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Piece 'a Pizza 

The crunchy crust at the venerable Tommaso's still delights us

Wednesday, Nov 19 2003
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It started out as kind of a gag, after I stumbled across exactly the book I was looking for as a gift for my baby nephew: First Book of Sushi, a sweetly illustrated board book by Amy Wilson Sanger (Tricycle, $6.95) designed to instruct a tot in the wonders of raw fish and rice ("Miso in my sippy cup, tofu in my bowl/ Crab and avocado fill my California roll"). I found another equally seductive volume by the same writer, ¡Hola! Jalapeño (Tricycle, $6.95), a paean to the joys of Mexican food ("Gracias, tamales, for your masa dough surprise/ Wrapped up tight in leaves of corn -- a present in disguise"), and I bought that one, too. I wondered if Ms. Sanger was working on more volumes in the series -- I especially wanted a dim sum primer, because Ben, not much more than a year old, already had a routine we delighted in performing for friends: "What's your favorite food?" we'd ask. "Chinese food!" he'd reply. "What kind of Chinese food?" "Dim sum!" "What kind of dim sum?" "Bao!" This always brought the house down (though I thought to myself that he really liked har gow better, but said "bao" because it was easier to say).

But in another bookstore I ran across the wonderful Dim Sum for Everyone! by Grace Lin (Dragonfly, $6.99), not a board book but a winsome little paperback, and sophisticated enough that it would be useful for dim sum novices of any age, though written for children. I've found that the three volumes, bundled together, make an excellent baby-shower gift -- but I didn't stop there. Oh, I've bought plenty of kid's tomes both classic (Goodnight Moon) and un- (anything with Toy Story in the title) for Ben, but I can't resist any book with a food theme, from Curious George Makes Pancakes to Pinky's Sweet Tooth.

His food library now numbers some 20 titles (and I haven't even started giving him the kiddie cookbooks I'm collecting, such as Marion Cunningham's Cooking With Children). But he has a couple of favorites, based as much on their subject matter as on their delightful illustrations and text: Pete's a Pizza (HarperCollins, $15.99), the last children's book written and illustrated by William Steig (when he was 90!), and The Little Red Hen (Makes a Pizza), by Philemon Sturges and Amy Walrod (Dutton, $15.99). In the Steig book (based on a game he played with his daughter Maggie), Pete is kneaded, tossed, rolled out, dusted with flour (talcum powder), and covered with mozzarella (paper scraps) and sliced tomatoes (checkers). In the retold Little Red Hen fable, the hen makes the pizza (pepperoni, olives, mushrooms, onions, garlic, anchovies!) all by herself (the duck, dog, and cat being otherwise engaged), but when it's done, it's so big that she happily shares it with them. And, big surprise, they're so grateful they do the dishes afterwards, while the Little Red Hen relaxes with a cup of chickweed tea.

Ben likes his pizza books, of course, because he likes pizza. (My sister says that at first when he wanted her to read Pete's a Pizza to him, she thought he was asking for a snack, which is, of course, why Steig didn't write Maggie's a Pizza.) I like pizza, too, though some of its glamour and usefulness came to me relatively late. When I was a child, we lived outside the range of pizza delivery, and it took a boyfriend whose favorite TV-watching food was pizza and whose favorite breakfast was cold pizza to reveal its perfect-food status to me. Waking up and realizing that there are several pieces of pepperoni-and-onion, heavy on the onion, in the refrigerator -- that's happiness.

So, when Robert suggests dinner at his favorite pizzeria, I am there. (Well, actually I am in the car with Robert, Gail, and our young friend Sam, confessing that I have a weakness for the California Pizza Kitchen's BLT pizza. It has bacon and tomatoes, of course, and comes crowned with chopped iceberg lettuce mixed with mayo, added after it emerges from the oven; Gail is kind enough to say that it sounds good, but Robert impugns my taste, suggesting that I would eat ham and pineapple on a pizza.) We are headed to Tommaso's, a place in North Beach of which I have vague childhood memories. When we step down into the slightly subterranean space, the memories snap into (bright) focus: It is essentially unchanged, though surprisingly clean and white (white tablecloths, white-painted wood booths). Despite the charming murals of Italy painted on the walls, my impression is more of a '30s tearoom, especially because of the adorable carved woodwork trimming the booths, one of which we're led to after a few minutes' wait.

