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Golden Boy Pizza: A Late-Night Pizza Mecca in San Francisco

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[ Photographs: David Kover]

Golden Boy Pizza

542 Green Street, San Francisco CA 94133; (map); 415-982-9738; goldenboypizza.com
Getting there: The 8X, 10, 30, and 39 bus will all get you close
Pizza style: Sicilian
Oven type: Gas
The skinny: A greasy square slice that is an institution on the San Francisco late-night pizza scene. It's flawed-but-satisfying when it's fresh; mushy if it has been sitting around
Notes: Open until 2 a.m. on weekend nights
Price: Regular slice, $2.75; pepperoni or sausage, $3.25; clam, pesto, or combination, $3.75. Cash only

Even amid the flashing lights that dominate San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood, it's hard to miss Golden Boy Pizza. The giant neon hand above the restaurant points the way. And the people follow. They don't come for delicate artisan pies. The purpose of a slice from Golden Boy is to sate the alcohol-induced hunger of a party-goer finishing a night on the town. And for that purpose, Golden Boy is a San Francisco institution.

I made two visits to Golden Boy in the same night. The first was a fact-finding mission during the sober dinnertime hour. The second was a late-night visit during Golden Boy's midnight rush. What did I learn? At Golden Boy, timing is everything.

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Golden Boy has something of a punk-rock vibe. The walls are plastered with stickers, and Fuel TV plays above the counter, so you can watch BMX bikers and skateboarders smash their faces while you stuff yours. The menu board, which hangs behind the register, is written in letters that switch haphazardly from lower to uppercase. This board also makes sure that patrons are aware of all the particulars of dining at Golden Boy. For instance, Golden Boy's policy on the music played in the restaurant: "WE tUrn it UP NEvER DOWN." As to questions from customers: "IF YOU DONt SEE IT DONT ASK 4 it." Other important gibberish: "SeXy t mE NYYYCE."

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Pizza at Golden Boy is Sicilian-style, and can be ordered by the slice or in massive sheets. There are six possible toppings on the menu, but counter space is limited, so only a few are available at any one time. Pies get cooked in a Baker's Pride gas oven at the back of the restaurant and slices get a quick re-heat in a smaller oven up front before ending up on your plate. The dough is made from Mondako brand flour.

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From a purely technical standpoint, the slices we were served during that first visit were a mess. The pizza arrived in plastic baskets lined with red and white-checked wax paper, two slices slightly overlapping in each basket. Even if you rushed the top slice off, hoping to minimize grease absorption, the pizza was soggy. Only the very tip-end of the crust offered even a hint of crispiness. Though the bottom crust was nicely browned, with those little furrows that are familiar on a Sicilian slice, it was mushy all the way through. Flecked with oregano, this pizza ate something like sodden focaccia.

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Each slice had a thick layer of cheese that glistened with grease. The sauce was sparse, but too sweet. There was standard pepperoni and large chunks of sausage that boasted some zip, though with a distinctly chemical taste. The flavors of the zucchini, mushroom, and onions on the Combo Slice barely registered. Altogether, this was pizza I'd expect to find at a carnival, or—gulp!—in a school cafeteria. Which is probably why I found it so damned comforting. Clearly, this isn't pizza I'm recommending, but I have to say, I kinda liked it, in a so-bad-it's-good way.

Case closed? Not quite. Out of a sense of journalistic integrity—okay, an obsessive love of pizza—I came back to Golden Boy just after midnight that same night. The scene was transformed.

To begin with, there was the perfume of pizza all around. As if the neon sign outside weren't enough to draw customers in, the air surrounding Golden Boy was redolent with the smells of baking crust and grease. It was hard to understand how the folks seated in the bar next door could stand to be without a slice in their hands. Everyone else seemed to want one. People were lined up the block, waiting eagerly for their own grease-bomb. There were girls in tiger-striped tank tops and men calling each other "bro-chacho" as they wobbled slightly. Golden Boy's employees were obliging them all, slinging slices through the open window as quickly as they could.

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The high demand meant that pizza was coming out of the oven ultra-fresh, and it made a world of difference. Though still not perfect, these late night slices were crispy on the edges and had far more chew underneath. They even seemed to have risen further than the soggy slices we'd had for dinner, which had looked somewhat deflated for Sicilian squares. And, of course, I imagine that after a few drinks, the extra grease on these slices was just what the doctor ordered.

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The only serious misstep was the clam pie, which we hadn't been able to try earlier in the evening. Heaped with garlic and parsley, it offered a sharp pungency that was intermittently studded with the funky taste of shellfish. It was pizza the Swamp Thing might have liked, and not what I wanted before bed.

Certainly, the pizza at Golden Boy is flawed, especially if you arrive in a low-traffic hour. But, good god, come midnight, it's absolutely golden.

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