Monday, June 28, 2010


Located halfway between Cafe Zoetrope and Tony's Pizza Napoletana in North Beach, San Fran, is the west coast's oldest brick oven pizzeria, Tommaso's.

Built in 1935 by the Cantolupo family from Naples (where else?), they aptly named the place Lupo's and started firing pies in their oven. The pizzeria became increasingly popular after G.I.'s returned from Italy after WWII having had pizza overseas, and quickly rose to Bay Area fame amongst city eaters.

A plaque adorns the front of the restaurant, just in case you thought I was making this shit up. I wish I could find the picture to prove it, but local resident Francis Ford Coppola used to frequent Lupo's, and on special occasions would take over making pizzas. I'm not making that shit up either.

In '71, the Cantolupo family sold the joint to one of their loyal employees, Tommy Chin, who had been working at Lupo's since the year after they opened back in the day. Mr. Chin decided to rename the place after himself, that is, if he were a Neapolitan. Thus, Lupo's became Tommaso's.

Chin sold the place several years later to the current owners, the Crotti's, one of whom was my server. When I say the place is family owned and operated, I mean it. I love that in a pizzeria.

I ordered a half plain/half meatball. Odd topping I know, but it was pretty tasty. The place is notoriously dimly lit, so please forgive the poor exposure on these photos.

I'd be lying if I said the pizza at Tommaso's was incredible, but it sure ain't bad. It's slightly thicker than your average NY-style pie; it kind of reminded me of Pizzeria Regina in Boston.

Would I go back? Absolutely. The pizza was tasty, and the place has soul. I'm a pretty happy, easy-going guy, but nothing gets me down like a pizzeria with no soul. When I stepped back out into the bright sunlight, I had to round out my documentation of both Tommaso's and San Francisco in general in an east-meets-west fashion, representing my favorite soulful Brooklyn pizzeria.

Bridging the gap. Cheers!

Cafe Zoetrope

Sitting boldly on the cusp of San Francisco's Little Italy (North Beach), Financial District and Chinatown rises Columbus Tower, a gorgeous aged copper edifice circa 1907 designed in a similar vein to New York's Flatiron building. Within these green-tinged walls lies a landmark to two things I hold dear: pizza and movies.

Aside from being one of the coolest-looking buildings in the greater San Fran area, this place is also the original headquarters of American Zoetrope, the independent film company founded by the godfather of filmmaking himself, Francis Ford Coppola. Ever heard of Apocalypse Now? How about the Godfather trilogy or The Conversation? Yeah, the picture editing and soundtrack recording were all done right here.

If you're familiar with FFC then you know he's a wine maker as well (too bad he's not a home brewer, but that's still pretty sick). Being the revolutionary entrepreneur that he is, Francis opened Cafe Zoetrope ten years ago as a venue for his wine tastings, as well as a place to exhibit his line of food products and style of Italian home cooking.

The place is lined with some of the coolest photos and memorabilia from his films. I was told I could take pictures of the pizza, but not pictures of the pictures... okay then. Just imagine this as a Francis Ford Coppola/Godfather museum- I was humbled as a filmmaker, to say the least. In fashion with the myriad pizzerias in San Fran, Zoetrope of course cooks up pies, so I ordered a Margherita w/ mozzarella di bufala while I watched the world cup.

Not too shabby lookin', but upon closer inspection... where the hell is the cheese?

It's on there, just barely. This pizza was definitely cooked in a gas oven, and with such small blobs of cheese used it looked (and tasted) like half of them evaporated.

That being said, the tomato sauce had plenty of juicy sweet flavor. The basil could have used a dousing of olive oil before being tossed in the oven; you can see how dried and shriveled it looks.

Overall Zoetrope's pizza was nothing to write home about (but isn't that what I'm doing?), but I've certainly had worse. Combined with the early afternoon wine, watching the cup, being the only patron in the place, and the awe-inspiring decor, I have no regrets having visited Cafe Zoetrope.

Liguria Bakery

Sitting quietly on the corner of Stockton and Filbert in San Fran's predominantly Italian North Beach district lies one of the city's oldest bakeries specializing in focaccia, Liguria Bakery.

Just one block north of Tony's Pizza Napoletana, Liguria disguises itself as what most unaware passerby would consider to be a vacant storefront. On the contrary, this place hasn't been occupied by anyone but the Soracco family since 1911. For those inept at mathematics, that's 99 years!

After the infamous San Francisco earthquake of 1906, a man named Ambrosio Saracco immigrated from Genoa, Italy and shortly thereafter bought and opened Liguria Bakery in 1911. He sent for his brothers back home to follow in his footsteps, and in no time had a full-fledged bakery on his hands. After being opened just shy of a century, I can't believe how much the place has changed-

...or hasn't changed. I wish I had a wider shot here, but essentially the place is exactly the same save for a coat of white paint. Michael Soracco, Ambrosio's grandson, is the current owner of Liguria, and still employs his family to hawk their famous focaccia.

