San Francisco: Starbelly
3583 16th Street, San Francisco CA 94114 (map); 415-252-7500; starbellysf.com
Pizza Style: Bread-y, California-style
The Skinny: Seasonally-driven pizzas shine with fresh, creative topping combinations; the "American style" sourdough crust is bread-y, flavorful and satisfying.
Price: $14 for Corn and Cherry Tomato; $14 for Fig and Blue Cheese; $15 for Chorizo and Egg
I'd never be one to say that too much pizza is a bad thing, but it's hard to deny that these days San Francisco has a glut of fancy pizza. And while you'll also rarely hear me say that a pizza is bad, not all of San Francisco's fancy pizzas are created equal.
Starbelly, from the good people behind Mission staple Beretta, has some of the best high-end pizza I've tried in this city. The decidedly California-style pies are hearty, satisfying, and ingredient-driven; by not attempting to put out an Italian, New York, or Chicago style crust, they create their own standard of San Francisco excellence. The almost constant wait at the Castro corner location is a testament to the success of their style.
The menu is largely seasonal, and while many ingredients are local, Chef Adam Timney is not afraid to source from a distance in order to ensure the best ingredients (cave-aged Gruyere comes from France, for example). While pizzas only make up one section of the menu, it's clear that a considerable amount of thought and attention are given to the pies.
Timney describes his sourdough crust as "American style". Bread-y, chewy, and flavorful, the crust is lightly browned in a gas-fired Marsal oven, allowing the yeasty sourdough taste to shine. The crust often does not stand up to the ingredients: it thins in the middle, and always requires a fork and knife. The upside, however, is you get to wipe up spilled toppings with the chewy crust-ends.
Since much of the Starbelly menu is shaped by the seasons, dishes that center around produce are almost always excellent. The corn pizza ($14), topped with cherry tomatoes, and basil puree was a perfect summer pizza—the sweet corn and tomatoes took center stage, while the basil provided a peppery contrast.
The fig pizza ($14) wasn't quite as well balanced—the pizza was entirely covered in a layer of melted blue cheese. Though delicious, the pungency of the cheese was too dominant; it was nice when combined with the sweet fruit, but the figs were too scattered to balance out the flavors. Still, a generous scattering of arugula added a nice freshness, and as we drank more wine, the intensity of the blue cheese became more desirable.
To my dismay, my favorite pizza of the evening was entirely cheese-less. The chorizo and egg pizza ($15), topped with fresh tomato sauce, cilantro. The crumbly chorizo had excellent spice and flavor. The egg, runny and perfectly cooked, added such an excellent richness that I didn't miss the cheese at all, not least because the dripping yolks paired wonderfully with the sourdough crust.
No matter how many pizzas I try in San Francisco, Starbelly always manages to make it onto my short list of favorites. And when I find myself eating a sourdough pie with a glass of Sonoma wine on a (heated) back patio, I can't help but think that this may be the ultimate San Francisco pizza experience.