It was the season of sauce, it was the season of toppings. It was the spring of onions, it was the sausage of despair. We had pies before us, we had crusts before us.
No lesser authority than The New York Times says artisanal pizza is on the rise. Just last week, the Gray Lady blew the trend up, making a case for the elegantly appointed pizzeria as a cost-conscious diner’s best bet amid rotten economic circumstances. In San Francisco, this sub-genre of the pizza form is currently encroaching on the Mission District’s once-fior di latte-less expanse with great success. Pizzeria Delfina and Beretta are delicious examples of what’s sizzling in Burritoland, though only the former would probably describe itself as a pizzeria first and foremost. Flour + Water just opened on Harrison in the last few months, serving pasta, salumi, and a familiar stripe of ‘za: smallish, thin-crusted rounds decked out in classic and occasionally inventive combinations of toppings with a traditional bent and heavy, local-centric nods to seasonality. As if that weren’t enough upscale crust and cheese to blanket a few square miles of coveted real estate, Pi Bar will soon start slinging (whole pies and cheese slices for, ha ha, $3.14) on Valencia near 25th, at a renovated space once home to Suriya Thai.
You might not have heard, but in Fall of 2008, Pizzeria opened its doors on a humming stretch of Valencia Street, not far from its intersection with 18th. As of press time, the establishment has garnered 45 reviews on Yelp, most of them quite positive. Yet, for all the times I’ve wandered past its wide windows, I’ve never seen a customer populating one of the dining room’s handsome circular wooden tables. I’ve stared at the menu. I’ve contemplated the helpful photographs of Pizzeria’s offerings pasted to the front window. I’ve watched cooks bustle, a waiter mop, and a manager meticulously refill and reposition jars of red pepper flakes on the long counter, but, never, not once, have I witnessed a person, sitting down, napkin on lap, actually tucking into a plate of anything.
And I’ve always wondered why. Location could not be the problem. Valencia is a major thoroughfare for night-time revelers and day-time shoppers. The product itself is not immediately suspect either. It’s pizza, after all; everyone likes it. Unlike Beretta and Flour + Water, and to a lesser extent, Pizzeria Delfina, purveyors of an ostensibly fancier kind of pizza, the vibe is not glamorous. Apart from the wood oven used to bake them, the wares are not authentic but fairly pan-pizza in approach, though, in this age of hyper-fusion frenzy, that shouldn’t deter the masses. You won’t find habaneros, chicken tikka masala, or barbecue on pizza in Naples, but, these days, in the United States, thanks perhaps to the influence of California Pizza Kitchen, they’re not exactly unusual toppings, and perfectly appropriate in the right context.
Pizzeria is also Halal. The pig is on a big muddy pedastal these days, and there’s a chance the absence of house-cured prosciutto, guanciale, and an occasional trotter special throws potential customers off the scent. In addition, Pizzeria sells no alcohol. One Yelper reports brown-bagging some brew, but the restaurant doesn’t specifically recommend doing so. Unless you’re willing to ask and perhaps plead, the closest thing to a dinner buzz or a perfect pairing you’ll get here will have to come in the form of a $2.50 soda. For many, this will prove a bigger sticking point than the pancetta non grata situation.
Could cost be the issue? Probably not, though, as far as pizza goes, Pizzeria’s is not particularly inexpensive. In fact, its pizza margherita costs a dollar more than a similarly sized version made by Flour + Water, when the ingredients are obviously the same: tomatoes, fresh basil, mozzarella, and olive oil.
Generally speaking, when a restaurant’s always empty, no passer-by wants to play guinea pig. Delivery customers write the majority of Pizzeria’s Yelp reviews, and they tend to gush about speedy delivery and the endearing customer service, signs a few people have been curious enough to phone in orders, and the business owners are working hard to amass devotees, one at a time if necessary. Pizzeria is not open for lunch, which seems like a curious choice to make, especially if the owners want bodies in the dining room. Walk-in customers are more likely at lunch-time, especially on the weekends, when weary shoppers from other parts of town, quivering beneath the weight of new purchases, and stoned folks staggering in from Dolores Park make impulsive dining decisions based on whatever is in front of them.
Unlike Pizzeria, Flour + Water, the sort of sleek, self-styled “neighborhood” restaurant that employs a publicist, has been hot. A dozen local press mentions and reviews popped up within days of its opening, many before, and over 118 reviewers have since weighed in, many charmed by the food, a number irritated by the crowds and clientele, and more than a few disparaging of the hosts’ demeanor. No one likes a line, and Flour + Water’s perpetually snakes out the door like links of runaway sausages. In shaping their doughy vision, the heads behind Flour + Water actually followed a pizza principle not unlike what was outlined in the Times piece, figuring rustic fare in a lovely dark wood-enhanced setting might rake in diners trying to scale back on spending without sacrificing the level of ambience regular restaurant-goers tend to favor. According to Flour + Water’s website, the restaurant’s design and construction “are all about the mantra of the triple r: refurbished, repurposed and reclaimed,” a triptych of buzzwords pretty much designed to make people feel as if they’re sitting down to something real, hip, and happening, yet non-indulgent, and even — gasp — responsible.
Pizzeria and Flour + Water don’t serve the same kind of pizza, so reviewing them in tandem wouldn’t make sense. I’m interested in why one restaurant is full, and the other is empty. Does the press machine get behind whatever they’re told to get behind by whomever gets to decide what should be gotten behind? Is herd mentality a lot of what’s keeping Flour + Water packed tighter than a jar of oil-cured anchovies and Pizzeria as forlorn and lonely as a marinara-deprived breadstick? Does a Halal pizzeria without a pizzaiolo or a publicist stand a chance in this city?
On Saturday, I decided to seize the pizza by the box and give Pizzeria a real shot. At 5:15 p.m., I slowly and deliberately walked up to the door. I looked in through the smudged glass. I couldn’t do it. The prospect of being the only person in the place stressed me out. A lopsided ratio of cooks to customers makes for awkward dining, a rigid, uncomfortable experience, like at a show, when a band dwarfs the crowd. I turned tail and scurried back to my apartment where, furious with my lack of courage, yet quite relieved, I immediately dialed in an order for delivery: a $12 small “Popeye” pizza (baby spinach, slow-roasted garlic, and red onion) to which I, for an extra buck, boldly added beef pepperoni. Minutes later, Pizzeria’s pizza and I were face-to-face.
The mystery was over. The crust’s bottom was black and blistery; the gnarled sides and top were beautiful, rutted in all the right places, tunnels of taste within, perfect pockets of air crunching, wafer-like, between teeth. The toppings were fine. I liked the cheese. The sauce was unmemorable. The thick slices of raw red onion didn’t do much for me. I prefer them cooked, semi-pickled, or, if raw, very, very, very thinly slivered. The beef pepperoni didn’t taste weird until I tried it cold on Sunday morning. Overall, Pizzeria makes a really good pizza in keeping with its intent: flavorful, timely, unpretentious, and very pizza-like. Everyone should go there … or at least get something delivered.