We sent fearless food writer Alissa Merksamer to find the best pizza outside our North Beach Starcity community’s doorstep. Here’s what she found:
While the days of Joe Dimaggio living in North Beach are long gone, you’ll still find your fill of excellent pizzas (and then some). These five are worth their weight in marinara.
“Excuse me, did you say clam and garlic?” I ask the fast-talking server behind the counter awaiting my order, making sure I heard him right. Sheets of Sicilian pizza with thick focaccia crusts preen in the window. They’ve already been cut into wide rectangular slices.
“It’s really good,” a customer turns around to assure me. He’s right. The signature flavor from North Beach’s most beloved slice shop would kill Dracula on the spot. Fortunately, I like garlic. The bite-size chewy clams, parsley, and tomatoes are merely backup players. If you opt to eat inside this hallway of a restaurant, where random stickers and graffiti decorate the walls, you’ll receive a knife and fork. If you take it to go, it’ll be expertly wrapped in alternating layers of paper so that you can easily hold it without dripping. Peter Sodini opened the restaurant in 1978, and his sons now operate it. They cater to a mix of locals, tourists, and late night bar-hoppers who take advantage of the 2:30 a.m. closing time (weekends). Cash only.
Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
If you don’t like waiting in line, don’t go to Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. But really, you should go. Tony Gemignani is a 12-time World Pizza Champion. He’s so serious about his craft that he installed seven different kinds of pizza ovens in his restaurant, from gas to coal to wood-fired with temperatures ranging from 500 to 1000 degrees. Different pizzas require different ovens with options that include Roman, Sicilian, American, and even Detroit-style. If you’re confused, don’t be–you can’t make a wrong decision. If you decide to try just one pizza during your visit, opt for the Neapolitan Margherita which won Gemignani the World Pizza Cup in Naples in 2007. A master of details, he even proofs the dough in special wooden boxes from Naples.
“Grandma the Hippy” Neapolitan pizza from Tony’s Pizza Napoletana: Photo: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana
Capo’s Chicago Pizza
Holy stretchy mozzarella, this is your cheesiest choice and another Tony Gemignani creation.
At Capo’s, find Chicago-style deep dish pizzas whose genius lies in their architecture. Thick, cornmeal-dusted crust made with ceresota flour (the Chicago-preferred variety) is topped with mozzarella, not tomato sauce. The sauce — thick and bright — comes at the end. Why does that matter? The crust doesn’t sag and soften under weight of liquidy tomatoes, retaining its structural integrity from first bite to last. Note that because these pies are so thick, they take between 30 minutes for an 8’’ to 45 or 50 minutes for a 13’’. If you’re ordering for pickup, plan accordingly. If you’re eating there, slink into one of the shiny red vinyl booths, (be sure to note the working phone booth in the back, possibly one of the last in the city), order a martini, and enjoy an a sojourn into the 1940s.
Pizza maestro Tony Gemignani poses with his pies. Photo: Capo’s
This place is for people who like cracker-thin crusts. Billed as bastion of Roman-style pizza, Baonecci serves round pies intended for one person. I think two people with medium appetites could easily share one in conjunction with a salad (if you were so inclined). Be aware that your pizza does not include cheese unless it says so in the description. That’s not a bad thing, though. The cheeseless Maremma Diavola is a spicy, tomato-juicy standout. Keep a napkin handy to catch the olive oil that will dribble down your hand with each bite. Another boon to these cruncy pies is speed. Since the crust is so thin, it only takes about five minutes to bake each one. Another bonus: weekly movie nights feature classic Italian films to set the mood.
Cracker-thin crust at Baonecci. Photo credit: Cafe Baonecci
Opened in 1935 under the name Lupo’s, Tommaso’s installed what it claims was the first brick pizza oven on the West Coast. While the original owners were from Naples, today’s pies are not strictly Neapolitan. They lack those characteristic soppy centers, which often puzzle first time tasters. Neapolitan or not, there are terrific pies for the in-between folks, those who favor crusts that are neither too thick nor too thin with enough melted mozzarella to satisfy rather than overwhelm. The chefs do, however, dole out greens with a heavy hand. A spinach-topped pie teams with verdant leaves and the classic margarita sports more basil than most. No complaints here.
– Alissa Merksamer
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