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Heat of the Night 

At Zinzino, wood-burning oven + thin crusts = fab pizza

Wednesday, Aug 28 1996
You can feel the glow of Zinzino's wood-burning oven just walking past it -- on your way, say, to a table in the heated garden. Along the wall opposite the oven (where flames flare and flicker, as if in a foundry) runs a narrow concrete channel filled with burbling water -- a sound of cool relief from the business of blistering pizza crusts.

Zinzino isn't just a pizza place, but in a city where the typical pie begins with a bloated disk of soggy dough, its thin, crispy crusts grab one's attention straight off. They're meant to: Along with the seriously showy oven are white-toqued chefs tossing rounds of dough high in the air while they carry on conversations with each other. It's the best sort of culinary theater, and one whose results on the palate are memorable.

As for street theater: Ground zero on Chestnut Street is several blocks to the east; Zinzino occupies a narrow space on the street's last heavily commercial block, to the west of which the neighborhood's aspect rapidly turns residential. The restaurant feels peripheral to Chestnut, less self-consciously trendy, more like a trattoria in Florence, with fewer large clumps of yuppies, lots of avid talk that doesn't boil over into boisterousness, and a casually eclectic decor (a countertop undulating around the oven; Italian posters plastered on the walls; potted plants; glass, chrome, and terra-cotta tiles) that's absorbing without seeming too contrived.

Chef Andrea Rappaport's brisk menu takes up one side of a single page, and, like the best Italian cooking, it's simple and seasonal. A tomato salad ($7.50), for instance, consisted of a medley of sliced or halved fruit in various sizes and colors (red, gold, green), topped with little chunks of fresh, marinated mozzarella and baby basil leaves and dressed with virgin olive oil. The best summer tomatoes don't need much help, and these had ripened to a beautiful sunny taste.

The wild mushroom lasagna ($9.50) was listed as a main course, but our server agreed to bring it as a starter so we could save our appetites for a pizza each. The hot oven (in which most of the main courses, as well as the pizzas, are prepared) worked its spell on the square little mountain of pasta and cheese, leaving its surface pocked with tasty blisters. Inside: layers of smoked provolone, walnuts, and ricotta, but most of all the pure flavor of mushroom. Around the edges of the plate glinted a chunky tomato ragout that gave us something to sop up with the warm bread served on the side.

The toppings on the sausage pizza ($9.75) -- a mild fennel-seed sausage, caramelized onions, tomato sauce, and mozzarella and fontina cheeses -- were apparently in place before the pie went into the oven, because they'd more or less melted together into a delicious thick stew atop a thin but resolutely crisp crust.

But the paper-thin, endive-shaped slices of prosciutto atop the quattro stagione ($10.95) were neatly arrayed on the pie after it emerged from the inferno, apparently to spare the delicate, expensive Italian ham any heat damage. Beneath the prosciutto were artichokes, olives, mushrooms, and mozzarella -- an attractive combination that could have used a bit of moisture. An irony of good thin pizza crust is that it's almost like a cracker, and a pie made with one is more likely to seem dry than a pie with a breadier crust.

A few nights later, the uncooked ham reappeared on the prosciutto and arugula pie ($9.95). The rocket hadn't been cooked, either, which preserved its slightly bitter, nutty edge; but the heat of the oven had fused the radicchio, fontina, and mozzarella to the crust. For some reason this pie didn't strike me as dry, maybe because the abundance of fresh arugula leaves still had moisture in them.

The best of the lot was the margherita ($8.75) -- a classically simple preparation of tomato sauce, mozzarella, and basil. There was enough sauce on the pie to turn the crust a little droopy near the point of each slice, but it's hard to foul up the timeless magic of bread, tomatoes, and cheese -- and Zinzino didn't.

Like the pizzas, the main courses emerged bearing the mark of the wood-burning oven. Baked rigatoni ($8.95) included chunks of roasted chicken and four cheeses; it was on the mild side of flavorful, but it had a dreamy texture, almost like a creme brulee: crusty on top, silken within.

Baked penne ($8.95) had more zing, mostly because of a well-herbed tomato sauce that picked up some smoke from the oven. Roasted eggplant added a moody note, while provolone and Romano cheeses bound everything together.

My rule about having roasted chicken in restaurants is changing. I never used to, because I make it at home so often (rub with salt and herbs a day before, then roast 10 minutes per pound at 500 degrees Fahrenheit on a vertical roaster), but lately I've been drawn to it.

If it's true that Italians like their birds well-cooked, then they'd like Zinzino's roasted half-chicken ($12.95), which reached the table still sizzling from the high heat. Naturally the skin was crisp, and there were no pockets of meat -- near bone, say -- that retained any vestige of pink. The chicken was cooked through until the juices ran clear. But the juices did run, meaning that the bird hadn't been overcooked: It was still moist and tender. Just what one wants from roast chicken.

A melange on the side included frisee, roasted potato quarters, soft goat cheese, and segments of mandarin orange, all of which swirled together with the chicken juices and stray bits of skin into a wild, delectable salad that I made a point of eating every last bit of.

There are so many Italian restaurants in San Francisco these days that to open one without a gimmick could easily amount to suicide. Zinzino's wood-fired oven does have its stagy aspect, but it also gives its pizzas, pastas, and meats a lovely smoldering smokiness that's as distinctive as any signature.

Zinzino, at 2355 Chestnut, serves dinner Sunday and Tuesday through Thursday from 5:30 to 10 p.m., Friday and Saturday from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. There's brunch Saturday and Sunday from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. It's closed Mondays until Sept. 9, when dinner service starts. Call 346-6623.

About The Author

Paul Reidinger


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