WOW. Look at the size of this monstrosity of an oven. It's bigger than your average New York apartment! Notice the extremely long peels hanging from the ceiling to give you some sense of scale. Check that nozzle-looking thing out on the right edge of the even. It's a goddamn flamethrower!

I didn't make it to Liguria in time to catch them baking, but essentially this flame gun is on a swivel that is pulled over to the mouth of the oven, where it blasts 800 degree heat into the chamber for an extended period of time. Just before the bread is popped in, the flame is killed and moved off to the side.

I love this packaging. When I left my hotel at 10:30 AM I hightailed it in my zipcar over to Liguria- they say they're open until 12, but more realistically they close when they sell out of focaccia. And they always sell out of focaccia. Just to be safe, I called ahead and told them my predicament, and pleaded with them to save me something. "All we got left is raisin and pizza, whichya want?" She clearly didn't know who she was speaking to.

If only I had put my hand in the shot to display just how massive this thing is. No, this isn't a slice, this is about half the size of a traditional Sicilian-style pizza (!!!)

Eating this gave me the feeling I was eating San Fran's incarnation of a Trenton tomato pie since it was served at room temperature. The sauce was just sweet enough that no cheese was need.

I ripped this thing apart, I wish I had some right now. It's so great to see a true mom and pop place thriving in the same fashion it did when it opened a hundred years ago.

Pizzeria Picco

After killing those slices at The Cheese Board in Berkeley, I decided to head north and explore Sausalito and Napa Valley. I'm going to be blunt with you- I am a beer guy, and no matter how hard I try, I never learn anything about wine. I enjoy it just fine, but given the choice I'll always choose suds. That being said, I took a quick tour of the Mondavi winery before heading back south, eventually stopping in Larkspur to check out the much-hyped Pizzeria Picco.

Founded by Bruce Hill five years ago, the pizzeria gets its name from the Italian word for 'hill' or 'peak,' a combination of the fact that Picco sits on a slope overlooking Larkspur in conjunction with the founder's last name.

Picco's got a nice funky style befitting the vibe emanating from the charming town it inhabits. In typical California style, nearly all the toppings were fresh, local, and organic. Contrary to this, I was caught off guard when I was told Picco flash freezes all their pizzas to be baked at home. Wha?? I'm curious to see how that would work...

This place really isn't all that big, sporting a few inside seats at the bar/kitchen, and a few tables outside. The brick oven is conveniently built into and tucked away in the corner to make maximum use of what space they have. The building itself is shared with Bruce's other restaurant, simply named Picco. Unsure of what to get, I ordered three different guys-

Of course I had to get the obligatory Margherita. The flavors on this pie were tasty but not earth-shattering. While the flavor of the basil didn't quite come out strong, the sauce was perfectly sweet and cheese had a nice salty taste to it. Granted this was cooked in a brick oven versus gas, but Delfina could stand to learn a lesson in flavor from Picco.

Next on the list was the "Son of Yeti" - a white four-cheese pie (mozz, Fontina, Pecorino, and Parmesan) with garlic, leeks, thyme, and hen of the woods mushrooms.

This pie tasted great and it had that organic feeling that the ingredients were picked right from the backyard, with the strong Fontina holding everything together.

Just as I was satiating my appetite, the waitress beleaguered me with the third and by far the heaviest pizza of the three, the Specialized, named after the nearby bicycle company-

Here we have tomato sauce, mozz, Hobb's pepperoni, house-made sausage and basil. Woof. Thankfully Picco sports three-tiered pizza pan... holders (?) keeping the small tables as clutter-free as possible.

I did as much damage as I could on this before eventually asking to relegate the remains to a box, but I'm pretty proud of the assault I launched on these pizzas. Picco definitely has it going on and is one of Larkspur's best kept secrets, but they could definitely stand to expand.

Cheese Board

After asking around town what the essential pizzerias were I had to try while in the Bay Area, I kept getting the same answer: "Cheese Board!!"

The Cheese Board Pizza Collective lies on Shattuck Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in the college town of Berkeley. It gets its name from the cheese store next door, which boasts the most impressive selection of cheese I've ever seen-

Cheese louise! I love how this staggering list of cheese is perfectly organized by type and animal. When I first saw this I just stood there staring for a few minutes. So that's where the first part of the name comes from; the second portion is exactly what it sounds like: both the Cheese Board and the Cheese Board Pizzeria are co-ops, collectively owned by its employees

How effing cool is that? If you're over 100 years old in Berkeley you get free cheese! As soon as the doors opened to the pizzeria I started snapping photos and calling attention to myself. Some places (*cough* Grimaldi's *cough*) freak at the sight of cameras, so I was apprehensive when the guy behind the counter said, "hey, you takin' pictures?" I sheepishly admitted to doing so, but was pleasantly surprised when he practically dragged me into their kitchen and introduced me to Steve Manning.

