Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Few Shots of My Pizzas

All right, Will, this is for you. Here are a few photos taken of the pizzas I made last night. I was actually really happy with these, and that's the only reason you're getting to see them! The dough was made with a sourdough starter and contains no commercial yeast. Sauce is a blend of San Marzanos and 6-in-1's.

All photos by my neighbor, Austin Haas, unless otherwise noted.

(photo by Adam Lindsley)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Events: Will Fain's Pizza Party

Host: Will Fain

(all photos by Adam Lindsley)

Will Fain is the only other person I've met in Portland who's as big of a pizza fanatic (read: total pizza geek) as I am. He's been providing pizza intel to Adam Kuban of Slice for a few years now, and was even interviewed for the weekly Pizza Obsessive feature on that site. We connected via this blog (you'll know him as Flushy McBucketpants in the comments here on TIP), and when he emailed me to let me know he'd be throwing a pizza party at his house, I jumped at the opportunity. Hey, I'm always willing to try someone else's pizza recipe, if for no other reason than to look for ways to improve my own experiments in the kitchen (i.e. outright steal any tricks they know that I don't). Plus, free pizza is free pizza.

Will's oven setup is probably a bit more complicated than yours at home. On the center rack is a sheet of aluminum foil, topped by a layer of bricks that acts to prevent massive heat loss whenever the oven door is opened. On the shelf above that is another sheet of foil, with the pizza stone placed on top of it. Will says the extra sheet of foil directly under the stone helps to bounce back some of the heat onto the pizza, creating a more evenly cooked pie.

The dough is homemade, naturally, which is a non-sourdough starter variation on Jeff Varasano's famous recipe. Will breaks away from Varasano further by allowing the dough a warm rise before the refrigerator ferment. This gives the dough a bubbly texture that's just itching to rise in the oven.

First up was Will's take on the Margherita. It boasts a sauce that's been cooked briefly to prevent soupiness, but not so much that it loses the brightness of the tomatoes (a process I too am beginning to find preferable to the uncooked variety, at least when it pertains to my homemade pies). The mozzarella melted wonderfully and didn't burn despite several minutes under the heat of broiler eight inches above it. The crust puffed up nicely around the cornicione. As I had predicted, the dough couldn't wait to start rising in the heat of the oven, and even grew some yummy black blisters toward the center of the pie. The crust had a nice saltiness to it, far more flavorful than some of the professionally made pizzas I've had elsewhere. Just a solid, solid Marg all round.

The pies that followed were just as or nearly as good as that, with a wide array of all-vegetarian toppings. One of the most interesting (but also very mildly flavored) toppings was a cashew cream, inspired by the offerings of his friends Aaron and Dinae's vegan restaurant, Portobello. But the standout, for me, was the stinging nettles. Boiled to remove their sting, then baked on the pizza, they made every bite in which they were present better.

Garlic, basil, leek, and cashew cream pie.

Between pizzas, I got to chat a bit with Will about his history and plans for the future. I learned he spent some time in New York, as well as New Zealand, working as a live-in caretaker there. He's also had experience working at a pizzeria, so he's quite familiar with the fast-paced kitchen environment.

As for the future, he's already designing his own wood-burning oven, and the supplies have been ordered (you better believe you're having me back once that's up and running, Will). He mentioned the possibility of opening a pizza cart, and perhaps creating some vegan pizzas for Portobello. Who knows--maybe you'll be plunking down some cash for Will's pizzas one day soon! If the pies he served us today were any indication, they'll be well worth it.


Will prepping the leek & asparagus pie...

And here it is out of the oven. Look at that monster
blister on the cornicione!

Stinging nettles and hedgehog mushroom pie.

The Vegan: garlic, pine nuts, pesto, basil.

Will rocking the cutter. I gotta get me one a' those.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

News: New Wood-Fired Pizza on Alberta?

