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The United States of Pizza: Where to Eat Pizza in California (Part 1, Northern California)
And it's back! Once again, it's been a while since we dropped an installment of this 50-part series on you. Today we begin the C's with California. Yeah, it's a doozy, so we split it in two — Northern and Southern. Let's get this show on the road... —The Mgmt.
Bay Area Quick Overview
More "Best Of" Lists
OK. I'm not even going to pretend that this is a comprehensive list of all the Northern California pizzerias worthy of your attention. The rate at which new places are opening there and the geographic vastness make this a crazy undertaking, to be sure. And, yes, in fact, this will encompass mostly Bay Area pizzerias, since these are the places that both L.A. Pizza Maven (LAPM) and I have eaten at. But that's the great thing about the Comments section below. If we've missed your favorite place, you can set our butts straight and give us the real dope. Anyway ...
As LAPM points out in many of his posts on Slice, the Bay Area pizza scene has caught fire in the last decade and is a far cry from when he lived there in the '80s. Heck, it's a far cry from what it was when I started Slice almost seven years ago in 2003.
It's funny, because even in 2005, when Ed Levine's book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven came out, he wrote that, "California is, on the whole, a lousy pizza state." That's decidedly untrue today, what with all the Neapolitan-influenced wood-fired-oven joints cramming the scene.
But speaking of WFO joints, as much as they're sprouting up like weeds, Ed points out that the state's first pizzeria was a wood-fired joint called Lupo's, founded in 1935 in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood. Lupo's became Tommaso's in 1971, when Frankie Cantalupo got out of the business and sold the place to his longtime pizzaman, Tommy Chin — with the provision that Chin change the name. "Chin was no dummy," Ed writes, "He knew that a pizzeria named Chin's was going to have a rough time attracting customers, so he renamed it Tommaso's, which was Cantalupo's nickname for him."
So I suppose Tommaso's might be a good place to start. Here's Ed on the joint ...
Tommaso's: SF's Original Wood-Fired-Oven Pizzeria
Agostino Crotti, whose family bought Tommaso's from Tommy Chin in 1973, is a dedicated pizzaiolo and restaurateur. Every night, customers see him tending to the 70-year-old wood-burning oven in the right-hand corner of the restaurant. He's a hard-working man turning out an honest pie. the crust has a nice yeasty flavor and a fine raised lip and flattens out considerably the further toward the center of the pie you go, leaving the crust a little gummy. the Italian sausage, from Molinari's down the street, is a little bland. I love sitting in one of the white wooden booths that line both sides of Tommaso's, ordering a pizza and staring at the murals while I wait for my pie. Tommaso's doesn't make the pizza of my dreams, but if you want a slice of California pizza history, it's a destination. —Ed Levine
Stuffed Pizza and Deep Dish: Zachary's and Little Star
OK. I'll admit it. I have not yet tried the stuffed pizzas at either Zachary's Chicago Pizza (commonly known as just "Zachary's") or Little Star, but for people who love the stuffed or deep dish styles, well, those people in the Bay Area seem to be nutso about these places. I'm not quite sure if there's a hardcore rivalry going à la Frank Pepe's vs. Sally's Apizza in New Haven, Connecticut, but I do know folks who are either really into one or the other. (And I know Ed Levine here at Slice/Serious Eats prefers Little Star to Zachary's.)
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Zachary's was founded in 1983 on College Avenue in Oakland by Zach Zachowski and Barbara Gabel, both Wisconsin natives who had spent some time in Chicago (picking up a love of stuffed pizza there) before finding themselves in the Bay Area. They now have three locations — one opened a year later in Berkeley and the third in San Ramon in 2006.
Pies at Zachary's are stuffed, which means a layer of dough in a deep dish pan, followed by cheese and other ingredients (what would otherwise be called "toppings") and then another layer of dough followed by sauce. Like the thick Chicago-style pizza it is, it takes 30 to 40 minutes to bake. The place is usually crowded, and the Oakland and Berkeley locations are first-come, first-served. So if there's a table wait, they'll take your order while you wait so that it's ready by the time you sit down.
