On a mild, damp evening between storms, the city view was ghostly -- a point or corner here, a cluster of twinkling lights there, clouds and fog scuttling among the downtown towers. It was warm enough to eat outside, if a little wet. Inside, it was just warm, with a relax-ing liveliness pulsing through the place. Potrero Hill is one of those archetypal San Francisco neighborhoods where vastly different people live congenially side by side, and the pizzeria's crowd reflected this heterogeneity: young couples with kids; elderly people; groups of gay men and lesbians; punks; food critics with their parents.
The maitre d', in his dark, tortoise-shell glasses and ponytail, managed the mob beautifully. He worked the floor without stopping, front to back to front again, taking reservations, calling out names, and chatting up tables of diners to make sure everything was OK.
The Monday night blowout at Goat Hill is like a pizza dim sum. There are no steam carts, and the servers are polite, but you can pick and choose from various pizzas as they circulate through the dining room on platters held by waiters, fresh from the oven.
California pizza has often not appealed to me. West Coast crusts tend to be puffy and breadlike -- or even gooey, if the oven isn't hot enough or the pizza is underbaked. Pizzas with thin, crisp crusts, so widespread back east and in Chicago, are a rare thing here. LuLu makes good ones, as does Pizza Inferno on Fillmore, but generally crusts here tend to be billowy.
Goat Hill's crusts are of the breadlike variety, but at least their edges are crisp and slightly blistered, and they don't turn soggy and saggy near the point of each slice. Still, the rim is thick and starchy. One of my tablemates was a resolute thin-cruster, and as he ate, a little pile of crusty rinds grew beside his plate. I, too, soon gave up trying to eat the entire crust, in part because that much bread becomes blandly overwhelming, and, more important, because the kitchen was rapidly turning out pizzas with various and tasty toppings I wanted to try.
The first pizza to reach us was salami and green onion, a beautifully simple combination. The green onion had mellowed in the oven's high heat, while the thin slices of salami packed a strong garlic kick. (All combinations of toppings are arranged on a base of tomato sauce and white cheese, which imparts a background richness.)
About every other pizza seemed to be vegetarian, although no PC fanfare proclaimed this fact. Spinach/red onion/black olive was a little reticent for my taste, but it was quickly followed by a pie with linguica, a spicy Portuguese sausage, and green bell pepper -- another uncomplicated, powerful flavor.
Pesto pizza. The crust-piler, sitting on my right, turned it down flat. I accepted a piece on the theory that I would try anything once, though I was pretty sure I wouldn't like it. And I didn't. Pesto is a condiment that's just too rich to slather heavily on a big pizza; it's meant to be an accent, not a centerpiece. There's a lot of cheese and oil in it, and in big doses it turns greasy. It's like covering a pizza crust with barbecue sauce, or aioli. Goat Hill's pesto pizza looked like a disc of turf, but at least the pesto had been ladled atop the tomato sauce, whose acidity cut the oiliness a bit. (Once I had a pesto pizza at Pauline's, on Valencia, and their version was simply a pizza crust topped only with pesto. One slice might have been interesting, but the pie as a whole was inedible.)
The irony was that Goat Hill's zippy pesto would have made a nice addition to several pizzas that emerged from the oven in rapid succession: the sun-dried tomato, for instance, or the plain cheese. Even the excellent pepperoni (which our table greedily seized upon, though we were all filling up fast), would have looked and tasted a little snappier with a dollop or two of the green paste.
The kitchen (which is at the front of the restaurant) shuffled and reshuffled ingredients (frequent choices: scallions and black olives); themes emerged. One of the pizzas was unmistakably Greek, with tomatoes, black olives, and feta, the salty cheese. Another, with ham and pineapple, seemed to be Hawaiian. A third was the perfect California pizza: It featured marinated artichoke hearts, tomato, and jalape–o peppers.
Gluttony slaked, we settled in our chairs and watched the parade of pizzas with calm disinterest. People continued to pour into the place, lining up at the salad bar (part of the deal) for greens, beans (kidney and garbanzo), shredded cheese, mushrooms, slices of tomato and beet, pickled peppers, scallions, and a battery of dressings including vinaigrette and a sharp blue cheese. The salad bar was worth a return trip, but none of us seemed interested in getting up.
In any group of diners, however, there's always at least one who's interested in dessert. Perhaps our sweet tooth had visions of flourless chocolate cake or a strawberry sundae. If so, he was disappointed. When he asked our server about dessert, eyes shining with hope, she replied: "Flan."
Perfect, I thought, no thanks! There would be no agonizing choice to make, or avoid. If it's genius to turn pizza into a dim sum event, it's also genius not to offer much in the way of a sweet finale. After such pleasurably massive carbo-loading, the very thought of dessert left me slightly queasy. The true end to the meal was stepping back into the cool street, where a damp sea breeze blew gently up the hill, promising rain and deep, happy sleep.
Goat Hill Pizza, 300 Connecticut, S.F., 641-1440. Open daily 11:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m.