The West Coast pizza style is an impressionistic one rather than a template: a crackly, blistery crust, no matter whether the ovens are heated by wood or gas; tomato sauce optional; seasonal, local, artisanal toppings assembled to reflect the chefs' tastes.
The Bay Area is the most pizza-obsessed metropolitan area on the West Coast. Just like during the dot-com days, the pizza boom is getting a little ridiculous. With new pizzerias in the works from the owners of Farina, Gialina, and Pizzeria Picco, as well as Flour + Water's old pizzaiolo (Jon Darsky) and the recently emigrated Anthony Mangieri (Una Pizza Napoletana), we're nearing the saturation point. But anyone along the western and southern edges of the city will tell you it hasn't yet arrived.
Here are a few of the pizzas we think you won't find anywhere else in the country ― our favorites of the Bay Area West Coast style as well as an out-of-left-fielder we've loved for two decades.
260 Valencia (at 14th St.), 552-2050
If there's a prototype for the West Coast pizza, it's Pauline's, which has been a packed, welcoming neighborhood spot since the days when neighbors would regularly hear gunshots. The restaurant started growing its own salad greens and pizza toppings 20 years ago, and Pauline's crisp crust, its edges swollen with giant ciabatta-like air bubbles, has always been distinct from any East Coast imitator. You can choose your own toppings, but two times out of three we just order one of the nightly meat or vegetarian specials. It could be thyme, goat cheese, and shallots, or pepper puree, andouille sausage, and spinach. And Pauline's has been around so long that its hype emissions are a tiny fraction of newer competitors. ―Jonathan KauffmanPizzaiolo
5008 Telegraph (at 51st St.), Oakland; (510) 652-4888
Boot & Shoe Service
3308 Grand (at Mandana), Oakland; (510) 763-2668
Like Willy Wonka bequeathing the chocolate factory to Charlie Bucket, Alice Waters looms large at Charlie Hallowell's pair of Oakland pizza eateries. In her circa-1979 brick oven at Chez Panisse (circa 1979), Waters created West Coast pizza (nice try, Wolfgang), and Hallowell ― who spent 8 years at the Chez ― is her anointed disciple. A Hallowell pizza has a wood-fired crust as blistered and smudged as naan, with ingredients that, in Pizzaiolo's best pies, don't overwhelm it. Take Hallowell's marquee stinging nettle pizza, where the greens' bitterness echoes the taste of the crust's blackened bits, modulated with the sweetness of fresh ricotta. Or his dead-simple pie of tomato sauce throbbing with anchovy and olives, with its scattering of fresh marjoram leaves that conjure some weedy hillside. Somewhere, Alice is weeping tears of pure joy. ―John BirdsallGioia Pizzeria
1586 Hopkins (at McGee), (510) 528-4692
Brooklyn-born Will Gioia says he's just trying to do a classic New York pizza, but he's kidding no one. The man knows how to spin out a crust so that it's practically translucent in the center, and then bake (and reheat) it so the triangle's central point cracks and dips when we fold it in half. We like Gioia's basic New York slices (mushroom, pepperoni, anchovy) just fine ― and his rotating selection of Berkeley pizzas more. Over the years we've loved the roast broccoli and ricotta, the arugula pesto and prosciutto, the roast fennel with red onions and niçoise olives. Most of what you're putting in your mouth is organic, and if you Brooklynites want to mock that, well, screw you. ―Jonathan KauffmanFlour + Water
2401 Harrison (at 20th St.), 826-7000
Here's the thing New Yorkers will never get about San Francisco: We're obsessive underachievers. When we go out to eat, nothing makes us happier than crowding into rooms with chunky wooden furniture and tee-shirted servers heavily etched with body art, where the cooking digs deep into our collective notion of "authentic": astonishingly beautiful produce, earthy flavors, and forms that comfort rather than challenge. It's the same with Thomas McNaughton's extravagantly thin-crusted, wood-fired pizzas, where toppings like roasted bone marrow and broccoli rabe, or fava leaves, asparagus, and prosciutto register our sense of what the city almost literally tastes like in any given season. ―John BirdsallZante Pizza & Indian Cuisine
3489 Mission (at Cortland), 821-3949
Yes, the guy on the phone who takes your order will tell you it's going to take 45 minutes and it's always an hour and a half. (You'd think that after 22 years they'd have a better sense of how long it will take.) Yes, the turmeric-tinted yellow crust on Zante's Indian pizza is doughy and nowhere near as memorable as any of the other pies on this list. But we've never had anything like the ginger and chile-spiked spinach puree Zante uses for sauce, nor the combination of crimson tandoori chicken, spiced cauliflower, green onions and chopped cilantro the cooks scatter on top (sometimes you'll find lamb or shrimp, too). West Coast style or not, it's a San Francisco classic. ―Jonathan Kauffman
P.S. We hear Bruce Hill's Pizzeria Picco is amazing, but none of us have made the trek yet. Apparently, we're not pizza obsessed enough to drive to Larkspur.