San Francisco's thing for upscale pizza has gone so far beyond fad — trend-starter Pizzetta 211 dates back to 2004, people — that it's practically a social movement. There's no secret why pizza is popular with customers: It's populist. With the exception of the gluten-free and the cheese-averse, everyone takes to pizza. Vegetarians and sausage freaks, as well as food snobs with picky preschoolers, can all dine peaceably together, sometimes even on the same pie. Not long ago, "West Coast" pizza used to be a derogatory term, and now it's a bona fide style characterized by crisp, delicate crusts; seasonal, local vegetables; and house-cured or sustainably raised meats.
There's also no secret why pizza is popular with San Franciscan restaurateurs: It's profitable. Considering this city's rising labor costs and astronomical rents, something has to be cut back, and it's food costs. Cooks can smother the pie in foie gras and platinum flakes and hire 16-year-old virgins to carry buffalo-milk mozzarella from Naples to their door, and the crust — flour, water, salt, yeast — is still ridiculously cheap.
With each new pizzeria that opens, however, people are beginning to wonder: Is this the place that will mark the saturation point? To avoid the really, another one? response, Pi Bar, which opened on Valencia Street in October, and Delarosa, which hit Chestnut Street in late November, have brought pizza together with another foodstuff that successfully straddles the high-low divide: beer. San Francisco, after all, is a center of the cicerone (beer sommelier) movement, and the just-ended SF Beer Week was charged with an excitement that spread far beyond brewgeek circles.
So Pi Bar and Delarosa are capitalizing on the all-American love for a slice and a beer. At both places, I thought the food was decent, the vibe comfortably crowded — and the beer lists the real reasons I'd go back.
Pi Bar, which took over the old Suriya Thai space and occasioned a firestorm of online gossipmongering during the windup to opening day, is a collaboration between Chenery Park's Rich Rosen and Jen Garris, a veteran of Magnolia Pub and New Belgium Brewing Co. Using the neighborhood pub as a model, they've painted the walls varying shades of umber and installed a pressed-tin ceiling; the banquettes and solid wood tables have a hand-built look. It has a strong Valencia vibe, moody and guitar-rock–friendly, with just enough rough edges to undercut any taint of pretension. As with barstools from Poughkeepsie to Portland, they attract the dudes, who hunch over their pints and slices as if their thick shoulders are weary from carting around so much brawn.
Garris has stocked her coolers with Belgians, heavy on the Trappists, and saves the taps for a quickly rotating selection of a dozen local craft beers. Given either the season or her predilection, she seems to favor the dark and hoppy; so far I've gotten to taste a highly floral Dirty Pig IPA, a dense and piercingly bitter Avery IPA, a mellow golden Russian River Damnation, and a woodsy, chocolaty 2007 Drake Jolly Roger old ale that was so thick I could taste the next day's hangover with each sip. (Friends drank some of these beers, mind you. I'm not that much of a lush.)
By the measure of upscale San Francisco pizzerias, chef Joe Lee's pies — $14 for a medium cheese pie that serves two, $20 for a large, which serves three — are priced reasonably. They're also consistently overbaked. A quarter-inch thin along the bottom and less than an inch around the curb, the browned crusts fold with a loud snap and taste like bread that has stayed in the toaster too long. When it's warm, you think, well, this is crisp but not too bad, but as it cools down, it becomes dry and ashy. At the end of one meal, I looked around the table and spotted plates piled with brown arcs of crust.
The toppings, made with locally sourced meats and vegetables, were fine — the roasted peppers had been stuck in the oven just long enough to lose their rawness, not melt down, but the balsamic onions had a nice sweetness to them, the portabella mushrooms were fat and meaty, the sausage and meatballs housemade.
Across town, Delarosa is aiming for a completely different vibe: Dolce & Gabbana school cafeteria. Pale, bare, and shiny, the orange-accented room is filled with long wood tables and square, backless stools. Instead of construction-paper mobiles, a grid of low-wattage lightbulbs hovers over the diners, casting an amiable but not unflattering glow. Somehow, when it's your time to sit, the lunchroom attendant finds you in the pack of crisp-collared shirts jostling around the bar and leads you to your spot, at which point junior high etiquette prevails and you ignore everyone around you. What makes that possible is that the ceiling is high enough that sound from the surrounding conversations arcs up and over, forming a sonic bubble in which you can freely chat.
Ruggero Gadaldi, Deborah Blum, and Adriano Paganini, who have scored instant hits with Beretta and Starbelly, have applied much the same template to Delarosa. They're flanking the pizzas with fritti (fried things), panini (press-grilled things), and spiedini (skewered things) here. Some of the antipasti I tried, like springy meatballs in a spicy tomato sauce ($6) and thin panes of fennel salami accompanied by pickled onions and smoked scamorza ($8), were made with the same understated care Beretta is known for, but a bowl of deep-fried brussels sprouts ($6) and a sautéed chicory salad with cauliflower and hazelnuts ($6) both demonstrated a tolerance for oil that surpassed good taste.
Gadaldi's "Roman-style" thin-crust pizzas, cooked in a wood-fired oven, vary in quality. When it's done right — as it was at lunch one day, when the smaller crowd gave the cooks more time to focus — the dough bubbles and puffs around the edges, airy and smoke-tinged, with a papery crispness that holds up to the tomato sauce, cheese, and toppings (in this case, mushrooms and fresh thyme, $14). On a busy night, the pizzas seemed to lose that elegance, toughening up around the edges while the center was undercooked and still floppy. On the prosciutto pizza ($15), showered in baby arugula leaves, the oven-crisped slices of cured meat seemed to compensate for the crust, but slices of the margherita, sogged down by pools of burrata ($14), stayed on the tray. And this is pizza we're talking about.
Rich Higgins' beer list, which closely resembles the one he does for Starbelly, is composed with the same care as a sommelier's wine list. The bottle list has both playful (21st Amendment's watermelon wheat in a can) and recherché (Le Baladin Nora, an Egyptian-style ale from Italy) picks. The 13 draft beers, mostly local, range from kolsch to stout, with a marked preference for lesser-hopped, crisp beers that pair well with food. Higgins' tasting notes are on the mark — holy crap, that really was bubblegum in the Gordon Biersch Dampfbier — and I'm grateful for the introduction to the North Coast Le Merle; my dining companions had their eyes on other beers, but the moment we tasted the fruity, citrus-inflected Saison it was Le Merles all around.
Pi Bar works as a good neighborhood beer bar with the occasional snack, while Delarosa seems like it's a matter of bringing execution up to speed with the concept (or waiting until the first blast of popularity fades and the kitchen isn't overburdened). But the crowds at both show that the upscale pizza obsession is still not played out.
Familiarity aside, what makes upscale pizza such a reliable option for so many of us is that it hits the sweet spot in terms of price. About $20 to $25 a person gets us a salad, a pint or a cocktail, and a few slices of pizza. More importantly, $25 allows us to spend a few hours with friends in a buzzy, well-designed room with buzzy, well-designed people. Now that's definitely a social movement that most San Franciscans ascribe to.