A Mini San Francisco Pizza Jaunt: Does Alan Richman Know His Bay Area Pizza?
"I would be happy eating a Delfina pizza every day of my life, but it probably would never make me jump for pizza joy."
Last week I took advantage of a quick-turnaround, 36-hour trip to San Francisco to try a couple of much-ballyhooed San Francisco pizzerias, Pizzeria Delfina and Gialina. San Francisco Chronicle restaurant critic Michael Bauer took me to Gialina (many thanks, Michael) and I took myself to Pizzeria Delfina because, well, because that's what I do--try pizzerias near and far. And much to Mr. Kuban's chagrin, Mr. Bauer blogged about my little San Francisco pizza adventure before I could even get the sauce stains off my shirt. Actually, there was another reason I went to both places that night: My friend Alan Richman had ranked them both very highly in his recent GQ piece provocatively titled "The 25 Best Pizzas You'll Ever Eat." How highly? Pizzeria Delfina was ranked third and Gialina 14th.
Now I know that up to now I have been conspicuously absent in the heated debate that's ensued since Alan's piece came out a couple of weeks ago. No more. I loved reading Alan's pizza piece because Alan's stories are always a good read designed to provoke argument and debate. He's a wonderful, very funny writer who actually visits and tastes all the food he writes about (note to Details editors: Googling is not eating).
All that being said, I didn't agree with all of Alan's individual pizzeria and collective pizza city rankings. Detroit is certainly not a top five American pizza city. A provocative statement to be sure by Alan, but not a true one. But I digress. I went to Pizzeria Delfina to see if it could possibly be better than Pizzeria Bianco (ranked fourth) or Una Pizza Napoletana (which Alan preposterously ranked 25th).
In other words, I went to see if Richman was a serious pizza eater and not just a serious pizza provocateur.
Pizzeria Delfina (Mission)
Pizzeria Delfina was hopping when I got to the original Mission District location at 6:30 p.m. I ordered one of my litmus test pies, a Margherita, and upon a friend's recommendation, a glass of lemonade. I sat at the counter overlooking the open kitchen and oven, a gas-fired Marsal oven that can easily get cranked up to more than 700 degrees.
The lemonade came first, and it is a fine lemonade indeed, perfectly balanced between sweet and tart and smooth and astringent. It was a proper and perfectly realized lemonade.
Alas, my Margherita pizza was proper and quite good, but it was not perfectly realized. The dough needed salt, and the crust lacked a certain je ne sais quoi. Actually I do know. It lacked soul. I would be happy eating a Delfina pizza every day of my life, but it probably would never make me jump for pizza joy.
I was actually in and out of Delfina in 20 minutes, which, unfortunately for my diet, left me time to hit Bi-Rite Creamery, just across the street from Delfina. I ordered a large cup with scoops of salted caramel, roasted banana, malted vanilla, and some hot fudge. It was insanely, seriously delicious, rich and creamy, and vividly flavored. It took all the self-control I could muster to throw most of it out. But I did, which was a good thing because I still had to contend with dinner at Gialina with Michael, his friend Michael Murphy, and my niece Sara.
Gialina is in Glen Park, way out on San Francisco's BART system, and because they don't take reservations we ended up waiting almost an hour for a table. While we waited we could have had a taco at La Corneta, a taqueria Mr. Kuban wrote about on his last visit to San Francisco, but I think everyone else would have regarded doing that as excessive, even though I was the only one in the group who had already eaten elsewhere.
We were seated way in the back, right near the shockingly conventional, by-the-slice Bakers Pride gas pizza oven. We ordered some meatballs as an appetizer (toothsome and terrific) and a salad. They mistakenly brought us a pork belly appetizer, which we told them we would happily eat it rather than having it go to waste. The pork belly was good, crispy and fatty and porky, but even I the avowed pork belly lover, am now starting to suffer from pork belly fatigue.
We ordered two pizzas, the Atomica ($15), made with tomato, mushrooms, mozzarella, spicy chiles, and red onions, which Michael said was Gialina's signature pizza, and the potato with applewood smoked bacon, red onions, rosemary, and gorgonzola ($15).
The pizzas arrived at our table shortly after we ordered. They were a pale brown rather than a golden brown, and neither had all that many air bubbles. The crust was irregularly shaped. Some parts of the cornicione were raised a couple of inches, while others were barely a half inch high. But even without tasting my first slice I immediately sensed that this was pizza I was going to fully embrace.
The Atomica was actually not that special (Michael said it had been much better on previous occasions), but the potato pie was special--sharp and smokey and crunchy and tender at the same time. Gialina's pizza had heart and soul, which, along with passion and knowledge, are the most important ingredients in pizza.
With Delfina out of the way I have only two of Richman's top five still to try, Great Lake in Chicago and Bob & Timmy's in Providence, Rhode Island, his number one– and number five–rated pizzas, respectively. I tried to eat at Great Lake the last time I was in Chicago, but I got there at 4 p.m. and it doesn't open until 5. I must admit that I had never heard of Bob & Timmy's until Alan put it in his top five. Provocative, for sure. Correct, we'll find out.