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San Francisco: Sea Urchin Pizza by a Michelin-Starred Chef at Cotogna
490 Pacific Ave, San Francisco, CA 94133 (map); 7415-775-8508; cotognasf.com
Pizza style: Neapolitan-inspired
Oven type: Wood-fired
The skinny: Good pizzas from the Michelin-starred chef behind Quince
Price: All pies, $15
Cotogna opened to a great deal of fanfare this past November. It's no wonder—as the less buttoned-down offshoot of Michelin-starred Quince, Cotogna promised the opportunity to sample some of Chef Michael Tusk's Italian cooking at a manageable price. If a chef with Tusk's accolades is going to try his hand at pizza, I'm inclined to check it out. If he's pushing the boundaries of pizza toppings to include pies with sea urchin, then he definitely has my attention.
The San Francisco pizza landscape is littered with creative toppings, but even so, I've never seen a sea urchin pizza before. Each mouthful of this pie seemed to offer a new flavor. The orange sections of urchin that studded the pie were briny, sweet, and custardy, and a spritz of lime added an aromatic brightness. Then there were the bites of milky richness provided by the cauliflower-cream. All told, this was a conglomeration of flavors that I'm not sure that I associated with pizza-ness, but it was surprising and intriguing.
Cotogna also offers a white pizza topped with nettles and a runny egg. The interplay between the grassiness of the nettles and the saltiness of a generous grating of Pecorino worked quite well.
The most traditional of the pizzas on the menu featured lamb sausage, broccoli, and smoked ricotta. The sausage was lip-smackingly good, gamy and well seasoned, and it paired perfectly with the smoky ricotta and the mellow heat from some Sicilian chilies. But the fresh mozzarella on this pie was in desperate need of some salt, and the sparingly-applied tomato sauce was relatively bland.
All of these pies are built on a Neapolitan-style crust that is cooked in an oven stoked with almond wood. The oven burns about 800 degrees, and pies cook for three to four minutes. They come out crisp-skinned and lightly blistered. The cornicione is airy, and can feel a bit insubstantial at first, but develops a pleasing chewiness as the pies spend a few minutes outside of the oven. The thin undercarriage of the pizza is stiff enough that slices can be eaten by hand, though a heavy brushing of olive oil is applied to the end-crust before it arrives at the table, so prepare for greasy fingers.
As the local critics have made their rounds of Cotogna, their praise for Michael Tusk's food, especially the pasta, has been almost hyperventilating. The pizza at Cotogna may not be quite as transcendent as the pasta, but it is seriously good. Even if you decide to order primarily from the other sections of Cotogna's menu, it's worth it to have your notions of pizza broadened with an few bites of that sea urchin-topped pie.