For all the upscaling that has been thrust upon the pizza — the Neapolitan flours, the wood-fired ovens, the word "artisan" — the pizzaioli of San Francisco have not changed our core belief that a pizza pie is a communal meal. Sure, a restaurant map of San Francisco would be speckled with by-the-slice windows, but we have grown up on pizza-parlor birthdays and TV viewing nights decorated with stacks of delivery boxes. We may now be willing to pay $20 for a perfectly blistered pizza topped with foraged chanterelles and buffalo mozzarella, but we want to eat it with our friends.
Mozzeria, a 5-month-old pizza place on 16th and Guerrero, is molded around this core tenet. A pizza covered in sweet caramelized-onion jam, pools of fresh mozzarella, and slices of curled, crisp pancetta that resemble splayed-out tulip blossoms — one of Mozzeria's best — costs $15, and is more than enough for one person.
Owners Melody and Russ Stein have made significant changes to the space since its last incarnation, Il Cantuccio, but they've also taken over that restaurant's role as one of the Mission's disappearing neighborhood hangouts. Rustic yellows and ruddy woods have been replaced with clean, cool whites and blacks, punctuated with glossy red chairs. Starburst lamps bloom from the walls, which are otherwise bare except for a few black-and-white wood-block prints made by a friend. And in the center of the room, of course, next to the bar, they've installed a domed wood-fired oven imported from Naples.
The Steins have made national press for opening one of the few deaf-owned restaurants in the country. Many of their servers are also deaf, all are conversant in ASL, and a good many of the conversations taking place around the room are signed. Most of us in this city are used to crossing language barriers in search of good food, and pointing at menu items, simple signing, and using a smart phone to type out more complicated questions work beautifully. The thumbs-up sign, it turns out, goes far.
As Mozzeria's name suggests, the Steins are in love with fresh cheeses, which show up on many of the dishes. Thin, almost lacy crostini are topped with silky roasted eggplant, dollops of Mozzeria's own ricotta, and thin stripes of basil ($5). When you slice through the breading on the mozzeria bar ($8), a mozzarella stick the size of a dollar bill, house-made mozzarella flows out, a milk-white lava that pools among the tomato sauce and fried basil leaves that ring it. The earth-tinged sugars in a salad of red and golden beets are offset by the bite of baby arugula, the kick of fried horseradish flakes, and the tang of goat cheese ($7).
Melody Stein traveled to Italy to train in pizza making, and after she returned, the Steins built a wood-fired oven in their back yard to practice making pizzas until the big oven arrived. Mozzeria's pizzas are not yet up to the level of Pizzeria Delfina's, say, but they come close: Irregular foot-wide rounds with inch-wide lips mottled in gold and brown, black freckles scattered here and there. A fine margarita ($12) was topped with little more than sweet crushed tomatoes, crackly basil leaves, and spots where the house-made mozzarella has melted and spread into a fine matrix of bubbles and browned cheese. We were offered the option of goat or bleu cheese with the asparagus-truffle pizza ($18), and we should have chosen the goat; the melted bleu cheese covering the pie overwhelmed the flavor of the roasted-asparagus spokes that radiated from its center. The pale musk of the goat cheese pizza ($15) was a better match for the eggplant slices and sweet-tart, oven-melted cherry tomatoes arranged over top.
The centers of the pies are no more than a millimeter or two thick, and the charring is perfect — just enough to leave the pizza a little smoky, but never so concentrated that it tastes bitter. If the crust has a flaw, it's that the dough is a shade too dense, so that the lip doesn't yet develop those high, wild bubbles that give it loft and elegance.
Lead line cook Bryan Baker comes up with most of the small plates and desserts. Like the pizzas, they sometimes lack polish, but he's got a good palate. One night's special of fava-leaf fettucine ($12), the noodles too thick to be elegant, was tossed with a well-balanced sauce of tomato confit, broccoli rabe, and strands of the tangy house burrata, barely more substantial than a smear of crème fraiche. Baker worked in a nod to Melody's Cantonese roots (her parents own restaurants in Hong Kong) by topping polenta with roast duck, black mushrooms, and snap peas, but by avoiding other Chinese seasonings like ginger or soy sauce, he made the earthy sauce at home in an Italian restaurant. And the texture of his chocolate-walnut torte ($6) may have been too compact, but the flavors — dark chocolate paired with a smear of dried-fig purée and crumbs of crushed brittle — were elegantly assembled.
As rents and the costs of doing business continue to rise in this town, it's not surprising that places like Mozzeria have successfully taken on the role of an affordable neighborhood bistro. Mozzeria is a destination precisely because it's not a destination restaurant. A place where you can drop in with friends and, after spending $25, feel like you've eaten a good meal. Where you can talk for an hour after the entrées are gone. Where, after two visits, a wave of recognition greets you when you walk in and even more usher you out the door.