Bay Area residents, Amici's East Coast Pizzeria represented a savior during the region's barren pizza landscape of the late-eighties and nineties. Some even continue to swear by its supremacy. It's funny, because as a more recently-minted Bay Area inhabitant, I have always dismissed Amici's, with its thirteen locations, as a generic chain. Of course, the truth lies somewhere in-between.
Walk into Amici's and you do feel like you're entering a chain restaurant, but it's the kind of chain that belongs upstairs in the mall, under the skylight, not down in the basement food court. You won't find any rough edges—or much character—amongst the granite tabletops and blond-wood walls. The only personality comes from the black-and-white sports photos they hang throughout the restaurant. In my few visits, I have found myself a bit peeved that this mishmash of memorabilia places New York sports stars alongside Boston stars, as if there's no competitive rivalry there. Like calling itself an "East Coast" pizzeria, it smacks of trying to be all things to all people. Yet the restaurant did come into existence through the joint efforts of a New Yorker and a Bostonite, so maybe they don't actually have to pick a side.
In either case, despite nodding to an entire seaboard with their name, the Amici's slogan is, "A taste of New York," and so it's clear that New York-style pies represent their touchstone. Indeed, on our plain pie, the crust came out thin and enjoyably crisp, with enough give to prevent it from becoming crunchy. The slices could be folded without suffering a destructive crack along the spine.
A quick skim of Yelp reviews reveals complaints about burnt pies. We did find some heavy charring in places where the sizable nubbins of cornmeal on the undercarriage had been sparsely applied, as well as on the edge of the pies that spent longest near the open flame of the Woodstone gas oven. It became a topic of debate at our table, but we ultimately decided that the carbon deposits were small enough to be considered seasoning, rather than a flaw.*
*Note: Amici's offers the option of requesting a "light" crust for those who do not like charring on their pie.
Our Amici's plain pie—called the New York—ran just a bit heavy on the cheese, but not to the degree that the character of the sauce became completely lost. Once we found a solo clump of sauce big enough to do a proper tasting, we discovered that the tomatoes struck a nice a middle ground between acid and sugar. The shredded mozzarella was tangy enough that we asked our waiter if another cheese was hiding in the mix. (There wasn't.) Most importantly, the layer of intermingled tomato and cheese on this pie contained enough salt to entice us back for multiple bites.
Amici's honors a number of East Coast cities with their topping combinations. They serve a Boston pie topped with fried eggplant, and two different clam pies, one inspired by New Haven, the other by Manhattan. During our meal, we looked further south, ordering a Philly pie topped with roasted green peppers, caramelized onions, and a choice of mild or spicy Italian sausage. Spicy proved the right decision to balance the sweetness from the vegetables. It did not distract, however, from the difficulty that the crust had supporting this heavier array of toppings, as it quickly turned soft and then mushy. This very short shelf life made me worry how any of the Amici's pizzas might fare if placed in a box for delivery or take-out.
Frame of reference matters when choosing where to get a slice, and the San Francisco pizza scene has changed for the better since the first Amici's opened up in 1987. But, in my case, I entered the restaurant expecting lifeless chain pizza and, on this count, I certainly need to recalibrate my opinion of Amici's upwards.