Slice

San Francisco: Pizza History Buried Under a Heap of Cheese at Tommaso's

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[Photographs: David Kover]

Tommaso's Restaurant

1042 Kearny Street, San Francisco, CA 94133 (map)
415-398-9696; tommasos.com
Pizza style: New York-Neapolitan
Oven type: Wood-fired
The skinny: The oldest wood-fired oven on the West Coast turns out pretty good crust, but it's topped with far too much cheese
Price: Pies, $16.50 to $27

Serving pizza out of what is reportedly the oldest wood-fired brick oven on the West Coast, Tommaso's practically drips with old-school bona fides. The host greets you in a legitimate Italian accent, the walls are painted with a giant mural of the Bay of Naples, and the framed reviews and accolades displayed near the entrance go back at least thirty years. I imagine the basement dining room feels more or less like it did when the restaurant first opened over seventy-five years ago. If only Tommaso's hadn't buried all that pizza parlor legitimacy under a suffocating blanket of cheese.

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The wood-fired oven in Tommaso's has been there since 1935, when the restaurant was known as Lupo's. The restaurant has changed hands twice since then. First, in 1971, longtime employee Tommy Chin took over the operation, putting the Italian version of his own name on the marquee. In 1973, he sold the business to the Crotti family, Italian immigrants who have owned the restaurant ever since, with Chin initially staying on to teach them the original recipes. Over the years, Tommaso's has earned its way onto a number of best-of lists, and these days, the restaurant still packs in the customers — on a recent Saturday night, the wait reached about sixty minutes during prime dinner hours.

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A slice of Tommaso's pizza certainly has its strengths. The end crust gets nicely browned, crisp on the exterior with some chew, while the undercarriage shows off a speckling of scorch marks. A sign at the front of the restaurant advertises that Tommaso's sauce is for sale, and I can see why. The raw sauce of crushed tomatoes is bright and flavorful.

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But on my visit, it was hard to locate these positive attributes beneath the cheese. Tommaso's covers its pizza in full-fat, shredded mozzarella. Too much of it. The rather greasy surface of the pie hides much of the flavor from the sauce, while the tips of the slices go limp under the weight of all that cheese. For lovers of a thoroughly cheesy pizza, Tommaso's will hit the spot, but I found the balance seriously out of whack.

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Other than a chicken breast and artichoke pie, the toppings at Tommaso's stay traditional. The herby sausage comes sliced ultra-thin, allowing the edges to develop a nice crispness in the oven (though I might have preferred it in meatier chunks). The small pepperoni discs curl up into little chalices like the ones immortalized in pie-ku. Be warned that both types of pizza-meat make a very salty combination with the cheese, which is already heavy on the sodium. Mushrooms are chopped membrane-thin, but they do manage to stand out against the cheese because they're so generously applied.

Back in 2005, when Ed wrote about Tommaso's in A Slice of Heaven, he finished his review saying: "Tommaso's doesn't make the pizza of my dreams, but in a city lacking many quality pizzerias, Tommaso's is a worthwhile destination." Well, the San Francisco pizza scene has changed quite a bit since then. If you want a whiff of San Francisco pizza history, Tommaso's is certainly your place. But unless your ideal pizza leans heavily towards the cheese, we can recommend quite a few places around town that serve a better pie.

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