Pizzetta 211- San Francisco

While New York City and Chicago are famous for delicious pizzas, out on the west coast the city of San Francisco (and its vicinity) is quietly gaining a reputation for being a pizza capital of its own.  Little Star Pizza’s deep dish pizzas, Pizzaiolo, Pizzeria Delfina, Emilia’s, Flour & Water, Pizzeria Picco, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, Pulcinella and Una Pizza Napoletana, formerly in the East Village in NYC and recently reopened in SF, are all tough competitors on the SF pizza scene.  Pizzetta 211, a tiny store in the Richmond district, has been satisfying pizza cravings since 1999, long before artisanal pizza became a trend.  I found my near perfect pizza and pizza joint in this unassuming charming restaurant that only has 4 tables and 4 counter seats.  During rush hour you may have to wait outside in the San Francisco chill for a while, but on the afternoon that I went, it was only half full and I cozied up to the counter in front of the tiny kitchen to watch the chefs make my pizza from scratch. 

Pizzetta 211 was opened by Ria Ramsey and Sher Rogat, neither whom are formally trained chefs, but both with a passion for food with an emphasis on local seasonal food, sustainability and quality ingredients.  Maybe it’s their laid back personality, or the fact of having women in the kitchen, but I felt an instant ease and comfort in slipping into my seat and watching them construct my pies.  There was no loud music, no chaos, no rush and no attitude- just a relaxing time in this peaceful pizza haven as they poured their hearts into each vegetable and drop of oil that garnished the pizzas. 

The small countertop is filled with fresh seasonal produce, from heirloom tomatoes and mission figs, to locally cured olives and brocolli rabe.  Pizzetta 211 has a few classics on the menu like a simple basil, tomato and mozzarella pizza with a choice of pepperoni or white anchovy, but most of the pies change weekly, and one mustn’t become too attached to any one creation. This is easier said than done, as I myself am left yearning and fantasizing about the 2 pizzas that I had, almost to the point of torture. 

Each individual order begins with the preparation of the crust, a smooth white dough that the chef stretches and shapes by hand with a delicate, unaggressive feminine touch.   The first pie, a piadine, is drizzled with olive oil before going into the oven, after which it becomes beautifully decorated with baby romaine, dry farmed early girl tomatoes, applewood smoked bacon and shavings of pecorino cheese.  The thin crust is perfect for me, evenly cooked through to the center, withstanding the vegetable juices and olive oil well, and not becoming soggy at all.  The consistency is doughy and chewy enough to give substance, but unobtrusive and undistracting from the fresh ingredients on top.  Its texture is soft and supple, like a woman’s body.  Its flavor is light and delicate, creating the perfect base upon which the main characters can take center stage and shine.  This pie is mostly about the farm fresh salad, but each bite reveals a perfect hint of smoked bacon to add richness and roundness to the flavors.  An amazing, well thought-out and delicate pizza that reflects the grace and beauty of its female artisans. 

The farm egg, house made sausage, pimento pepper, fontina and cilantro pesto pizza shows a more robust and daring side to Pizzetta 211.  The crust is baked a little more, crispier at its brown edges while still maintaining a pleasurable chew in the center.  It too holds up to the layers of moist ingredients in the center, like the creamy fontina cheese and sunny side up farm egg that paints the rest of the pizza a golden yellow with its rich oozy yolk.  The homemade sausage chunks with the slightest hint of spices are amazing, as are all of the other components of the pie which each serve their purpose.  Nothing is out of place, and everything is in perfect balance. 

Other pizzas on the rotating menu that week were a rosemary, fiore sardo cheese and pine nuts pizza, and a roma tomato sauce, savoy spinach, feta, red onion and nicoise olive pizza.  The latter I witnessed being made for a table in the corner, with a barely there thin spread of tomato sauce topped with just the right amount of cheese for an unaggressive and classy presentation to enhance the star ingredients.  At Pizzetta 211, a cozy homey nook run by 2 exceptional women, I found my perfect pizza in the sensational piadine.  The only imperfection is that I will likely never see it again.  But then again, ‘even imperfection itself may have its perfect state’ (Thomas de Quincey). 

