San Francisco Takes on an Italian Classic
With its Mediterranean climate, you’d think San Francisco would bake a mean pizza. But the city’s relationship to the gooey, cheesy classic has been contentious. East coast transplants have even called it “soggy.” New Yorkers are known to scoff. The city has become better known for its burritos and taco culture than pizza — which is a shame; San Francisco has a rich Italian history.
Luckily, chefs are starting to take note: there’s been an opportunity the past few years in amping up game and discovering San Francisco’s take on pizza. Chefs have risen to the challenge.
After all, San Francisco is itself bursting with diverse people, a mild growing climate, and a competitive food culture. If you think that hasn’t extended to pizza, you just haven’t figured out where to look.
North Beach: The Epicenter of San Francisco Pizza
North Beach is the home of San Francisco’s classic pizza culture. After all, it’s the heart of San Francisco’s Italian community in a city named, well, after an Italian. In generations past, the neighborhood was a home to Italians seeking new opportunities and escaping poverty in both northern Italy (Genoa and Tuscany) and Sicily. The culinary legacy reflects all of the Italian peninsula and all kinds of foods.
Immigrants like Domenico Ghiradelli capitalized on the Gold Rush here by offering chocolates to miners. Today, Ghiradelli chocolate towers over Fisherman’s Wharf and solidifies Italian immigrants’ place in San Francisco as foodies. It was only a matter of time until pizza had a renaissance.
Naples in North Beach
North Beach today is dominated by the projects of world pizza champion (12 times over) Tony Gemignani. Tony’s Pizza Napoletana serves up 13 varieties, including Neapolitan, Sicilian, and if you’re so inclined, Californian. His ingredients are impotaed from Napoli, because while you can imitate the Mediterranean climate, you just can’t imitate the ashy soil that makes Neapolitan pizza tomatoes and Italian fennel sausage so mouth-watering.
Tony’s only makes 73 pies a day, but never fear, you can always belly up to the slide counter next door and taste his famous Margherita.
Gemignani probably got bored with the 12 varieties of Neapolitan pizza he was serving up, because he expanded to another North Beach location and remade his pizza perfection in the image of Chicago deep dish pies.
His worldly approach mirrors San Francisco’s take on life. While Italians dominated historical North Beach, today it’s a melting pot of different cultures.
Anchoring the traditional offerings of North Beach is Tommaso’s Restaurante Italiano, which, like Tony’s, features secrets from Naples. The Contalupo family emigrated to San Francisco and soon realized the pizza scene could use some massive improvements by returning to pizza’s roots.
They led the charge, starting the wood-fired pizza restaurant back when there was no other wood-fired oven on the West Coast. Today, the same traditional approach applies. These pies aren’t fancied up with herbs, fruits, or potatoes. Italian classics like margherita, meatball, ham, olives, and even clams are served on small and large pies. With the woody oak flavor and perfect salt of anchovies, you don’t need anything else.
North Beach may bring tradition, but San Francisco has also found its pizza groove in fine dining with inventive spots like Cotogna. This Jackson Square neighborhood hotspot serves as a “lively”, casual neighbor to its three Michelin star sister, Quince.
Cotogna takes fresh ingredients seriously, claiming their inspiration comes from the Bay Area, rather than Naples. They change their menu by availability and serve seasonal pies like “peach, speck, and mint” and “wild nettle, ricotta della casa, and lemon” that must be consumed, balanced, surprising bit by bite before they disappear next season. However, tradition does have a place at the table, and Cotogna weaves traditional Italian staples like soppressata, squash, and chantrelle mushrooms into its pies.
San Francisco may not be able to replicate Pompeii, but the city has found peace in a quality pizza identity born of its immigrant past and year-round growing climate. Looking for a fresh take on an old classic? Drop by and find a unique pizza history.