So says the sign hung on the enclosed space next door to the Grilled Cheese Grill at NE 11th and Alberta. See for yourself:

(photo by Adam Lindsley)

I asked the guys at GCG about the new establishment, but they knew nothing of the goings-on taking place behind the red-and-white tarps.

If any of you out there know anything about it, please write in and let us know!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Impressions: Emilia's

2995 Shattuck Ave
Berkeley, CA 94705
(510) 704-1794

(all photos by Adam Lindsley unless otherwise noted)

With my all-too-brief stay in San Francisco rapidly coming to a close, I had time to squeeze in one more pizzeria before having to say goodbye. Given the amount of praise I'd heard about the place, the choice was simple: Emilia's, the labor of love of owner and pizzaiolo Keith Freilich.

When we showed up about an hour after Emilia's opened, Freilich (doing everything--taking orders, prepping the pies, and cooking them--himself) told us there was an hour-and-a-half wait for pizza (had I read their website more closely, I would have seen that Keith recommends calling ahead well in advance). Hardly discouraged, we placed our order for a half plain/half sausage pie (yes...finally got my meat on this trip!), then spent the next ninety minutes driving around the UC Berkeley campus (Christa's alma mater) and picking up some beverages at the Whole Foods on Telegraph & Ashby. We returned, snagged one of the three tables inside, then waited patiently for the pizza to arrive. Noting the juxtaposition of Frank Sinatra with a stack of pizza boxes helped pass the time.

Once the huge 18-inch pie hit the table, I quickly snapped some photos, then dug into the plain (i.e. Margherita) half first, picking up a large New York-style slice. The crust was crisp and held up nicely under the toppings, which have an interesting placement scheme: instead of adding a layer of sauce and then a layer of cheese, Freilich spreads both fresh and aged mozzarella around the crust, then adds the sauce in dollops around the cheese, creating distinct boundaries between the two.

That cheese combination is great, very flavorful. The fresh mozz in particular melted perfectly in Freilich's high-heat gas oven until it was almost as flat as paper. The weak link on this pie, though was the sauce. It just wasn't my thing. Christa's either. It's very, very tangy, like a spaghetti sauce, and it totally dominates every bite in which it is present. It's pretty distracting, actually, and I found myself wishing there wasn't so much of it. The basil was good, but placed in such a small quantity that it didn't really have the ability to impart much flavor to the rest of the pizza.

Thankfully, I could almost...almost forget the sauce on the sausage half of the pie, which was much, much tastier than the plain half. The sausage was excellent (though Christa found a couple pieces to be a little gristly), seasoned perfectly, and it made me smile. If only I hadn't ordered the plain half of the pie, I'd have had an even wider smile. As it was, the pieces of delicious sausage that had the unfortunate fate of ending up in the sauce portions of the pie tasted more like meatballs in marinara than a sausage pizza.

The crust really is nothing spectacular. The outer rim is so wide and flavorless that I found myself for the first time on this trip discarding the end crusts. By the end of the evening Christa and I had a big pile of what Adam Kuban calls "pizza bones" on the tray.

(photo by Christa Engelskirch)

I really don't mean to sound too harsh with my first impressions of Emilia's, but I won't sugarcoat my experience there, either. I enjoyed the pizza--really enjoyed the sausage half--but it is a definite step down from the four other places I hit on this culinary journey. It's also a different beast than those four; whereas they all serve Neapolitan-style pies, Emilia's is much closer to the pizzas served in New York City. Even so, the sauce and crust at Emilia's doesn't come close to the best sauce and crust I had in New York (Artichoke Basille's and Di Fara, respectively).

But would I order it again? Absolutely. With lots and lots of sausage.


RECOMMENDED: Plain Pie w/Sausage


So to wrap things up, here's how I'd rank the five pizzerias I tried in San Francisco:

1.) Pizzeria Delfina

2.) Pizzeria Picco

3.) Pizzaiolo

4.) Tony's Pizza Napoletana

5.) Emilia's

All offer good-to-great pies for the burgeoning SF pizza scene. Individual criticisms aside (most crusts needed more salt, Tony's charges far too much), I'd eat at any of these places on a return trip. Gladly. Well, I'd only go back to Tony's if someone else was footing the bill.

