The "Stefano" painted over the awnings of Stefano Restaurant is underlined in a stripe of red, white, and green. The placemats inside are decorated with a map of Italy. Murals of the Tuscan hills hover over the tables in one corner, and a trellis of grape vines and wine bottles frames the cash register. Listed on the menu: sausage pizza and mixtas chapinas.
Stefano, an Italian restaurant in Bernal Heights that flailed for a few years before going under this summer, reopened in August under new ownership. Guatemala-born Carlos and Daisy Eszras, the new owners, added "Serving Guatemalan and Salvadoran food" to the sign, painted in the square-edged letters common to pupuseria windows all over San Francisco. If Stefano were the only Guatemalan pizza restaurant to open in San Francisco, it would be a novelty. But it is the second of its kind, trailing several years behind the appearance of Naples Pizzarella in the Excelsior. In the hard-hitting world of food journalism, two restaurants constitutes a movement, which is how I found myself at Stefano, surveying a table covered in plates of adobada, chuchitos, and mixtas chapinas (the words chapin and chapina are slang for Guatemalan).
San Franciscans have been ordering pizza and feijoada from Brazilian-owned pizzerias for decades. Waiting 90 minutes for Zante's to deliver your Indian pizza is a rite of passage for anyone living in the southern half of the city. So why not a Guatemalan pizzeria?
I should be clear: There is no Guatemalan pizza per se on either restaurant's menu. This is a case of anti-fusion, or maybe fusion by proximity, the kind you find at Chinese-food-and-doughnut shops, or all those Tenderloin restaurants that advertise gyros, hamburgers, and burritos. And, if we're going to talk honestly here, the Stefano's combo pizza I did try was not the high point of my visits. Evenly puffy, as if the crust had been par-baked and then covered in peppers, sausage, and cheese, the pizza was one step up from Boboli and one step down from North Beach Pizza.
And I hesitate to say more about Stefano's Guatemalan pizzeria predecessor, Naples Pizzarella (1192 Geneva, 587-3743, pizzarellanaples.com), other than that the staff are lovely hosts with a tendency to serve their pizzas gleaming with oil and their meats thoroughly carbonized. (If you do go to Pizzarella Naples, the oversized pupusas that bleed molten cheese from heat-opened cracks are safe to order, as are the sides of refried black beans and rice, with sinewy sautéed peppers and onions weaving through the grains, that accompany the blackened meats.)
Now, Stefano's chuchitos ($1.25 apiece) were another story. Round tamales the size of plums, steamed in corn husks, the chuchitos hid at their center a nugget of pork braised in a tomato-chile sauce until it was nearly as tender as the masa surrounding it. The enchiladas chapinas ($4.75), a pair of tostadas with elaborate construction and bright, clean flavors, looked like a brightly colored pompon cut in half. The crisp tortilla at the base of the enchilada was invisible, covered over in green lettuce leaves and ground beef sautéed with carrots and beets. A shower of grated cheese, a tuft of fuschia pickled beet threads, shaved onions, and half a hard-boiled egg were piled on high enough to make eating the dish an acrobatic endeavor.
The flavors of cilantro and garlic flared out of the longanizas ($10.99), pork sausages the size and shape of a fat man's thumb, linked together by twists of casing and blistered from the grill flames. And carne adobada ($11.99), a wide, thinly sliced pork chop ruddy with a terra cotta-colored paste of achiote seeds, garlic, and spices, came off the grill more flavorful than tender.
Though I mostly ignored the Salvadoran and the Italian dishes, a restaurant specializing in three cuisines couldn't be expected to master them all. Apart from the chuchitos, Stefano's other tamales ($1.75) proved flaccid and a little characterless, while the churrasco ($13.99), a thin steak served with fried plantains, black beans, and guacamole, was cooked the traditional way, which is to say: leathery.
The mixta chapinas ($4.75) may have been the most fascinating dish on the menu, but it was the YouTube-at-midnight sort of fascination. The pair of puffy, deep-fried corn tortillas were topped with hot dogs, untameable frills of shredded lettuce, and giant Z's of mayonnaise, mustard, and ketchup. The flavor: nachos meet Chicago hot dog.
While Stefano's Guatemalan dishes aren't quite as compelling as the food at the nearby San Miguel Restaurant, the chicken pepian ($9.99) it serves on the weekends is a dish worth centering a Sunday-night ritual around. Chicken, carrots, and onions melted into a stew the color of burnished brass and thickened with ground pumpkin seeds and tomatoes. The pepian was earthy and nutty, broadly flavored but subtle, and even after I had eaten my fill of meat, I pulled off swatches of thick, just-made tortillas to dredge through the sauce.
The restaurant filled up as I ate. The waiters had arranged most of the tables into one big L, and Spanish-speaking men and women in navy business suits, badges affixed to their lapels, were gathering around them, some with children in tow. A business party, the now-sweating server explained. I paid up and threaded my way toward the exit, scanning plates as I went. Everyone had ordered pasta.