Pizzetta 211

211 23rd Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94121-2008
(415) 379-9880

Random trivia: Did you know that pizzerias represent 17% of all restaurants in the US?

Advertisements

Pizzeria Delfina- San Francisco

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.

Pizzeria Delfina

3611 18th Street

San Francisco, CA 94110

(415) 437-6800

Random trivia: Did you know that watermelon is a vegetable, and not a fruit? It is related to cucumbers, pumpkins and squash.

Riva


IMG_3605Fraiche in Culver City is one of my favorite restaurants in Los Angeles, and it even won praise as Los Angeles Magazine’s Best New Restaurant Pick for 2007.  Chef Jason Travi and his wife Miho really established themselves at this wonderful restaurant that still brings in the crowds.  I’ve been a huge fan of Travi’s food from the time when he spearheaded La Terza restaurant on 3rd Street (which is now gone.  Gino Angelini, Travi’s mentor at La Terza, just reopened the space this past weekend as Minestraio Trattoria).  I was really excited to try Riva, Travi’s new digs in Santa Monica.  I went in with an open mind, despite mixed reviews on Yelp and Chowhound.

Riva means ‘shoreline’ in Italian; it features more seafood, and is only a few blocks away from the Pacific Ocean in Santa Monica.  The interior features high ceilings, large mirrors on the walls, an open kitchen, and a large bar-  simple and elegant like most other nice restaurants in LA or NY.

As soon as we were seated , the first thing we all noticed was the deafening noise level.  Hands down, this was the noisiest restaurant that I’ve ever been too.  I felt like we were at a bar or a lounge.  Halfway through the meal, I got so tired of leaning in, shouting, and saying “What?” all the time, that I just zoned out of the table conversation.

The menu has 4 categories: Crudo, Appetizers, Pizza, and Entrees.  Crudo means ‘raw’ in Italian and Spanish, and it generally refers to raw slices of seafood dressed in olive oil, sea salt, and some type of acid (vinegar or citrus juice).  Depending on how it’s arranged or dressed, it’s fancy sashimi, ceviche, tartare, or carpaccio.  This concept of Italian sashimi became popular when Mario Batali succeeded in doing it well at his NY eatery Esca many years ago.  Riva makes them with fluke, geoduck clam, cuttlefish, sea bass, tuna, and other sea creatures.  We ordered the scallops that came in a citrus oil dressing with bread crumbs and red peppers.  It was good, but a bit bland and lacking in acidity.

Scallop crudo

Scallop crudo

I ordered the house made Testa Rossa from the appetizer menu.  Testa is head cheese, which is a cold cut meat dish made from the head of a pig, calf, cow or sheep.  The head of a freshly slaughtered animal is carefully cleaned and prepped, then it’s simmered in a large stockpot for hours until the meat falls right off the skull.  All of these juicy tender bits of meat along with the stock, are refrigerated to set in pans or molds to make a terrine, or rolled into a large sausage.  The collagen from all of the cartilage and bone marrow of the skull gives head cheese that gelatin-like consistency when cooled.  Head cheese is usually eaten chilled or at room temperature so that all of that wonderful collagen doesn’t melt.

Testa Rossa

Testa Rossa

The testa was garnished with radish, mint, lemon and watercress.  As you can see, theirs is a rolled testa (looks like a slice of pancetta), as opposed to a terrine with chopped up bits.  It was heavy in fat content and low on meat, which went well with the tart acidic garnish, but somehow I was left unsatisfied.

We ordered the Nizza pizza with black olive, anchovy, sweet onion, capers and thyme.  Riva makes thin crust pizzas.

Nizza pizza

Nizza pizza

Our server told us that the pizza is made without cheese, but if we wanted it with cheese, it was an additional 2 dollars.  I wish they would either not offer the cheese option if the cheeseless pizza was their original inspiration, offer the cheese option gratis, or indicate the $2 cheese option charge on the menu.   Was I being too picky or is it the noise level getting to me?  Well, we did order the pizza with cheese.  The pizza was well done, and the crust was done the way I like it- crispy on the outside, doughy on the inside.  The flavor of the toppings came together nicely and it made for a nice shared appetizer.

