This past year saw a flurry of pizzeria openings in San Francisco, but none as anticipated as Capo's, the new North Beach pizza joint from Tony Gemignani. The 11-time World Pizza Champion has pursued his obsession at Tony's Pizza Napoletana on the corner of Stockton and Union, where he makes not only Neapolitan-style pizza but nine other regional versions spanning the globe from Rome to Detroit. At Capo's, Gemignani has built a temple to Chicago, the one famous pizza-making region not accounted for at Tony's, and the pies he's turning out from its open kitchen are worthy contenders for the best deep-dish in the city.
Unlike at most pizzerias, your experience at Capo's depends more on the style of pizza you choose than the toppings. When it comes to pies like the deep-dish and stuffed (a deep-dish pizza with an extra layer of cheese baked into the crust), the cheese and sauce take the spotlight, muting the other ingredients, whether they're the house-made calabrese and Italian sausages of the Sam Giancana pizza, or the Italian beef and sweet peppers of the Johnny Torrio. The deep-dish pies all have some combination of mozzarella, provolone, ricotta, and parmigiano romano cheeses, and a bready crust made with ceresota flour imported from Chicago that has all the appeal of Little Star's crust without the sweetness. All combine to create a bite that is dense, rich, and savory, punctuated with the bright, fresh tomato sauce baked on top.
Pizza baked in a cast iron pan has more crust than the others combined — a good inch and a half, with a thin layer of toppings to make it more like a dressed-up foccacia. And the cracker crust variation is a great addition to the city's thin-crust repertoire; it's crispier than the thin-crust pizza from Naples so popular these days. Sliced in "party cut" squares instead of triangles, it made us feel as though we should be hanging out with the Brat Pack in someone's basement rec room after school.
But Gemignani looks further back than the 1980s with his influences, and has designed his restaurant as an homage to the gangster days of the 1920s and '30s. The design is retro without going full Disneyland — welcoming and well decorated, the room feels like it's been in the neighborhood for years. Big red banquettes are each named for a mobster and have appropriate vintage memorabilia displayed. There are shiny chrome fixtures and an antique cash register, cigarette machine, and payphone. The gangster theme runs through in the whiskey-heavy, well crafted cocktail list, which has drinks with names like "Made Man" and "The Silencer."
Gemignani's deft hand and fondness for bold flavors are also seen in sections of the menu outside of the pizzas. Garlic is omnipresent in the brothy, wonderful pasta e fagioli that's ladled out to guests when they sit down. It also plays a big role in the caprese, where slices of garlicky marinated eggplant are a successful substitute for ripe summer tomatoes, and in the Caesar salad, a simple composition of romaine leaves and an anchovy-heavy dressing.
The kitchen isn't afraid of spice, either, and serves a wallop in a superb dish of baked shells topped with a generous amount of Dungeness crab. The pasta's pale red arabbiata sauce doesn't assert its presence until the second or third bite, when you realize that the creaminess has a kick. One night we tried a pizza Gemignani was testing — a zesty mixture of toppings that included chorizo, pepperoni, and serrano peppers, which was just saved from being too spicy by soothing dollops of fresh ricotta cheese.
There were only a few moments in the meal when Gemignani's zeal seemed a little out of control. One was in the Quattro Forni appetizer. It's baked in four different ovens and requires such care and attention that only 20 are served per day. It's hard to discern the influence of the four ovens except the last one, which fries the crust to transform the 8-by-8-inch pizza into something like a savory doughnut draped with cheese and prosciutto. The result is undeniably delicious, but also extremely filling and, considering the large portions of the rest of the food, better suited to a bar snack than an appetizer.
The biggest misfire at Capo's, however, is its strict cash-only policy — a throwback to the simpler times of the '30s, sure, but also a hassle when your dinner bill is topping $100 for a group. (There is a cash machine with $1 fee in back near the bathrooms, if you haven't brought enough.) But these are nitpicks, and I'll gladly forgive Capo's its minor faults and return, with my wallet filled with cash and wearing my stretchiest pants. Gemignani's expansion into a new style of pizza-making is reason enough to expand my waistline — especially before New Year's resolutions set in.