This is Steve slicing up a massive amount of low-moisture mozz. Steve has been a member of the Cheese Board for eight years, and as an amateur photographer himself he was more than happy to show me around the place and chat me up. The Cheese Board's gimmick is that it only creates one (sauceless) style of pizza a day. No substitutions.

"Why is that?" I asked. The answer is simple, really. Sticking to one pizza allows for several streamlined advantages: this allows the board to buy high quality ingredients in bulk, cutting down on cost to provide their customers with the best toppings for the cheapest price.

This, combined with the "no tomato sauce" edict, also allows them to pre-make all the pizzas the day before. FYI, leaving tomato sauce for a prolonged period on dough turns what would be a great pizza into a soggy, sloppy disc of gross.

This ultimately lets each of the employees/members specialize in one area: register, baking, dough prep, cheese slicing, etc. Pretty impressive in my opinion. I had never seen ovens like the ones being used at CB, but they're essentially gas ovens with "suicide"-style doors with room for 4-5 pies to cook at a time.

How the pizzas at the top of the oven come out as consistent as the ones in the center is beyond me, but a wall of these suckers provides this place with the ability to rapid fire pizzas into and out of the oven.

I ordered two slices of the pie of the day, which was mozzarella, Crimini mushrooms, onions, goat cheese and garlic olive oil, and it came with my favorite garnishment:

An extra mini slice of pizza! This is typical of Cheese Board, though I couldn't get anyone to explain why this tradition exists. I didn't want to push it- I'll take a free slice any day.

CB has one of the coolest vibes I've ever experienced in a pizzeria. Almost as soon as the doors opened that afternoon, a jazz band set up in back and started jamming away. I was informed that music performers become temporary members of the Cheese Board for one day, and make the same amount as the rest of the staff for that given day. HOW. COOL.

The Cheese Board sits exactly across the street from Alice Waters' legendary restaurant and arguably the birthplace of California-style pizza, Chez Panisse. While I only had time to visit one or the other, I opted for style over historical significance, and I have no regrets.

The fantastic pizza (I went back for another slice and a half) combined with the Cheese Board's welcoming laid-back attitude and unique communal business model made it my favorite pizza joint in the Bay Area, and would love to see something like this back here in the East.

Pizza Hacker

As any die-hard bake-at-home pizza maker can tell you, the output capacity of your typical conventional home oven doesn't come close to that of a beautiful, WFO (wood-fired oven). Many people, myself included, are constantly looking for ways to "hack" their home ovens, with tricks ranging from clipping the self-clean lock to installing an overdrive "pizza mode" switch in an effort to get hotter temps similar to wood-burning ovens.

(courtesy of Eric Wolfinger)

Enter Jeff Krupman, aka "The Pizza Hacker." This guy is the quintessential pizza bad-ass.

This guy has reached legendary status in my book, which is albeit a grease-stained, pizza-icon filled book. This is Jeff with one of his incarnations of the famed "FrankenWeber/PizzaForge," his mobile "brick oven."

Over the past couple of years, Jeff has been modifying a basic Weber grill by extending its height to allow for wood to burn and increasing the conductivity and heat retention to closer resemble the properties in a brick oven using perlite and refractory cement. Impressive, to say the least.

In planning my trip out west, Scott said I had to check PH, with whom he'd connected with just a few months prior in his own San Fran pizza exploration. Deciding whether or not to give Jeff a chance wasn't the issue- it was finding him. The genius of Pizza Hacker's operation is his mobility that gives him the freedom to set up an impromptu pizzeria anywhere in the Bay Area, which can also be frustrating when you're craving his legendary pies. Fortunately, you can follow him on twitter or keep tabs on his whereabouts here.

Jeff has an awe-inspiring view on pizza. He starts all of his pies by sprinkling black, smoked salt on the crust- something you really have to try. His outlook is that the outer crust shouldn't be a continuation of the pizza, but a totally new experience, and that's exactly what he's accomplishing.

Despite Jeff's disappointment with some of the selection of local mozzarella, he uses predominantly local ingredients, even picking his own tomatoes. Respect.

This is Pizza Hacker making me the "Bi-Rite Hotty," named after the eponymous local market where he bought the meat- sauce, mozz, hot Italian sausage, pickled hot peppers, basil and EVOO. This combo of fresh toppings was both jaw-dropping and tongue-scathing.

Just like New York's food pimp the "Lobster Pusher Man,"Jeff has it all- great food, rave reviews, and notoriety, except for one thing: a permit to sell food. While this might make some uneasy, Pizza Hacker has been able to fly in the face of San Fran's flawed street vendor policies without a problem (knock on wood), and if anything it adds to the allure.

A talented pizzaiolo that shows up outside bars at night with nothing but his oven, ingredients and a miner's headlamp to make pies at the drop of a hat? Pizza Hacker didn't just create the FrankenWeber, I like to think he's starting a revolution.
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