For main entrees, we ordered the monkfish, lamb, and seafood bouillabaisse.

Monkfish saltimbocca

Monkfish saltimbocca

Monkfish saltimbocca on a bed of potato puree, spinach and pancetta, with a sage and marsala sauce.

Lamb Spezzatino

Lamb Spezzatino

Braised lamb in a tomato sauce over a bed of three color cauliflower and creamy semolina with a hint of smoked cheese and parsley gremolata.  I didn’t taste the monkfish dish, but the lamb dish was fantastic.  The lamb cubes were very tender, and each bite had so many layers of flavors- the rich and robust tomato flavored lamb stew, followed by the creaminess of the semolina, with a smokey cheese undertone, finishing off with the tart freshness of the gremolata.  I wanted to order that dish but since somebody else was getting that, I decided to go with something else for variety.  I regretted this decision.

Shellfish Fra Diavolo

Shellfish Fra Diavolo

Fra Diavolo is a tomato based sauce with garlic and hot peppers, frequently used for pastas and seafood.  According to the menu, my dish was supposed to have a half lobster, shrimp, mussels, clams, squid, and fregola sarda.  Fregola sarda is a toasted Sardinian pasta, and it looks like pearl sized cous cous or tapioca, only much denser.  My dish was okay- the tomato sauce lacked richness and flavor, and the lobster meat was spongy.  I was so bored with my seafood dish that I didn’t even realize it was missing the squid until I was almost done with it.  Instead, it had a few chunks of tasteless unidentified white fish.  I informed my server about the missing squid, and she apologized for the kitchen screw-up.  Sigh…

Another turn off with the seafood dish was that the half lobster came with a fully intact large lobster claw, and they gave me a large silver lobster cracker.  I was very surprised that this seemingly upscale restaurant would expect their customers to get their hands and clothes dirty trying to crack a lobster claw doused in tomato sauce.  I was wearing a white silk blouse, and was not about to ruin it with bright red tomato splatter.  Sigh…

There’s an entree item on the menu called Costata di Bue per due, prime rib for 2.  The table close to us ordered it.  They bring a big chunk of prime rib from the kitchen and the maitre d’ slices it on a rolling chopping block in front of you.

Prime rib

Prime rib

I think I was the only one who noticed that the maitre d’s jacket kept brushing up against the meat.  Yuck.

I was hoping that Riva would redeem themselves with dessert, but they loved letting me down that night.  I was so excited to try their Tiramisu, but I was told that they were out.  How can you be out of a dessert option?  That’s crazy.  The others got carrot cake and gelati.

Carrot cake

Carrot cake

Carrot cake with pineapple sorbet.

Gelati & sorbetti

Gelati & sorbetti

Butterscotch gelati and peach sorbetti.

I was so let down by this point that I didn’t even have the motivation to try these desserts.

Despite my excitement about trying this restaurant,  I didn’t have a good dining experience at Riva.  I was thoroughly disappointed with the quality of the food, the poor service, and the low caliber of the staff.  For $90 a person, I think it’s fair to expect a certain level of service and food.

The best thing about my dinner was the wine.  We had a wonderful 2005 Capezzana, Barco Reale di Carmignano.

Riva is supposed to be strong on their crudo dishes and pizza.  My advice for you- go to Japanese sushi restaurants for good raw fish, and Terroni or Pizzeria Mozza for better pizza.  If you’re looking for a good dining experience in Santa Monica, take your loved ones to Anisette.  And if you’re still keen on trying Travi’s food, stick to Fraiche.

http://www.rivarestaurantla.com/

Random trivia: Did you know that Oscar Best Actress winner Halle Berry ate raw fish so she could throw up on cue and look authentic doing it while filming the movie ‘Perfect Stranger’?  Now that’s dedication to your art, girl.