Il Casaro Pizzeria and Mozzarella Bar is a new Neapolitan addition to the occasionally lackluster strip of touristy, overpriced Italian restaurants in San Francisco's vestigial Little Italy. It is also superb in nearly every way, my only regret being a stomach capacity too limited to sample the mozzarellas.
For starters, the dough is extraordinary, and the oven is so hot the pies come out within minutes, audibly crispy as they're sliced. Nearly every seat affords a good vantage point, if you want to watch. Although the Norma (mozzarella, San Marzano tomato, ricotta salata and fried eggplant) benefited from a bit of salt, it genuinely popped.
But it was the panuozzo, a sandwich made with pizza dough, that won the day. As with Salumeria's pretzel torpedo rolls, the genius here was having bread that wows while still taking a backseat to the actual contents -- in this case, an off-menu mélange of freshly sliced prosciutto, cherry tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, because they were unable to make the regular panuozzo. Dusted with thyme and ringed with olive oil, it had a magical appearance. Il Casaro -- "the cheesemaker" -- isn't the world's cheapest pizza, but the toppings are generous and an order of sparkling water gets you a complimentary 750 mL bottle of Pellegrino. (Or maybe the server forgot.)
Located behind/below Caffé Trieste, this trapezoidal space is sunken into Grant Avenue so that it feels subterranean from that side and at-grade when facing Columbus Avenue, a pleasantly European effect. Care has been taken to make Il Casaro warm and romantic, but with a contemporary feel that signals to diners that this no red-sauce joint. There are white tiles, industrial light fixtures and reclaimed wood (of course). But they're balanced against details like Carrera marble, a barrel hostess stand, a woodpile, a wall of Italian text, Strianese canned tomatoes lined on the sill and a massive orchid in the loo, not deployed robotically like you see literally everywhere.
Not having the word for garlic in 40 languages tattooed all over the exterior is a strong plus, but with that low bar out of the way, Il Casaro is everything you could want out of North Beach. Sit at the bar if you can, from the two seats where you can stare straight into the 900 degree embers in the oven while watching the pizzaiolo romance the pies.
Il Casaro Pizzeria and Mozzarella Bar, 601 Vallejo St., (415) 982-2605.