If you've been reading Slice, you'll know that the in the last few years the San Francisco Bay Area has been awash with lip-smacking, finger-sucking, delirium-inducing pizza. When I think about the years I spent in San Francisco wandering from neighborhood to neighborhood--from the Haight to Soma, from the Marina to the deep Richmond, from Chinatown to the Mission--in search of a decent pie, I can hardly believe the city's culinary transformation.
Once, the best pizza that could be found was limited, in my experience, to Tomasso's in North Beach. I do recall many happy memories scarfing down a mozzarella-and-sausage pie from their brick oven. Yet, looking back, I'm certain the fog of time may be clouding the reality of those pies. They may have been quite tasty but, compared to the work of today's pizzaioli, it's irrefutable: The new piemen on the block rule!
Today, pizza-lovers can satisfy their cravings for great pizza all over the Bay Area. Over the summer, I made it a point to verify this claim. And though I didn't make it to the East Bay's renowned Pizzaiolo, I did confirm SF's burgeoning pizza rep. A16, Tony's Pizza Napoletana, and Pizzeria Delfina earn props for the delicious, though different, pizzas they produce. Likewise, Pizzeria Gialina (to be reviewed shortly) deserves the praise heaped on its scrumptious, if somewhat eccentric, pies.
But today I'm focusing on PIzzeria Picco in Marin County. Thanks to chef Bruce Hill, pizzaphiles have been able to indulge in their gastronomic obsession since 2005 at this wood-oven pizzeria north of the Golden Gate Bridge in the quaint village of Larkspur.
Hill, who discovered, at an early age, that his journey through life would follow the trail of inspired cooking (at 18, he began his training at the California Culinary School), has absorbed the influence of Alice Waters and her organic, local, and sustainable vision of food preparation. He has taken Waters' quintessentially Californian approach and perfected it with celebrated stints at Jeremy Towers' Stars and Aqua before branching out on his own. Today, in addition to the pizzeria, Hill operates a full-service restaurant, Picco, right next door, as well as the ultra-hip, award-winning Bix in San Francisco.
Enough with the preliminaries! The proof of Hill's stellar work is in the pies, and we tried four of the ten he offers. The pizzas are cooked between 850 and 900 degrees Fahrenheit in an almond wood–burning oven for about a minute and a half.
The first pie to arrive, naturally enough, was a Margherita. Hill, in classic Neapolitan style, builds the pizza's foundation with Tipo "00" Italian flour. Nicely charred and blistered from the high heat, the crust did exhibit the expected tip sag. Nevertheless, the crisp cornicione and a little thumb dexterity helped me to successfully execute the slice fold maneuver.
The sauce, made from Napoli tomatoes and sea salt, was fresh, fragrant, and simple. The creamy mozzarella is pulled fresh daily (the curds come from from Ferrante's Dairy across the Bay). The cheese is evenly distributed across the pie, and along with the few basil leaves, seems to float above the fire-hued sauce. This is a pie Mario Batali reputedly labeled "perfect," and I can't disagree. It disappeared in less time than it took to cook, if that's possible.
Mercifully, the waitress brought the Cannondale (above) just as I was soaking the last bite of crust in the few drops of sauce and extra virgin olive oil that lingered on the plate. Named after a bicycle brand, as are most of the pies, (Hill is an avid cyclist) the Cannondale features house-made sausage, roasted red peppers, spring onions, mozzarella, grana Padano and basil leaves. This is one flavorful and beautiful pie. Bite after bite, the blend of salty and sweet flavors left me glowing with delight.
I generally prefer the more traditional approach to toppings, but on this night I was feeling adventurous, so throwing caution to the wind, I ordered the Ibis (above). Bay shrimp, pancetta, roasted peppers, rapini pesto, and a combination of mozzarella and Parmesan made for a salty, briny pie with just a hint of sweetness from the peppers.
Finally, the pie of the day was set on our pizza stand. This pie exploded with flavors. The sweet tomatoes did a sensual tango with the salty, spicy pancetta, mozz, and grana Padano. Although two of the other pies also lacked tomato sauce, only this one's crust stood firm and maintained its structural integrity. The multicolored tomatoes also made for another visually stunning pizza countenance.
Bruce Hill has certainly left his mark on the Bay Area's culinary landscape. Pizzeria Picco, which also offers widely praised soft serve ice creams from nearby Straus Family Creamery, is a welcome addition to Marin--and Bay Area--dining.
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