San Francisco: Cupola Serves Quality Neapolitan Pies... at the Mall
Westfield San Francisco Center, 845 Market Street, 4th Floor (map); 415-896-5600; cupolasf.com
Pizza style: Neapolitan-inspired
Oven type: Wood-fired
The skinny: Quality Neapolitan-inspired pies on the fourth floor of the mall
Price: Pies, $11 to $16.50
Granted, The Westfield Mall in San Francisco is particularly fancy-pants. And the restaurant in question, Cupola Pizzeria, comes to us from Lark Creek Restaurant Group, who seem to specialize in doing upscale dining at places that require a color-coded floor plan—airports, chain hotels, Las Vegas casinos, et cetera. In fact, they'd already established themselves in this particular mall with Lark Creek Steak long before Cupola opened in the adjacent space about three months ago.
Though one has to walk past three floors of Banana Republics and J. Crews to get to Cupola, the only real I'm-in-a-mall touch inside the actual restaurant is the series of bright red "runway" tables that run the length of the restaurant. (I guess this signifies the meeting of fashion and dining?) I'd find these kinda cheesy, if they didn't also serve as a giant red guideline directly to the impressive Stefano Ferrara oven in the restaurant's open kitchen.
Imported from Italy, this wood-burner apparently tipped over the forklift when they pulled it off the boat. They needed to install extra supports below the mall elevator in order to get the oven up to the restaurant on the fourth floor. That shows some serious commitment to cooking up pies with the proper equipment, and Chef Christian Hermsdorf—formerly of Bar Bambino—sure seemed geeked up about the thing when he stopped by our table to see how we'd enjoyed our meal.
Hermsdorf and company make their dough from a Molino Pasini 00 flour and commercial wet yeast. On the pizzas we tried, the resulting crust had achieved the crisp-tender-chewy trifecta. Most importantly, it tasted good. The crust was not quite leopard-spotted, but still sported enough char to impart flavor, making for bones that I did not want to leave behind.
Cupola offers up traditional Margherita and Marinara pies, but it also veers California-style, with such offerings as the Zucca: squash blossoms, zucchini, almonds, mint, and mascarpone. However, it's the Carne—topped with salumi, sausage, and sweet onions—that represents the certain crowd-pleaser. The thin-sliced salumi that covers the surface of the pie crisps up in the oven, becoming almost salami-bacon. The housemade sausage, spiced with garlic and a bit of fennel, has been applied less generously than the salumi, but still has something to add. This pie is very up front with its flavors, but it does taste good.
The Funghi also proved quite satisfying, though as with the Carne, we wished for a second layer of flavor. The chanterelle mushrooms, fontina cheese, and leeks made for an earthy combination that might have been even better with the addition of something slightly herby to add complexity.
As for their Margherita, Cupola matches the pedigree of their oven with rather pedigreed ingredients. They import buffalo mozzarella, and use San Marzanos for their sauce. This latter ingredient, however, seems to have gone awry, and we found that the sharply tangy sauce lacked any rounder flavors to even it out—it just tasted a bit thin. This demoted what should have been a very good pizza to pleasant enough.
So, what does the presence of good quality Neapolitan-inspired pizza on the fourth floor of a mall say about the state of pizza today? Certainly, that we've come a long way. By the same token, I don't expect to see Sbarro or Pizza Hut loading cords of wood into their ovens anytime soon.