So a big Thank You to San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Larkspur, and San Carlos (where we stayed with our good friend Erik Meriwether, God Bless him). We'll be seeing you again real soon.

No, we didn't leave by way of the Golden Gate Bridge, but it makes for a more dramatic ending to everything, doesn't it?

Impressions: Tony's Pizza Napoletana

1570 Stockton St
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 835-9888

(all photos by Adam Lindsley unless otherwise noted)

I had fully planned to do a two-part lunch today, starting with Pizzetta 211 in the Richmond district, but those plans were dashed soundly to the floor by Google Maps, which dropped us off not in northwest San Francisco, but the northeast corner of town. As we had had a late start, a trip back across the city eliminated any possibility of trying Pizzetta 211 for lunch, so we scrapped those plans and just hit Tony's Pizza Napoletana in the North Beach district.

What's neat about Tony's is that the place boasts no less than four different ovens, each used for different types of pizza. The Margherita and Marinara pies are cooked in a domed wood-burning oven. "Classic Italian" pizzas are cooked in a gas-fired domed brick oven. "Classic American" pizzas are cooked in a New York flat-top gas-fired brick oven. Sicilian pizzas are cooked in an Italian brick oven.

One look at Tony's menu and I was hit with a severe case of sticker shock. The 12-inch Margherita sets you back a whopping $18, the highest price I've yet seen for a Marg of that size. This pizza won the 2007 World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy, and pizzaiolo Tony Gemignani makes only 73 of these a day. Well, I thought, this better be worth it. The menu makes sure you know this is "authentic" Neapolitan pizza, describing the Margherita thusly: "Dough mixed by hand using San Felice flour, then proofed in Neapolitan Wood Boxes, San Marzano tomatoes DOP, sea salt, mozzarella fior di latte, fresh basil, extra virgin olive oil from Campania."

It's kind of annoying how much they hit you over the head with this stuff as if no one else in the country makes this kind of pizza, but whatever, I figured if the pizza was good enough, they could write an entire novel on the menu and I wouldn't really care.

When the Margherita hit the table steaming hot from the wood-burning oven, it certainly had the visual of a Neapolitan pie down pat. The crust had a nice puffy cornicione and mild charring all around. Fresh from the oven, the chassis was still crisp and didn't flop when I picked up a slice (though that crispness soon faded). White islands of mozzarella floated in the bright red sea of tomato sauce and dark green leaves of fresh basil.

What I love best about Tony's Margherita is that it is properly salted. The sauce, cheese, and crust all have more salt than just about any Neapolitan-style pizza I've eaten, and I was grateful for it. The salt brought out the milky flavor of the cheese, the brightness of the tomatoes, and the rustic bread flavor in the crust. The cheese is a tad on the rubbery side, but as I said, the flavor is good enough that it doesn't really hurt the pizza as a whole.

Unfortunately, it is in no way an $18 pie. I don't know what reasoning Tony has for charging so much for it. Is it the ingredients? The location of the restaurant? Whatever it is, it's just too much to charge for this kind of pie. If it really is because Tony insists on importing all these Italian ingredients, well, the fact is I've had pies that are just as good (and better) made with cheaper domestic products.

The second pie of the afternoon was the Truffle pie (market price today: $28). Normally this white pie is topped with mozzarella, burrata, Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam Triple Cream cheese, wild mushrooms, arugula, parmigiano, and Italian shaved truffles. Today, though, they were out of truffles (more would arrive in 3 weeks, we were told), and so they would be substituting them with truffle oil. We accepted that because Christa and I were both excited to see the Mt. Tam cheese on the pizza, and could not pass up an opportunity to try it.