Additionally, a lot of my Bay Area friends who frequent Zachary's actually say they call ahead for the half-baked pizzas there. You can order them in advance, bring them home, and finish them off in your oven.
Also, additionally, finally, Zachary's does serve a thin-crust pizza.
5801 College Avenue, Oakland CA 94618; 510-655-6385
1853 Solano Avenue, Berkeley CA 94707; 510-525-5950
3110 Crow Canyon Place, San Ramon CA 94583; 925-244-1222
For Chicago-style pizza lovers based in San Francisco proper, though, the thing with Zachary's was it was across the Bay. Which is like when Manhattanites complain about going to any other borough. "OMG. It's so far." (Or, if you grew up in Olathe, Kansas, like I did, it was like having to go across town and traverse the three different sets of railroad tracks, any of which might set you back 15 minutes waiting for a half-mile-long train to crawl by—and if you were really unlucky, you'd get a train at all three. But I digress.)
Anyway, SF deep dish lovers caught a break in 2005, when Little Star opened in Western Addition (there's now a second location in the Mission). It does deep dish proper, not stuffed, so there's no top layer. But probably only Chicago natives and Windy City tourists will register the distinctions. It also opts for a cornmeal crust. As I said, Ed Levine here in the office, whom I'm bugging as I'm writing this all out, said he liked Little Star's crust more. It's buttery rich and crisp, he says. (Of course, he still says it's more a casserole than a pizza.)
Again, the waits at Little Star can be long, my SF friends say. Maybe as long as two hours on a Friday or Saturday. And you can't do the order-ahead thing like you can at Zachary's. (Oh, and LS, too, does a thin-crust pizza.)
New York–Style: Arinell and Gioia and Pizza My Heart
There are a handful of places to get a New York–style slice in the area: Arinell, Gioia, and Pizza My Heart.
Arinell has been around for more than 30 years and is the granddaddy of New York–style pizza in the area. It's the place that I've been recommended the by SF-area friends and Slice'rs when I put out requests for pizzerias to hit up on my visits to the region. From what my peeps tell me, it pretty much mirrors no-frills NYC slice joints, with just the standard toppings and what not. If you're visiting SF and are doing destination pizzerias, this might not be your place, but if you're near one of its two locations and are jonesing for NYC-style pizza, it may be an option.
2119 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley CA 94704; 510-841-4035
509 Valencia Street, San Francisco CA 94110; 415-255-1303
It seems that every city of a certain size has a New York native who decided the area needed a New York–style pizzeria. Berkeley already had the aforementioned Arinell, but that didn't stop Brooklyn native Will Gioia from opening his eponymous place in 2004. Our man Ed Levine here was impressed with Gioia when he visited. The place is New York–style, but with a bit more upscale touch than, say, Arinell. Seasonal toppings and a note about sustainably raised meat grace the menu, which lists things like The Julian, "calabrese sausage with spicy winter greens, red onions, garlic, and capers." And, hey, the Formaggio pie, with "two types of mozzarella and grana padano," sounds a bit Di Fara–esque, don't it? Gioia Pizzeria: 1586 Hopkins Street, Berkeley CA 94707; 510-528-4692; gioiapizzeria.com
Serious Eats's Carey Jones wanted to interject here ... So take it away, Carey! —The Mgmt.
You can't write about pizza in Northern California without writing about Pizza My Heart. (And you can't walk around the Bay Area without seeing someone in a Pizza My Heart T-shirt.) The mini-chain, with about 15 locations in the greater Bay, started in the little coastal town of Capitola in 1981. They serve a decent approximation of New York-style pizza in welcoming, faux-surf shop restaurants; pizza is usually ordered by the slice, and those slices are slid back into the gas oven before they're served. This being California, there's a whole lot of wacky topping going on, some of which is just too much for me—tomato and pesto sauce with tomatoes, ricotta, chicken, sausage, and artichoke? The crust isn't thick enough to take it. I prefer their simpler creations—a slice with Roma tomatoes, thinly shaved red onion, California garlic, and a sprinkle of basil was always my go-to order. The crust can be a little flat, in taste and in rise, but for an area without a real slice-shop tradition, it's pretty damn good. —Carey Jones
Thanks, Carey! I'll add PMH to my to-try list next visit. But right now I'll cover a few spots that for me have been tried and true. I have a number of spots I always end up at when I visit the Bay Area ... and a number of places that are still on my to-try list (often because I can't seem to tear myself away from my tried-and-true faves). Here, I'll just blab some from each list.
