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Copper Top Ovens Wins San Francisco's Nomadic Pizza Throwdown

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Photographs: Seth Mazow

You may remember when we mentioned that Coffee Bar was set to host San Francisco's "Nomadic Pizza Throw-Down", a mobile vendor pizza taste-off that raised $2480 for tsunami victims in neighboring Japan. At this event, four mobile pizzaiolos made pizza for over 300 charitable/hungry people whose $12 admission bought a beverage, a slice from each competitor, and a vote to decide the winner. Coffee Bar called it a "tasty approach to global citizenry". What follows is a rundown of the pizzas sampled from the day.

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Pizza Politana offered the most intense slice available, the aptly named "Xtra Xtra". The name didn't disappoint, it really had "Xtra" tasty tomato sauce, black olives, Calabrian chiles and Redwood Hill feta. The Calumbrian chiles were a great call; they provided a lot of in-your-face heat that quickly subsided, leaving your taste buds in tact. The other flavors still came through on the non-chile infused bites. The sauce was a little watery, but had a sharp tanginess that helped balance out some of the intense toppings. The crust didn't have a whole lot of complexity beyond a little char, but it was nicely leavened and crispy. Pizza Politana won my vote; their slice rocked my world.

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Copper Top Ovens brought some unique flavor combos, which really set them apart. I tried the mascarpone, lamb, scallions, rosemary and blue cheese pizza. While initially skeptical of the mascarpone, I was won over at first bite. The cheese was luxurious in its creamy, sweetness, and the rosemary and lamb contributed earthy undertones. The sweetness was further enhanced by a splash of farmer's market honey, while some truffle oil added some additional earthy complexity.

Unlike the other vendors, Copper Top didn't skimp on the cheese, and each bite boasted a nice, thick, oozy layer of cheesy goodness. One piece of lamb was straight-up gristle, but every other piece was well-trimmed. The lack of tomato products (sauce or otherwise) hurt a bit, as the slice would have benefited from the additional acidity, but the slice was delicious nonetheless. The crust was a little doughy, but it suited the rich nature of the slice.

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Casey's Pizza (reviewed here) impressed me the most with their moral rectitude. I was in a pack of hungry people eyeing the latest pizza to come off Casey's Weber-BBQ-turned-pizza-oven, and was eager to get down to business. The first person who had a slice told Casey that it tasted kinda burnt. Upon inspection of the slice and the rest of the pizza, the pizzaiolo agreed and would not take money for such a inferior product. He let anyone who wanted a free slice take their chances, but could not in good conscience let people judge him based on this charred offering. I was very impressed; it showed an admirable dedication to his craft and customers. I waited for an acceptable pie, and thought it was pretty good. A standard Margherita, the crust was still a little over-done, but such is the challenge of working with an unforgiving oven. However, the crust still managed to be spongy on the inside. The sauce was well-balanced between sweet and acidic and topped with high-quality cheese and crisp basil leaves.

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My last slice was the mushroom pizza by Fists of Flour. The chef was apologizing to waiting patrons that he was quickly running out of garlic and shallots, which, while not vital, gave his pizzas a bump in flavor. The pie I had featured plenty of both, and I respect his heavy hand with such tasty ingredients. He seemed to think it was better to run out early than offer watered down pizzas until the end. The crust was crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, which I regard as ideal. The sauce was a little thicker than the others, and pretty smooth, without overriding tastes of pepper, acidity or sweetness. His mushrooms were pleasantly chewy and rich, which accentuated, but didn't dominate the pizza. I thought the cheese added a faint saltiness, and the slice's flavors and textures were quite harmonious.

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Copper Top Ovens owner Tom with his oven and its groupies

Copper Top won the crowd vote by a healthy margin. Owner Tom Gerstel credits his win to quality ingredients and a happy team: "The laughter and the atmosphere we have around the oven is key, we're hard workers and jokesters. That's just how we roll." He's been working on his signature mascarpone sauce for months, and he thought its uniqueness played a big part in his victory. The attendees obviously agreed. I heard many versions of "Man, you gotta try that guy's lamb pizza," and Tom had quite the ravenous crowd standing around him.

In the end, everyone won. Tsunami relief efforts were bolstered, Coffee Bar got some good pr, the vendors all had fun and raised their profile, and attendees got to eat lots of incredible pizza.

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