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Ragazza makes an uneven attempt to get the pizza and sides right 

Wednesday, Dec 1 2010

I'm beginning to realize that the thing that distinguishes the "artisanal" San Francisco pizza from the "mundane" isn't the toppings (organic, seasonal), the crust (paper-thin, blistery), or the price (high enough to make your parents blanch). It's the wait time. Eating at Pizzeria Delfina still requires you to stand around until you're ravenous. It's the same at Pizzaiolo, Pizzetta 211, and Zero Zero. More than once, I've waded into the crowd at Beretta to try to find the host, had the breath crushed out of me, and walked back out.

The wait time is much shorter at Sharon Ardiana's 2-month-old Ragazza than the subject of last week's review, Una Pizza Napoletana, but it is still evident. Thanks to Ragazza's no-reservation policy and its instant popularity, every Haight resident who can part with a few twenties has spent time shifting from foot to foot outside the front door, texting warnings to incoming friends. In fact, the nearby bars should pay Ardiana kickbacks on all the extra beers they're selling her customers while they wait to be paged.

Now, Ardiana's tiny, 3-year-old Gialina, in Glen Park, is one of the Bay Area places I'd most eagerly wait at. For her new spinoff, she kept the same crust — many of the same pies, in fact — while bulking out the menu with starters, sides, and a few mains. Like the restaurant's contemporaries, pizza is incorporated into a varied, tapas-like meal. It's not "Want to get a salad with our 20-inch pie?" but "Let's get a salad, some roast squid, a couple of vegetables, and then a pizza for the three of us to share."

In short, however, Ragazza is a promising restaurant whose staff just needs to get it together. The menu is smart. The room is comfortable. Half of the pizzas come out as fantastic as the pies at Gialina; same with the sides and salads. It's the other half of the product that needs work.

I endured the Ragazza line three times, slipping into a table only once. Lubricated by beers from the Madrona and a spritz of schadenfreude, when the host's cellphone summons came we slipped through the crowds and entered the simple, buzzy room. Inside, a bright red tile wall at the back of the room beckoned the eye back. Our gaze was channeled by black ceilings and bare floors onto the kitchen, where blue-shirted cooks hustled between a row of burners and the cherry-red oven. Once we sat down, the focus shifted to the movie-poster-sized photos of Ardiana's family. A tiny Sharon, blown up to the size of a golden retriever, beamed from one; another wall-sized photo captured a line of women in 1920s-era drop-waist dresses, everyone gamely posed.

One of the things I've always liked about Gialina is that the owner has navigated her own path between the two dominant "artisan" (i.e., "expensive") pizza styles, New York and Neapolitan. She doesn't insist on a wood-fired oven or make a pretence of authentic anything. It's California pizza, pure and simple, with thin crusts engineered to support three or four seasonally appropriate toppings. And those crusts, oh! They are some of the lightest in town. The bottoms are always crisp and brown without charring, and the lip of the pie has inflated so quickly in the oven it can seem like an unbroken, ring-shaped air bubble. When diners at one of the surrounding tables tuck into a just-arrived pizza, it can sound like they've taken on a bowl of tortilla chips.

And so I ate a marvelous autumnal pizza with chanterelles and radicchio, the caramelized onions woven around them like a de facto sauce ($18); the oven's high heat tamed the bitter leaves and brought out the mushrooms' apricot aroma. Another pie was covered in nettle greens ($15) that had frizzled and crisped, the sting burned away and the greens' deep, earthy flavor spiked with bits of preserved lemon. We added an egg to the pizza ($2) and the yolk still quivered, the saffron-colored custard spreading across the pie as we dug in.

But then there was an anemic margherita ($12.50), a tomato-reddened crust with barely a suspicion of cheese and basil. And on my last visit, there was a pizza travesty. The waiter brought a pizza out a couple of minutes after our appetizers arrived, apologizing for the early arrival by explaining the cooks had slid it into the oven too early. But the cooling crust and the solidified skin of cheese told us otherwise — this pizza had sat around for a few minutes before making it to our table. All the magic had leached out of it, and we suspected it had been someone else's screwed-up order that the kitchen foisted on us. Pizza is a low-food-cost item with an extremely short lifespan. Hey, Ragazza staff: Next time a mistake like that happens, toss the pie and start another one rather than screw with your reputation.

That meal was not the first time I encountered a major service problem. Sure, I had a good server one night, who set the right balance between attentive and neighborly, but on another visit, the waiter lavished his charm so generously on whatever table he was standing at that the other tables in his section sat and grumbled, waiting for him to get us basics (plates, wine, the check ...).

The kitchen proved inconsistent, too. Ignore, for example, the entrées Ardiana has added to her menu; the ones I tried didn't match the quality of her pizzas and small plates. Too-soft strozzapreti pasta were scattered, almost like dumplings, too sparsely through a decent but pedestrian short-rib stew ($17) rather than the other way around; roast chicken breast "diavola style" ($17) turned out to be a pleasant, unmemorable hunk of meat with a spice-rubbed, crisped skin.

A few of the sides had the same fate. One night, delicata squash ($6) caramelized in the oven and ornamented with ricotta, currants, and almond-scented amaretti was the best thing on the table, but when I ordered the dish again, it came out dull and overly sweet. Another anticipated side of roasted brussels sprouts ($6) was supposed to be tossed with Boccalone lardo, but what I received was fat-drenched sprouts wallowing in a pool of oil and melted lard. (And no, that wasn't good.)

But when the kitchen was on, the smaller plates could be as compelling as the pizza. One meal began with satiny roast squid atop blistered padròn peppers ($11), another with sardines ($7) that had been stuffed with herbed breadcrumbs and roasted until the flesh turned buttery. The cooks amped up the richness of the fish with a fat dollop of aioli, then countered it with a tangle of lemony radicchio. Ardiana seems to be relishing winter greens right now — a salad of feathery, spiky arugula leaves with roasted beets ($9), mixed chicories tossed with shaved fennel and sunchokes in a basil-bright Green Goddess dressing ($9), fava greens sautéed with garlic and preserved lemons ($6) — and always to good effect. The more I visited the restaurant, the more I wanted to treat the meal as if Ragazza were a Korean restaurant: surrounding a main course with half a dozen sides.

The lack of coordination was hard to define. On each visit, the positives jarred with the negatives in a different way: One night, for example, we had two bad sides, one good pizza, and great service; another night, it was one bad pizza and one fantastic one, plus a few fantastic sides and that infuriating waiter. Ragazza has all the elements of a great neighborhood restaurant, but they're fuzzy and ill defined. Now they just need to come into focus, lest the line out the door move somewhere else.

About The Author

Jonathan Kauffman

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