(Mt. Tam cheese - Photo:

The finished product fell far short of our expectations. Don't misunderstand me: it was good, but it lacked certain elements that made it irresistible during the ordering process. The Mt. Tam cheese, which is so beautifully creamy, became completely lost in the other ingredients, and we could neither taste it nor detect any creamy presence amidst the mozz, parmigiano, or burrata. There's a great cheesiness to the pie, but in the end I'm sad to say the addition of the Mt. Tam only served to jack up the price of the pie. The wild mushrooms weren't rubbery at all, but they also didn't impart much flavor to the pizza. The truffle oil certainly brought a light truffle flavor to every slice, but it was hardly a replacement for the real thing. $28 is asking too much for this pizza, especially since there are no real truffles to be found on it. Considering that almost all truffle oil is synthetic, I really don't know where the majority of our money went.

Is the pizza at Tony's good? Yeah, you bet. It's great, actually. But for the outrageous prices they're charging, I'm finding the idea of recommending it hard to swallow.

Tonight: Emilia's.

OVENS: Wood & Gas


Impressions: Pizzeria Picco

316 Magnolia Ave
Larkspur, CA 94939
(415) 945-8900

(all photos by Adam Lindsley unless otherwise noted)

Our bellies full from the excellent lunch at Pizzeria Delfina, Christa and I hopped in the rental car, swung by Dynamo (for what would turn out to be exotically spiced by very mediocre doughnuts), and made tracks across the Golden Gate Bridge for a lovely drive to the quaint burg of Larkspur. This is a small town bursting at the seams with charm, and many of the buildings have been standing since the late 1800s.

But on to the pizza. Both Adam Kuban of Slice and my new friend Jason (who I had just met at Pizzeria Delfina) had raved about the pizza at Picco, and I admit this kind of worked me into a bit of a frenzy. Adam Kuban called it "Neapolitan-style pizza taken to the next level," and with praise like that, how could you not get excited?

Walking to our table, we passed the wood-burning oven, whose flames were roaring and ready to gets its molten hands on some lovely fermented dough. The model was the ubiquitous Mugnaini, which I have seen in pizzerias anywhere from Nostrana and Firehouse in Portland, Oregon to Pizzaiolo in San Francisco the day prior.

We started with the Margherita ($10.95), of course. It arrived piping hot and well-charred around the cornicione, though not so much on what I like to call the chassis, or underside. The dough had been spread to a nice thinness, but somehow hadn't crisped in the oven, and didn't boast more than the occasional browned bit; obviously, the oven's floor hadn't reached the proper temperature yet. No matter: floppy as it was, it was still cooked through.

(photo by Christa Engelskirch)

Oddly enough, the pie looked didn't much resemble the one Adam Kuban had on his trip here in late 2009, and that was due entirely to the cheese. Take a look at the photo of the Margherita on his Slice posting for Pizzeria Picco, then look at the photo of our Margherita. See the difference?

Adam's pie was clearly made with fresh mozzarella. Ours? Aged. And if it wasn't aged, it must have come from the same mozzarella batch as the original mozz curd they used at Lovely's Fifty-Fifty in Portland before they revamped the recipe, because it had melted into a large yellow pool.

(photo by Christa Engelskirch)

I'm complaining about the look, but the cheese was good. It just tasted like a New York slice, not a Neapolitan pizza whatsoever. Salty and sharp (especially with the grated parmesan), which made up for the slight lack of salt in the cornice. The sauce was a little uneven: very sweet in places, but closer to unseasoned tomatoes in others. The disparity didn't really affect my opinion of the pizza: it was undeniably great. Sure, the crust was very dense, but the pie as a whole was delicious. It just wasn't what I had been expecting, not by a long shot.