We order a cold broccoli salad to start, and two large pizzas (when I originally suggest small -- Tommaso's only has two sizes, 12-inch and 15- -- Robert says, "You obviously haven't seen me eat pizza"). We hesitate over ordering pasta -- Robert and Gail, in decades of visits, never felt the need; in fact, Robert says, on the strength of several years in Rome, "Pizzerias are not the place to order pasta." But Sam seems intrigued by the special, gnocchi al pesto, so we throw it in.

The broccoli, crisp-cooked and simply dressed with olive oil, lots of lemon juice, and garlic, is a revelation -- really. It reminds me of a baby cauliflower I bought at the Farmer's Market and ate simply steamed, with butter, salt, and pepper, so sweet it tasted like corn on the cob. It couldn't have been better.

The crusts on the pizzas are also perfection. They emerge from the wood-fired oven (built in 1935, when Tommaso's opened, as Lupo's, and reportedly the first such oven on the West Coast) puffy, crispy, faintly smoky. I prefer the one topped with chopped mushrooms and sliced Italian sausage to the seafood version, topped with clams in the shell, tiger prawns, and scallops. (Which is pleasant, too, but I think I'd like the simpler clams-and-garlic option better.) "It's funny," I say, "that you're not supposed to add cheese to seafood pasta, but it's OK to put seafood on top of cheese." Robert tells me it's because Parmesan is more pungent than mozzarella. I don't buy it.

The gnocchi, in a creamy pesto sauce generously scattered with pine nuts, are the shiny, elastic-verging-on-rubbery kind; I prefer airy pillows. Robert's theory may hold. I notice he is looking unusually calm and somnolent; "I rarely get enough pizza," he says, contentedly. Tonight he has, and there are two slices of seafood pizza left, plus one of sausage. I claim the sausage.

We linger in the warm, happy room over chocolate-filled cannoli, New York cheesecake under a bright-tasting raspberry sauce that masks the faint whiff of refrigerator, and unusually dense but delicious tiramisu, made in individual bowls. On the way out, we linger at the wall devoted to decades of good press. Tommaso's (owned by the Cotti family since 1973) has been blessed by both the local Godfather (Francis Coppola used to make his own pizzas here, before he opened his own pizzeria right down the street) and Goddess (Alice Waters famously based her Chez Panisse wood-burning pizza oven on Tommaso's).

As I reflect later on our perfect Sunday-night supper and peruse the menu, I feel a familiar sensation: I'm hungry. I invest this perfectly reasonable reaction with urgency: There are so many things on the menu I didn't try! This verges on dereliction of duty (even though we discussed, at dinner, the fact that Tommaso's deserves a one-word review: "Go."). I call a few friends, Robert and Gail included, but no one is home. No matter; in a few minutes, I'm down the rabbit hole, ensconced alone at a snug deuce, enjoying the delightful vegetarian antipasto platter: more of that broccoli, with equally fresh, almost equally winsome asparagus spears and thin green beans, some thick-cut wheels of zucchini, red and green peppers, garbanzo beans, and a terrific wedge of marinated red onion. It's a crisp, crunchy assortment that awakens the senses and the appetite.

I notice the unused oil lamps, complete with blackened wicks, above me, intensifying the My Sister Eileen Greenwich Village speakeasy feeling I'm getting by being here on my own, late at night. I try the half ravioli/half spaghetti plate, with two huge meatballs under a fresh-tasting marinara; the ravioli are obviously homemade, but I'm not particularly taken with the stuffing. I do like the tasty meatballs, but it's not a dish that would draw me back. (I overhear a waiter telling a man who's raving about the tiramisu that the best pasta, which he should try next time, is the lasagna. I will, too.)

The pie's the reason I'm here, and the one I ordered, a special available all November, is pancetta, leeks, and provolone. The smoky, chewy bacon is echoed by that ineffable crust, and rhymed by the vegetal leeks and the pully, fragrant cheese. I'm happy.

I order espresso. "We don't have it," I'm surprised to hear, "but we'll make you a demitasse. Very good coffee." It comes freshly made, in a cunning little two-serving pot, and I get another tiny coffee cup full of vin santo, with biscotti and butter cookies alongside -- an unexpected treat. It's very good coffee, indeed.

But the real treat will come when I wake up tomorrow and realize that I have half a pancetta/leek pizza in the fridge. I'm golden.

About The Author

Meredith Brody

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