San Francisco: Enjoyable Pizzas at Ristobar
2300 Chestnut Street, San Francisco, CA 94123 (map); 415-923-6464; ristobarsf.com
Pizza style: Neapolitan-inspired with some California-style toppings
Oven type: Gas
The skinny: Highly enjoyable oval-shaped pizzas with an ultra-thin crust served in a lavish setting
Price: Pies, $11 to $15
According to Ristobar's website, the restaurant's name is an Italian word that describes a "casual, comfortable neighborhood gathering place." Looking around the restaurant at the magnums of wine on display, the heavy dose of dark wood in the furniture, and the frescoed ceiling, I was seeing something quite different and it made me worried this place might be too stuffy to turn out good pizza. I envisioned a menu full of pricey entrees that rendered pizza a second-class citizen. So consider my dinner at Ristobar a lesson in snap judgments—decor does not dictate what comes out of the oven, and I very much enjoyed the pies I was served.
I'll call the pizzas at Ristobar Neapolitan-inspired, though they defy easy categorization. To begin with, the pies at Ristobar are baked in a gas-fired oven. Check out the oven's rotating ceramic plate, on which Chef Angelo Auriana can apparently cook up to eight pies at once, in the video above. The pies arrive at your table on wooden cutting boards, cut in a cross-hatch pattern rather than the typical wedges to accommodate their ovoid shape. They sport an ultra-thin bottom crust, and an airy cornicione with a mild puff. With such a thin crust, the centers droop.
Looking at these pies, which were a bit less charred than I might have wanted in spots, I was prepared to be disappointed.
Instead, I found myself quite pleased with the crust's bready flavor; it struck me as a slightly milder version of what is served at Bay Area favorite Pizzeria Delfina (another Neapolitan-inspired pizzeria that uses a gas oven). And despite the shortage of singe-marks, the exterior of the cornicione on two of my pizzas crackled satisfyingly with each bite before giving way to a medium chewiness. A third, paler pizza lacked some of this crunchy pleasure.
The Margherita at Ristobar (named the Lombard) is an exercise in understated balance. Neither the mildly tangy cooked tomato puree, the clean-tasting fior di latte, nor the mellow olive oil take center stage, but rather complement each other in a quiet whole. With each of these toppings applied in a sparing layer over the very thin crust, the result is a very light pie—you feel you could eat quite a few of these without getting full.
A recent addition to the menu, the Jackson celebrates Spring. Topped with asparagus, mint, and Crescenza cheese, this pie's green coloring shocked me slightly on first look. But then I tasted the sweet, rich asparagus puree that had replaced the red sauce on this pizza, and found myself wishing for a bowl of it. The mint leaves that had been scattered on the pie—don't knock it 'til you've tried it!—accented the sauce wonderfully and provided a much-needed punch of flavor, as the cheese proved a bit bland. Even a bit more spicing might have been nice, so take your waiter up on the offer of fresh-cracked pepper.
Surprisingly, it was the pizza topped with meat that left me disappointed. The Vesta arrived ruffled with arugula and speck over a layer of sausage, red sauce and fior di latte. If the crumbles of gamey fennel sausage were a bit dried out, the biggest problem was the way this pie had been constructed. The uncooked paper-thin ribbons of speck that stretched across the pie slid off the slices as you picked them up. The arugula offered similar messiness, not to mention such a strong peppery flavor that it drowned out the mild sauce and cheese.
There are six pizzas on Ristobar's menu, and plenty of California-style bells and whistles if you want them—I did not try the Valencia, with its candied walnuts, pear, and mixture of cheeses. The very restrained Margherita, however, was the best thing I ate. No individual ingredient bowled me over, yet as a whole, this pie was deeply satisfying. When the bill arrived at the end of the night, I discovered that, despite the restaurant's lavish interior, Ristobar is capable of showing at least a little restraint with the pricing as well—the pizzas we tried were each under $16.