Tried and True: Emilia's Pizzeria, Berkeley
I really like Emilia's Pizzeria in Berkeley, which is doing a sort of New York–Neapolitan or Neapolitan American–style pizza. I've written about it a few times on Slice. If you want to read more, here: "First Look: Some Great Pizza at Emilia's Pizzeria in Berkeley, California." I'll quote myself:
In this whole pizza moment we've been experiencing lately it's all Neapolitan-this and artisanal-that. Freilich, though, is not trying to knock you out with claims of Naples-based authenticity, a fancy-pants imported oven, or ultra-chic interior design. Instead, the delicious, down-to-earth pizza speaks for itself amid a tiny store that's more suited for take-out
Such unpretentiousness is not to say that Freilich is unconcerned with the ingredients or the thought that go into the pizzas. Though his menu is not yet set, he's making his own Italian sausage (applied in nice, large, loose chunks) and sourcing cured-meat toppings from San Francisco's Molinari & Sons salumeria. He won't say where the cheese is from, but he's using a mixture of both fresh and aged mozzarella, along with just enough Parmigiano-Reggiano freshly grated onto the pies as they come out of the oven.
Tried and True: My Other Picks
I was going to recommend a handful of other places, but when I asked L.A. Pizza Maven for his picks and he turned them in, it turned out we're pretty much in agreement. Rather than parrot each other, I'll just let him do the talking below. Still, I will point out ...
- Pizzaiolo: Charlie Hallowell, the pizza-maker/owner of this place in Oakland, spent a number of years at Chez Panisse, picking up the local, sustainable, really good food stuff. He brings all that to the pizza here. The cheese he uses on the Margherita is easily the best cheese I've ever had on a Margherita pizza. It's been a few months since I've had a pizza here, but I can still taste that cheese and feel its buttery smoothness. Hallowell has since opened a sister pizzeria in Oakland called Boot and Shoe Service (it's in the space of a former cobbler), which, if food critic Michael Bauer can be believed, sounds as good as Pizzaiolo. Boot and Shoe Service: 3308 Grand Avenue, Oakland CA; 510-763-2668; bootandshoeservice.com
- Pizzeria Delfina: I've just always had really good pizza here. Neapolitan-influenced but cooked in a gas-fired oven. Slice readers report that it can be pretty inconsistent, but I've always had a good pie there (at the Mission District location). The place benefits from the whole California "ingredient-driven" menu. Look for seasonal specials and interesting combinations of toppings.
- Pizzeria Picco: This is my absolute favorite of the wood-fired-oven places in the area. Yeah, it's not really "Bay Area," I guess, since it's up a bit into Marin County north of the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge. But if you're visiting SF and decide to cross the bridge and see the beautiful landscape up north, you should stop in Larkspur.
- A16: Here's the thing ... I think the A16 pizza is adequate. It's not going to blow you away, but it's much better than many of the Neapolitan VPN pizzas I've had. Still, there's one little thing that I LOVE about A16 and that is the HOT CHILE OIL. It's served in little jars on the tables, and it elevates any pizza it's drizzled on.
My To-Try List — at the Top, Pizza Hacker
There are a number of places in the Bay Area I still want to try. At the top of my list, however, is a place that is not so much a place. It's a dude. A dude with a Weber kettle grill that he's converted into a portable wood-fired pizza oven. (He calls it the Franken Weber.) He shows up on the street with it, cooks pies, and sells them. Yes, this is Pizza Hacker, who you might have read about here before. I have heard from my friend and pizza expert Scott Wiener that "the guy is the real deal." Our interview with him makes this clear. Like many street vendors these days, you can find his location on Twitter: @pizzahacker
Others on My To-Try List
Cheeseboard Collective: It's a place in Berkeley I've been advised about since the early days of slice. Vegetarian. They have a special pie each day. You can't pick. You just get the special. It's supposed to be good. Readers? 1512 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley CA; cheeseboardcollective.coop
The Prospector: A VPN-certified Neapolitan pizzeria in Twain Harte, due east of the Bay Area on the edge of Yosemite National Park. prospectorwines.com
L.A. Pizza Maven's Take
Because our man in L.A. gets himself to the Bay Area more than I do, I asked "L.A. Pizza Maven" if he'd chime in with his take on the Bay Area/Northern California pizza scene. Take it away, LAPM! —The Mgmt.