For our second pizza, we ordered the J.Klein ($14.50), a sauceless pie topped with California asparagus, roasted garlic, basil, mozzarella, crescenza (a soft cow's milk cheese from northern Italy), and parmesan. This pie was made by the asparagus and roasted garlic. The asparagus, sliced into thin rounds, had been cooked perfectly, not too chewy, not rubbery, but wonderfully crisp. Even better was the roasted garlic, which literally melted on the tongue; there wasn't much of it on the pizza, but every bite that included it was heavenly. It must be said, though, that the bites without the roasted garlic or asparagus were extremely bland. Somehow that trio of cheeses tasted like absolutely nothing, in stark contrast with the cheese on the Margherita. Not sure what happened there.

(photo by Christa Engelskirch)

Dessert was exquisite: Straus Dairy vanilla soft serve with sea salt and DaVero extra virgin olive oil. Less adventurous eaters may find that combination off-putting (and before I had tried the butterscotch budino at Mozza in L.A., I may have been inclined to agree), but trust me when I tell you it was simply delightful. The soft serve had been made expertly, with a very fine ice crystallization that was almost undetectable, bringing considerable creaminess to the dish. The sea salt emphasized the sweetness of the ice cream, and the olive oil, added in small dollops on the vanilla mountain, married perfectly with the other two components to form a dish that wasn't cloyingly sweet, but restrained and sophisticated. If you make it out to Larkspur and swing by Picco for dinner (and you really should), I suggest you order this after your meal. You won't be disappointed.

(photo by Christa Engelskirch)

Pizzeria Picco delivered a great meal, though one very different from the one I had been expecting. If any of you dine there in the near future, do report on the Margherita for me!

Tomorrow: Tony's Pizza Napoletana and Emilia's.

OVEN: Wood


Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Impressions: Pizzeria Delfina

3611 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
(415) 437-6800

Day 2 of my San Francisco Pizza Bonanza begins with Pizzeria Delfina in the Mission District.

(all photos by Adam Lindsley unless otherwise noted)

The place was packed when my dining companion Christa and I arrived around 1:00 in the afternoon. In attendance at the bar was actor Tom McGowan; if you don't know the name, then you must surely know his face:


Anyway, on with the food.

Ordered two pies here. First up, naturally, was the Margherita ($12.50), the litmus test for any high-end pizzeria. And Pizzeria Delfina's was awesome.

Delfina uses a gas oven, but somehow they manage to char their crusts better than any gas oven I've ever seen. The perfect thinness at the center of the pie becomes supremely puffy on the outer rim, with big tasty black blisters popping up everywhere. You'd swear this pie was cooked in a wood oven, but miraculously, it wasn't. Go figure.

(photo by Christa Engelskirch)

I loved the sauce on this pizza. It has a slight sweetness to it, more so than a tomato's natural sweetness, and I enjoyed that. It also feels light, and pairs well with the airy crust. The smooth, soft mozzarella (which, incidentally, the also sell in 4-ounce quantities for eight bucks) was easy to bite into and clearly of a high quality; it had a nice high-fat-content-milk flavor to it.

One of the day's specials was the Purgatorio ($15), which swapped out the Margherita's tomato sauce for one with a light spiciness to it, and added several large shavings of pecorino-romano and two farm eggs cracked over the pie halfway through its time in the oven. The flavor of the runny yellow yolks dominated the flavor palate of this pizza, and made for an interesting combination with the mild spice of the sauce; it almost tasted like huevos rancheros. I enjoyed the pie, but I couldn't eat it every day (as opposed to the Delfina Margherita, which I could eat every day).

Special note must also be made of the service here. As in Pizzaiolo over in Oakland, the staff at Delfina knows how to attend to their patrons, and not once did I feel like we had been forgotten in the sea of other diners. They were also very accommodating with Christa's request for an unsweetened iced tea: since they had none, they brewed her a pot of fresh tea and provided her with a tall glass of ice. Problem solved. (They charged her five bucks for that tea, but that's beside the point).

