Thin crust, stuffed crust, deep dish, hand tossed, brick oven, wood oven, Neapolitan, Sicilian- pizza has come a long way from the topping-less flatbreads that were considered peasant food in early Greece and later in 16th century Italy. We owe it to Queen Margherita of Savoy for taking a liking to these crusty delights, for it is in honor of her pizza cravings that the first pizza with cheese and toppings was created, the famous Pizza Margherita with mozzarella, tomatoes and basil that represent the colors of the Italian flag. Pizza became a popular street food in Naples, Italy where it was initially enjoyed as take out food wrapped in paper, but when Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba opened what is regarded to be the first pizza restaurant, pizza culture took a huge turn for the better.
The arrival of Italian immigrants to the US in the late 19th century brought this wonderful culture to our country, first in New York City at Lombardi’s, and westward ho through Chicago where the deep dish pizza was born. Pizza chains like Shakey’s and Pizza Hut popularized it as the new American comfort food, only second to hamburgers, while Domino’s made it more accessible. In the last decade pizza has gotten a face lift with gourmet toppings in upscale restaurants, like the famous smoked salmon and caviar pizza at Spago’s. With the diversity of pizzas and infinite choices of styles that we have today, everybody has a specific preference for how they like their pies. Pizza wars and pizza debates, unlike the Cold War, will likely never end with peace and resolution.
Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco is a popular favorite among pizza connoisseurs, praised for their Neapolitan inspired thin crust pizzas. Craig and Ann Stoll opened this pizzeria in the Mission district in 2005 next to their Italian trattoria called Delfina, and later a second restaurant in Pacific Heights. I recently dropped in for a visit at the Mission location, a contemporary space done in sleek urban design. Outdoor seating will guarantee some interesting people watching, but the indoor dining room and bar seating will get you a first hand look at the action that goes on inside the open kitchen.
A large chalkboard on the main wall shows the daily specials, which may range from broccoli fritti and chilled tripe to oven roasted mussels with garlic and chile. 6 Neapolitan style pizzas like Margherita and Quattro Formaggi are staples on the menu, while 2 pizza del giorno rotate with seasonal ingredients.
An antipasti called ‘crazy melon’ is interesting, large juicy watery wedges of yellow and red watermelon dressed with chili, mint, feta cheese and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Chile flakes accentuate the sweetness of the watermelon, making it a perfect refreshing dish for those hot summer nights.
Pizza Napoletana with tomatoes, anchovies, capers, hot peppers, olives and oregano is what the server recommended for us Delfina virgins. The pizzas are baked at 770° in a gas-fired brick oven, creating an evenly crispy thin crust right through to the center, with puffed edges and charred blisters. I appreciate the center not being soggy, and I like the consistency of the slightly chewy thin crust, but I’m not one for blackened edges or blackened toppings, and the tomato sauce’s strong acidity kills the balance of flavors for me.
Clam Pie with cherrystones, tomatoes, oregano, pecorino cheese and hot peppers comes with the clams successfully untorched, but with bigger balls of charred blisters at the edges of the crust. While many favor the thin potato chip crunch into the hollow cavities of the popped blisters, I am a member of the chewy clan, and this pizza doesn’t quite satisfy my needs. In this pie too, I find the spiciness and acidity of the tomato sauce to dominate and asphyxiate the clams.
For every person there is a uniquely perfect pizza, one with distinct flavors, certain crust characteristics, just the right amount of sauce, an uncompromising ratio of preferred toppings and a personal approach to table manners. I know many who rave about Pizzeria Delfina as their quintessential pizzeria, but this was not where I found my dream pizza, and thus I continue my journey through more pizzerias in the world.
3611 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
Random trivia: Did you know that watermelon is a vegetable, and not a fruit? It is related to cucumbers, pumpkins and squash.