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Eat: Del Popolo 

Wednesday, Dec 9 2015
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If you've been to Outside Lands, you know the importance of finding the shortest possible lines for everything: toilets, ID checks, beer, et cetera. At least, that's my mission. Clearly, many hundreds of attendees think differently, because every time I'm running from the Polo Field to the Twin Peaks Stage, triangulating the most efficient way to stuff my face, the line for Del Popolo's pizza truck stretches across the entire fairway, perpendicular to the foot traffic.

San Franciscans are notorious for waiting in line for commonly available foods. In this case, I get it: The pizza is great, and there's macho appeal to a glassed-in oven inside a shipping container on wheels that resembles a War Rig from Mad Max: Fury Road. But the idea of skipping half of Hot Chip's set to queue 25 minutes for a slice is too much even for this foodie.

Now that Del Popolo has opened a brick-and-mortar on Nob Hill, the dilemma is solved. Well, partly, anyway. Del Popolo doesn't accept reservations for three or fewer. Even at 8 p.m. on a drizzly Sunday night when I expected thinner-than-normal crowds, it was still a 30-minute wait for a corner of a communal table. (It's not the end of the world, though; Stookey's Club Moderne is up the block.)

In any case: the pizza. It's thin, it's Neapolitan, it comes with four slices, and there are more varieties (six) than there are on the truck. While Del Popolo doesn't have an open kitchen, the wood-fired oven holds pride of place, and watching the pizzaiolos at work is more fun than watching line cooks chop vegetables. By leaps and bounds, the best pizza of the lot is the winter squash ($18), made with mascarpone, spring onions, bacon, and rosemary. The squash is sweet, the bacon is salty, and the mascarpone hovers at just the right level of gooeyness. Alchemically, it's a wonder.

Because the ricotta was under-salted, the bianca ($15) suffered in comparison to its sibling. A little more basil wouldn't be out of place, either, but its comparative mildness lets you appreciate the pie's structure more fully, from the leopard-spotted crust to the blistered air pockets to the chew it retains in spite of the heat.

I miss Del Popolo's broccoli rabe pizza and hope it comes back in the spring, but for now there's an anchovy pie ($18). It was salty as you'd expect, and hot from the Calabrian chili, but I couldn't resist the temptation to throw on some housemade sausage, too. It was overkill, and I have no one but myself to blame, because the fundamentals were solid. If you also find add-ons hard to resist, be advised that Del Popolo provides tiny bowls of red pepper, too. (Be judicious, because it's much fresher than the greasy shakers in a neighborhood slice shop, and a little goes a long way.)

While the pizza is good enough to satiate hardcore fans who've followed the Del Popolo truck for years, the salient fact about this restaurant is that it's more than just pizza. The antipasti, some of which would never be eaten in Naples, are anything but afterthoughts. When your name means "for the people," it's probably best to present at least a veneer of populism, and Del Popolo has managed to be both imaginative and accessible. A bowl of five hush puppies ($10), with the golden-brown crust of falafel, came with housemade hot sauce and honey butter. (Best to smear it all together. Trust.) While broccoli rabe may be absent, there is an appetizer of broccoli roasted in the wood oven ($12) and served with pickled ramps, feta, and chili oil. I was surprised to find it was served cold (as was another cruciferous vegetable dish) but the ramps were bright and acidic, with the wet crunch of fresh bok choy.

When you order "charred cauliflower," you might imagine browned chunks of vegetable that look like quartered brains, but here it had been chopped up almost to the point of being frapped. This monochrome, quinoa-esque charred cauliflower ($11) sure doesn't look like much — package it in a clamshell and it would be a tough sell at a grab-and-go lunch spot — but it's thoroughly delicious. As with a tartare, it came with a poached egg that you're meant to mix together. The effect is wonderful, umami-heavy with an undercurrent of lime, although again I found the cool temperature puzzling. Unhappily, the most beautiful antipasto was the least successful, a Monterey Bay squid ($13) that came with celery root, pine nuts, currants, and parsley. The herbs were uniformly fresh, but the shellfish needed either smoke or acid. As my dining date said, "The squid was the least interesting part."

There are two desserts: a Nutella ice cream that's the exact shade of a Wendy's Frosty and chocolate pot de crème with sea salt. Both were great, the lone sticking point being that since almost everyone is inclined to eat a bowl of ice cream before a ramekin of pot de crème, they'll eat the sweeter one first and the richer one second.

Even at capacity, Del Popolo has great acoustics. The space is a little forbidding — factory lighting and cinderblock walls painted ash gray — but there's at least an attempt at warm decor in the portraits from eBay that line the walls. (If unsmiling, Eastern European-looking portraiture in heavy oils could be said to lighten things up, that is.) But austere or not, Del Popolo deserves its continued popularity. Bring three friends and an appetite, order every pie, and dig into one slice of everything.

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About The Author

Peter Lawrence Kane

Bio:
Peter Lawrence Kane is SF Weekly's Arts Editor. He has lived in San Francisco since 2008 and is two-thirds the way toward his goal of visiting all 59 national parks.

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