My summer pizza safari to San Francisco proved to be an unqualified success. No, I didn’t return home with the stuffed heads of pizza-makers, but I did bag two transcendent pie experiences. Tony Gemignani, of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach, served me an impeccable Margherita and sausage pie, the red, green and white colors swirling in an almost hallucinatory vision made doubly intense by the intoxicating aromas that nearly knocked me off the bar stool.
The following afternoon I visited A16, the VPN-certified pizza restaurant in the Marina District that gained fame for its pizza first under Christophe Hille and then under Nate Appleman (who, as Slice readers know, has moved to NYC to open a pizzeria). A16, named for the highway that connects Naples with Puglia, did not disappoint.
We followed the hostess through a tastefully decorated space, covered in restrained earth tones, punctuated by fresh sunflowers bursting with golden hues, and bathed in soft natural light. I ordered the Margherita and the salsiccia pies then immediately tore into the crusty, rustic, home-baked bread, dipping it in extra virgin olive oil. Admittedly, I risked overloading on the carbs before the pies arrived, but I was already hopelessly out of control.
Meanwhile, pizzas passed by me left and right. I felt as if I were at a strip club, but instead of eyeballin’ sexy ladies, I glued my eyes to the wait staff and their pulchritudinous pies. The Margherita, simplicity incarnate, arrived first. Flour (Caputo "00"), mozzarella, a few basil leaves, and sauce stared back at me like a high school sweetheart offering her innocence to her lover.
Sorry, but great pizza does that to me.
The wood-burning oven imparted the characteristic, smoky char to the crust; the high heat produced a beautifully blistered cornicione, and, combined with the fine flour, contributed to the light, airy texture and almost sweetness of the pie’s foundation. Such high-quality crust guarantees that you'll dip any remnants in sauce or oil and consume them ravenously.
The spicy, pungent and fresh-tasting sauce and the smooth, creamy mozzarella (from the artisanal Gioia Cheese Co. just south of L.A.) were nearly faultless—the only imperfections being the absence of cheese on an isolated region of the pie (a problem common to Neapolitan style pies) and the “wet” center, which some pizzaphiles object to. Naturally, the pie’s wetness also resulted in tip sag, the other symptom of traditional Neapolitan pizza.
The salsiccia pie, in spite of the absence of red sauce, left me speechless. The crust was flawless and, lacking sauce, perfectly maintained its structural integrity, even under the weight of generously supplied spicy, fennel sausage, yellow peppers, and mozzarella. Every bite yielded a carnival of sweet and spicy flavors. I lingered as long as possible over each mouthful, not wanting to send the tasty morsels on their way to the digestive tract.
2355 Chestnut Street, San Francisco CA (Marina Dist., near Divisadero; map); 415-771-2216; a16sf.com
Pizza Style: Neapolitan
Oven Type: Wood-oven
The Skinny: Longtime SF Neapolitan favorite A16 continues to turn out great pizza even after departure of celebrated chef Nate Appleman
Price: Pies start at $11 (marinara), run to $15.50 (salsiccia); more, if you add prosciutto, pancetta, arugula, or an egg
If I have to find some fault with the pie, it would be that it should have been cut into six or eight slices, rather than four. Otherwise, the pies, in my opinion, rank at the very top of Bay Area pizza. The wood-burning oven and the resulting crispy and chewy crust vaults A16 over Delfina and Gialina. Not to diminish the other establishments in the slightest but, if I had time for only one pie, it would either be the A16 salsiccia or the Margherita-sausage combination Gemignani made.
The San Francisco Bay Area certainly has traveled a culinary light year from the '80s, when I had to satisfy my pizza cravings with truly inferior pies. Today, a pizza-lover can confidently enter several establishments spread throughout the region from Glen Park (Gialina), the Mission (Delfina), the Marina (A16), and North Beach (Tony’s) in SF to the East Bay (Pizzaiolo and the soon-to-open Emilia’s Pizzeria) and to the North Bay (a review of Bruce Hill's Larkspur pizzeria, Picco, is coming), and sit down to scrumptious pies. My days of West Coast pizza nightmares seem to have finally come to an end.
Now all we need out here is a quality slice joint.