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Is Zero Zero a destination, or just a pizzeria? 

Wednesday, Sep 22 2010

Just when you thought the pizza thing had crested. Just when you'd completed your crust-ranking spreadsheet and were turning your attention to the particulars of ramen noodles. Just when the most jaded of you had become bored with being tired of pizza. San Francisco looked at you all and said, yeah? You think you've had enough? That's when the city's newest pizza rush began.

It's still coming on. Last week, Una Pizza Napoletana (from the nationally acclaimed Anthony Mangieri) opened, with Ragazza (from the locally adored Sharon Ardiana, of Gialina) shortly behind. A few weeks before that, it was Tony Gemignani's Coal-Fired Pizza and Slice House and, in Berkeley, Paisan from the Lalime's crew. The latter comes with a pizza-maker brought over from Naples. Ditto for the Farina owners' Antica Pizzeria Napoletana, due in October. With pizza, like Rolling Stones tours and David Hasselhoff's career, there is no end in sight.

If the reputations of any of the above-mentioned restaurateurs were any less burnished, there'd be no need for critics like me to pay them any attention. But every one of these new pizzerias could overturn the top 10 places in your annotated rankings. Take the first of the giants to lumber into town: Bruce Hill's Zero Zero.

Why did it open to capacity crowds? Because Hill's 5-year-old Pizzeria Picco, in Larkspur, perpetually scores in the top 3 on the rankings of most Bay Area pizza geeks. The core elements of both places are the same: Neapolitan-style pizzas and soft-serve Straus ice cream for dessert. But Zero Zero is more a destination than a casual weeknight meal. And accordingly, in San Francisco, Hill — aided by chef de cuisine Chris Whaley — has expanded the menu of starters, salads, bruschette, pastas, and one daily entrée, and added two cocktail bars and a wide-ranging wine list, which includes nine Californian wines on tap. (Side note: At that point, why bother maintaining a second, even longer by-the-glass selection of European wines?)

Most of what Zero Zero is doing matches its ambitions, except when it comes to the restaurant's raison d'être. Over the course of two meals, I had one superb pizza, one good pizza, and two pies of desperate mediocrity. Since we're counting, there were also five marvelous appetizers, one good sandwich, two fantastic waiters, one meh pasta, and a couple of desserts that ... well, I'll get to them.

The entryway is certainly epic, dominated by a great wooden staircase just inside the door. As you stand at the bottom of it, on your left is the bar, with glowing rows of liquor bottles and equally polished (or just lit) drinkers. On the right you can peer straight into the maw of Hill's new pizza oven, the symbolic head of the kitchen line that trails behind. Dining sounds cascade down the stairs and flood the entryway, but when you climb up to the U-shaped mezzanine, you find a quieter, more civilized scene than you feared: businesspeople as usual. The dining room upstairs is done up in the colors of a men's club, with burnished browns and glossed burgundy booths. There's a tinge of mall-restaurant in the faux-finish gray marble of the walls, the flame-shaped lights mounted on pipes, the zebra-striped carpet. And a tinge of the grotesque in the scene painted on the back wall, which includes a 6-foot-long Pinocchio marionette with eager, serial-killer eyes.

About the marvelous appetizers: They included a salad of red and gold watermelon ($8.95), pressed to concentrate their sweetness, which resembled chopped popsicles showered in lime juice, salty feta, and chopped nepitella mint. There was a crudo of the day ($9.75), strips of raw snapper laid over a lemony salad of fennel and cucumber, with a jagged L of orange trout roe spelled out over the top. Arancini ($6.95), fried to a precise crunch, spilled out a mass of melted fontina and spinach once I bit into the risotto balls; the accompanying aioli, flavored with fruity fermented black garlic, was so good I set aside a pool to swab pizza crusts through later. And two cubes of fried polenta ($6.95) flanked a slow-cooked egg, barely opaque, that melted in a wash of yolk and quivering islands of white, enriching the deep-hearted sauce underneath and coating the minuscule chanterelles on the other side of the bowl.

You could make a meal of small plates, forgoing the pizza for a pappardelle with pork ragout and olive pesto ($14.95), though the pasta I ate came out mushy, or a lunch-only panuozzo ($11.95), a warm sandwich of mortadella, soppressata, and prosciutto cotto whose crisp pizza-dough shell finishes baking in the oven just before it's served.

But pizza is everywhere, stacked on metal towers that the waiters place at the center of each table. Hill takes the basics of the Neapolitan style — the 900-degree oven fueled by almond wood, the imported Italian "00" flour, the 90-second cooking time, an inch-high lip of dough around the exterior that tapers into a millimeter-thin center — and goes Californian with the toppings.

And that's where Hill lost me. Now, Zero Zero's classic margherita ($10.95) was almost on par with Tony Gemignani's, which is to say, excellent. The bubbling and charring of the crust deepened and caramelized its flavor without turning the dough as bitter as a double-IPA. The cooks had applied a perfect smear of crushed tomatoes and spread the thinnest layer of melted cheese and a scattering of basil leaves over the top. A special margherita ($13.95), with discrete pools of buffalo-milk mozzarella instead of the even cow's-milk cheese, was droopy-centered but within the bounds of the admirable. However, the specialty pies, the Fillmore (hen-of-the-wood mushrooms, leeks, and thyme, $15.50) and the Mission (broccoli rabe, roasted garlic, and chiles, $12.50), suffered from the same problem. The crust came out pale and covered in tiny, bitter spots of char, and the centers thickly coated in cheese; it, like the toppings, had melted but not browned, and the resulting wedges resembled an upscale version of stadium nachos.

The charm of Picco's soft-serve ice cream didn't survive the upscaling, either. Instead of dessert menus, we were given a build-your-own-sundae form to fill out. What with one $4.95 swirl of soft-serve Straus ice cream, a $4 base (chocolate fudge squares, a cinnamon waffle), and any of a dozen toppings, this results in a $10 order. Ten dollars bought me — twice — a bowl of ice cream extruded with all the care of a stoned college kid on a 2 a.m. run to the 7-Eleven. The ice cream was indubitably satiny, and it was, indeed, enhanced with doses of well-crafted butterscotch, candied peanuts, or olive-oil cakes, as long as we ignored the fact that these additions had been tossed onto the slop as the food runners bustled to the table.

Hill has done much right: With the location alone, a few blocks from Moscone Center and a cab ride away from both FiDi and the nearest competitor, he has provided himself a guaranteed income. Whaley and his hot-line cooks are beyond competent, his basic pies beyond respectable. But the competition among high-end pizzerias is intensifying, and the notations in diners' spreadsheets are becoming more subtle and sharp-tongued. If Zero Zero wants citywide acclaim in addition to a steady customer base, there's refining to do.

About The Author

Jonathan Kauffman

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