More from LAPM
Over the last 5 years or so, the Bay Area, north, south, east and west, has blossomed like Death Valley after the recent drought ended. When I lived in San Francisco and Berkeley during the '80s, good pizza was a rare commodity. Great pizza was as hard to find as a righteous man in Sodom. Harder, even.
But that's all changed. And I'm not ashamed to admit that I can't name an unqualified favorite. Nevertheless, I'll try to make some helpful distinctions, starting with my favorites, since that's probably what you're most interested in.
My Top 3 Bay Area Pizzerias
Before I tear out the remaining hairs on my head, I'm going to call Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur, Pizzaiolo in Oakland, and Tony's Pizza Napoletana of North Beach in San Francisco tied in a photo finish for the region's best pizza. I'll get to those in a bit, but first let me build up to them. Starting from the bottom up, let's begin with ...
Howie's Artisan Pizza
Located in the upscale Town and Country outdoor mall in Palo Alto, which is in the South Bay for nonlocals, Howie's is helmed by longtime area chef and restaurateur Howard Bulka, and has been open for roughly a year.
I stopped in here early one afternoon, on the way up to San Francisco, but only had time and stomach capacity to order one pie—a sausage pizza. The fennel sausage was house-made from naturally raised Berkshire pork. The pie left me smiling. The ingredients, all produced by small farmers (most of them barely reaching a height of three and a half feet), were fresh and carefully selected; the crust, baked in a brick-lined gas oven at roughly 650°F, was nicely charred and blistered. Frankly, I can't pinpoint what was lacking, but somehow I wasn't overwhelmed. This testifies to my absurdly neurotic standard (though most Slice readers probably fall into that category). By any sane measure, Howie's is an excellent addition to the California pizza scene, and, perhaps a somewhat intangible point that some of us may appreciate, Howie was there himself, aproned and working on a new sourdough starter. Howie's Artisan Pizza: howiesartisanpizza.com
Due north in San Francisco is Gialina's, a cozy pizza place in the San Francisco's Glen Park neighborhood. I've eaten here twice—the review is on Slice here—and was impressed both times. This is where I first encountered nettles—on a pizza, that is. I've sampled several pies here, the Atomica; the wild nettle pizza with pancetta, red onions, and aged provolone; the sweet Italian sausage, broccoli rabe, and aged provolone pie; and the potato with applewood-smoked bacon, onions, and gorgonzola.
All these pizzas burst with flavors and imagination. There are several tasty salads and antipasti, including a pork belly dish that a native Chinese foodie sitting next time claimed was as good as the pork belly from the village he hailed from. The ambiance at Gialina's is friendly and inviting, and though it gets crowded, they will take your name and give you a call so you can wait in a nearby bar or stroll around. My only criticism of the pizza is that, compared to the very best pizzas to be had, the crust lacked somewhat in texture. For my taste, Gialina's crust was a bit too brittle, lacking the chewy quality that the finest pizzaioli can coax out of the dough. Still, if anyone invited me to Gialina's, I'd jump. Gialina: 2842 Diamond Street, San Francisco CA 94131 (map); 415-239-8500; gialina.com
Another of the Bay Area's top pizza destinations is Pizzeria Delfina, also reviewed here on Slice. Delfina has its rabid followers, guaranteeing a long wait for dinner, but it is definitely worth it. I've dined at the original Mission District location and the newer Pacific Heights outpost and had thoroughly satisfying pies at each location. The Margherita definitely exhibited the characteristic "wet center" of the true Neapolitan pizza style. That may disappoint those unfamiliar with this increasingly common pizza interpretation. On my next visit I added sausage to a Margherita and quickly devoured the spicy offering. The ingredients were top quality and mostly locally sourced, I believe. The crust, nicely charred and puffy, particularly for a gas oven, did not let down. Again, for no palpable reason, I have to rate Pizzeria Delfina just below my very favorite Bay Area pies.
