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Essay: Our Pizza Obsession

We eat it in huge quantities. We blog about it. One aficionado, in search of the true meaning of pie, critiques two hotspots in San Francisco and touts 20 other must-visit pizza destinations.

The oven at San Francisco's Una Pizza Napoletana, image
Photo caption
The oven at San Francisco's Una Pizza Napoletana dominates the room like an altar.

Americans eat about 100 acres of pizza a day, or 350 slices per second, according to the charming and scholarly Pizza: A Global History by Carol Helstosky. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where pizzerias dot the landscape like pepperoni, you might wonder if that’s an understatement. While homey, old-school parlors like Giorgio’s and Gaspare’s are still packing in the family crowd, every month seems to bring some new hipster pizzeria that boasts a novel—or ostentatiously old-fashioned—approach to the world’s most popular fast food. After all, pizza is versatile, affordable (usually), and not just delicious but fun to eat. And unless your oven heats to 900 degrees, you really can’t make it properly at home.

While New Yorkers have been touting their world-class pizza for a century or more, in the last decade pizza mania has spread to the West. You can now get tasty artisanal pizzas in Seattle (Delancey, Serious Pie), in Portland (Apizza Scholls, Ken’s), in Eugene, Ore. (La Perla), in Salt Lake City (Settebello), and even in the tiny foothills town of Twain Harte, Calif., where Robert and Ruth Martin bake traditional wood-fired Neapolitan pies at the Prospector, located in an old cabin.

Nowhere, though, has the trend been blazing more hotly than in the Bay Area, home of the acclaimed A16, Delfina, Pizzeria Picco, and Pizzaiolo. Consider just a few of the 2010 arrivals: In March, Oenotri opened in Napa, serving pizzas pulled from an imported wood-burning oven that was blessed by a Catholic priest. (“It’s like the Olympic flame—it can never go out,” said chef Tyler Rodde when the oven was first lit.) In June, Boca opened in a Novato shopping center, offering superlative pizzas. In July, San Francisco got Zero Zero, named for the supersoft Italian flour used in its superthin crust. A month later, Tony Gemignani of Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach, which serves wood-fired pizzas, opened a second pizzeria next door, this one serving New Haven–style pies, thin-crust pizzas baked in a coal-fired oven heated to 1,000 degrees. To quote the San Francisco Examiner’s September 2010 story on the “absolute pizza explosion” in the city: “Pizza onslaught? Pizza gluttony? Pizza redundancy? Pizza saturation?”

In an attempt to answer that question, on a drizzly winter night I am standing at the intersection of 11th and Howard streets in San Francisco with my 10-year-old son, Owen, looking for Una Pizza Napoletana, perhaps the most famous—and infamous—of the new pizzerias. Last September, hotshot East Coast pizzaiolo Anthony Mangieri relocated the shop he has run for 14 years from Manhattan’s East Village to this seedy stretch south of Market. For the first few weeks, lines reportedly stretched down the block, but not only is there no line tonight—because of the crummy weather?—there is no sign. (In January 2011 the restaurant painted a sign on an outside wall.) Finally, I notice light seeping out of a frumpy industrial building, and when we cross the street and peer inside, it’s clear we have arrived.

As more than one critic has observed, stepping into Una Pizza Napoletana is like entering a church. The space is cavernous, and in the middle of the room sits an altarlike platform on which Mangieri performs the sacrament. I mean, makes his pies. Behind him looms an immense wood-burning oven covered in turquoise mosaic. Owen and I take our seats at one of the granite topped tables and peruse what may be the most severe menu I have ever read. UPN sells just five pizzas, each topped with some slight variation on the theme of tomato, fresh mozzarella, and olive oil. Want a salad? Fancy pepperoni or extra cheese or artichoke hearts on your pizza? Dessert? The answer is no.

Mangieri defends his Spartan menu. “We’ve gotten so focused on this idea that once you learn something you need to then invent something that’s very far out,” he says. “But the reason you can get such magical foods in Europe is because people make it their entire lives. It takes a lifetime to master a skill.”

“Should we get one or two pizzas?” I ask the waiter.

“One,” he says, firmly.

“OK, one,” I reply. The restaurant inspires obedience. Also uneasiness. As we wait for the pizza, I am preoccupied with the possibility that Owen is going to drop his water glass on the concrete floor. Or, worse yet, that I will drop mine. Should a pizzeria really be so forbidding?

Ah, but Mangieri’s pizza is magical. Although the topping is a bit undersalted, this is perhaps the most delicious pie I’ve ever tasted—uncluttered, the essential flavors intense and pure. Leavened with natural yeasts and studded with huge bubbles, the crust is damp, oily, tangy, slightly smoky, and blistered. “The wood oven brings the flavor, texture, and leopard spotting—everything I love,” says Marcia Gagliardi, who writes about San Francisco restaurants for “To me, that’s the stuff.” To Owen and me, it is also the stuff. I am guessing we finish our stuff in five minutes. Then Owen says, “I’m still hungry.”

I think about ordering a second pizza, but at $20 a pie, I think not. Should a pizzeria really be so expensive?

“Pizza’s gotten kind of hot, and I see a lot of posturing,” says Sharon Ardiana, who opened Ragazza in the Western Addition neighborhood the same week that Mangieri opened UPN. “But small neighborhood restaurants are eternal.”

If so, Ragazza is going to be around forever. The sister restaurant to Ardiana’s popular 4-year-old Gialina, Ragazza is a tiny jewel of a pizzeria, decorated with vintage snapshots of Ardiana’s family. It is as cozy as UPN is aloof. The night we show up, the waitress offers to “rustle up” some crayons for Owen, and when he asks for pepperoni on his pizza, she smiles and says, “We’ll make that happen.” Having learned a lesson, I order two pizzas this time, the pepperoni, and another topped with nettles and preserved lemons—untraditional, but fantastic. Ardiana’s crust may be less delectable than Mangieri’s, but the pizza as a whole is every bit as crave-worthy. I have a second glass of wine; we order dessert. I want to come back to this sweet place before I’ve even left.

Here’s what I think: I think we are not even close to pizza saturation. You make a pilgrimage to UPN, and you make Ragazza your hangout. In San Francisco, you go to UPN when you’re south of Market, you go to Ragazza when you’re in the Western Addition. In Oakland, you go to Boot and Shoe Service when you’re on Grand Avenue, to Pizzaiolo when you’re on Telegraph Avenue, and to Zachary’s when you’re on College Avenue. Why stop at 350 slices per second, when every neighborhood—maybe even every block—could have a good pizzeria?

Check out the rest of our food getaways package:
The West’s Best Chocolate
Vegetables Star at 10 Restaurants
Peter Merriman: The Aloha Chef
Portland vs. San Francisco: Best Food City in the West?

Photography by Marcia Gagliardi

This article was published in May 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.