Apart from the bill (which was pricier than I thought it would be), I really enjoyed my Pizzeria Delfina experience, particularly their Margherita. I also got to meet two fellow pizza fanatics by the names of Jason and Alicia from Santa Cruz. Jason, a New York native, sang praises for the pies at Grimaldi's, as well as those at Lombardi's (when they're having a good day). They too were on a bit of a San Francisco pizza adventure, and had made plans to hit Emilia's in Berkeley that night (which I'll be trying tomorrow). Good luck, guys!

Coming later: Pizzeria Picco.



Monday, April 12, 2010

Impressions: Pizzaiolo

5008 Telegraph Ave
Oakland, CA 94609
(510) 652-4888

Four days in San Francisco means one thing in my mind: pizza crawl*.

(all photos by Adam Lindsley)

First stop was Pizzaiolo across the bay in Oakland. The restaurant is tough to spot, tucked between a Mexican restaurant and a craft shop with only a small, hand-carved wooden sign indicating the pizzeria's presence on the block. My friend Christa and I showed up ten minutes before they opened and we weren't even first in line (an increasingly common experience with the new wave of upscale pizzerias).

We selected a table in the far corner of the restaurant's back room, a cozy brick-lined area lined with small tables dimly lit from candles and the rustic, sparse light fixtures dangling from overhead. It's a nice space away from the pizzeria's main crowd, and were it not for the Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits playing back to back over the house speakers--rather loudly I might add--it could be considered for a romantic evening with a significant other.

Christa and I started with a simple Caesar Salad ($8). I almost never order Caesar salads, so I'm hardly one to judge, but I found this one quite palatable. The lettuce was fresh and crunchy, bathed lightly in sharp shaved grana padano and a creamy dressing that was thankfully mild on the garlic. It was served with very, very salty croutons that would have been overpowering on their own, but broken into smaller pieces they suited the rest of the dish admirably.

Our Margherita ($13) arrived shortly thereafter. As you can see by the photos, the crust was cooked and charred to perfection (I'd expect no less from such an establishment by this point), with a pleasantly airy cornicione. The crust was good, though it would have benefited from a touch more salt. Then again, after those croutons, nothing could seem half as salty.

The copious amount of tomato sauce on this pie delivers a swift, spicy kick to your mouth, which you usually don't get in a traditional red sauce, and I guessed some sort of chili powder had been mixed in. A quick check with our server confirmed this: each pie, after the dough is spread but before the other toppings are added, is given a light dousing of olive oil and freshly ground calabrian chilies, which becomes infused in the heat of the wood-burning oven. It gives the sauce a smoky bite that sets it apart from other, simpler blends.

Best of all is the cheese. The mozzarella is very creamy and very soft, almost like butter. I don't know how Pizzaiolo gets the cheese this soft, but I want the secret. It's nutty and flavorful, and every bite fortunate enough to include it is ten times better than one that does not. Frankly, I'd be happy if they covered the whole pie in this cheese rather than just the occasional pool.

We wanted a cool, crisp dessert to follow the surprising spiciness of the Margherita, so we opted for the Tangelo Sorbet & Vanilla Ice Cream ($7). The sorbet was far too icy and tough to break apart with the spoon, but the vanilla ice Incredible. Maybe the richest and most full-flavored vanilla ice cream I've ever had. Vanilla can often be ordinary and forgettable in the wake of other, more inventive flavors, but that simply was not the case here. Simple puff pastry sticks were served with it, but these were improved by the ice cream, not the other way around.

A very satisfying meal all around, fantastic service from the attentive staff, and a very good pizza I can heartily recommend. Just one suggestion: show up early, or make a reservation. Their reservation book was filled that night, and this was a Monday. Just imagine how slammed they get on a Saturday. Better yet, don't. Just call ahead. The food's worth it.

The indulgence continues tomorrow with Pizzeria Delfina and Pizzeria Picco.

OVEN: Wood

RECOMMENDED: Margherita (anything with red sauce, really)

*Okay, maybe "pizza crawl" isn't quite accurate. I'm hitting five (maybe six) pizzerias, but over the course of three days, not one. I guess technically that isn't a "crawl," per se, but it's still manly, right?