Also in the city, A16, the first VPN-certified pizza maker in the Bay Area, served me two mouthwatering pies. The Margherita, perhaps a bit too soupy for my taste, still screamed, "Eat me!" The sausage pie lifted me up onto a pizza cloud. Each bite yielded chunks of spicy, fennel sausage and creamy mozzarella. This elegant Italian restaurant proved a bit difficult to get into on a Friday night but it is open for lunch, perhaps not everyday though. A16: 2355 Chestnut Street, San Francisco CA 94123; 415-771-2216; a16sf.com
Tony's Pizza Napoletana
I've had the Margherita with sausage at Tony's and, after the first bite, I transformed into a type of two-legged primate notably unconcerned with public dining civilities. The crust achieved the magical crisp and chewy quality that distinguishes the very best pies from the merely very good. The sausage pie was my only sampling of Tony's, but that may have been because I was overwhelmed by the options. Gemignani, of Naples award-winning fame, offers pies in a dizzying number of styles, baked in four different types of ovens. TPN is open for lunch, which sets it apart from most of these other restaurants. Tony's Pizza Napoletana: 1570 Stockton Street Union Street, San Francisco CA 94133 (at Union Street; map); 415-835-9888; tonyspizzanapoletana.com
Pizzeria Picco, in the North Bay, offers about a dozen pies all named after bicycle manufacturers, reflecting chef-owner Bruce Hill's passion for cycling. Hill has a full-service restaurant, Picco, next door to the pizzeria. Hill's artisanal philosophy rewards diners with the very best wood-burning oven pizza experience. Produce, meats, cheeses, and flour are all locally sourced, and apparently the Strauss ice cream he serves is "to die for." Hill insisted I return to try it, and now that he's set to open another pizza restaurant in San Francisco, I'm sure I'll take him up on that offer. The Cannondale, essentially a sausage pie, and the heirloom tomato and pancetta pies stood out for me. The crust, however, is what really elevates Picco's pizza to the top of my list. Pizzeria Picco: 316 Magnolia Avenue, Larkspur CA 94939; 415-945-8900; pizzeriapicco.com
Lastly, Pizzaiolo in Oakland merits inclusion at the very top o' the pizza heap. Like the other artisanal pizza-makers here, Charlie Hallowell has created a real jewel on this bourgeiosified stretch of Telegraph Avenue in the East Bay. Locally sourced ingredients and a wood-burning oven combine in properly trained hands to produce unsurpassed pizzas.
My favorites were the Margherita, with sausage added, and the potato pie. Like Picco and Tony's, the exceptional crust is the difference-maker. The perfect leopard-spotting and the puffy blisters truly delivered an eye-opening, taste bud delirium. What more can a pizza madman ask for? Pizzaiolo: 5008 Telegraph Avenue, Oakland CA 94609; 510-652-4888; pizzaiolooakland.com
So, there it is, my impressions of the Bay Area's bountiful pizza landscape. Even more exciting news for Bay Area pizzaphiles is that the legendary Neapolitan-style pizzaman Anthony Mangieri is soon to open his acclaimed Una Pizza Napoletana in SOMA, and Bruce Hill (Picco) is opening Zero Zero. Both should keep locals and visitors alike stuffed with cheesy, saucy, doughy deliciosity. Can't wait to get back up there. By the way, for those readers who like visuals, check my Slice reviews for photographic evidence of this pizza mother lode in Northern California. —LA Pizza Maven
We Want Your Intel
Well, there you have it, folks. Just a little bit of our pizza brain dump in the area. As I said at top, I know it's not comprehensive. It's more a list to answer the question, "Where's some good pizza in Northern California/the Bay Area?" If we missed your favorite place, have at it in the comments ... or submit it to Slice in the form of a review!