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How many places serving thin-crust pizza does one neighborhood need? Already the Mission is graced with Pizzeria Delfina, Flour + Water, Beretta, and Mozzeria, not to mention Little Star, Arizmendi, Del Popolo, and nearby Una Pizza Napolitana and Zero Zero. And now there's one more crowding in. Farina has opened Farina Pizzeria and Cucina down the street from its original Ligurian restaurant. The opening has been two years in the making and hyped in the media for almost as long. Now the only question is, why bother?
700 Valencia St.
San Francisco, CA 94110
Region: Mission/ Bernal Heights
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Farina Pizzeria's hook seems to be that it will out-Italian them all: The pizza oven was constructed with sand from Mt. Vesuvius and salt from the Mediterranean; the ingredients are all imported; the pizzas come to the table uncut, just like in Naples. And yet, it doesn't seem like enough. Five or 10 years ago, when everyone was discovering regional cuisines little known outside of Italy, such strict adherence to authenticity would have been celebrated. Now that the focus has shifted to local and chef-driven fusion menus, it feels as revolutionary as latte art.
All this would be beside the point if the pizzas were transcendent. Instead, they're average renditions of Neapolitan-style pies you've likely had before. On the plus side, the toppings are high-quality and well-balanced. The simple margherita has the clean taste of San Marzano tomatoes, Italian fior di latte mozzarella, and little else. Fresh-cured meats liven up the capricciosa, deliciously salty ham and salami a nice, briny counterpoint to cured olives. The Italia is draped with luscious strips of prosciutto, punctuated by arugula and shaved parmesan.
The crust, however, is doughier and less cooked than I've come to expect from thin-crust pizzas; the centers are downright soggy. Neapolitan pizza should be moist, but these were soupy, which made them all the more difficult to cut. Italians eat their pizzas with a knife and fork, but I've been conditioned to consider thin-crust pizzas shareable finger food and—call me a philistine—prefer them cut in the kitchen. Even with the provided serrated knife, sawing the pizzas into slices occupied the table for several quiet, hungry minutes.
This annoyance wouldn't have been an issue if this were one of those homey trattorias where you linger over a meal for hours. Instead, the interior feels like a sleek, Italian version of a diner with a focus on turnover. A long bar faces the pizza oven like a lunch counter, and handsome wooden communal tables take the place of booths behind them. These tables are a smart use of the narrow space, though they increase the casualness of the atmosphere. Mod chrome fixtures, subway tile, and a pop-art ceiling collage featuring midcentury Italian comic book characters complete the retro-diner feel.
Outside of the pizzas, the rest of the food is inconsistent. The caprese salad should have sung with the last of the summer tomatoes; in this case, the chunks of heirlooms were tough, sour, and not quite ripe, an unacceptable off-note, and the dish came with one lonely basil leaf sticking out from the center of the salad like a sail. Its salty and yielding buffalo mozzarella was the only thing we finished on the plate. Following the lead of tables around us, we ordered the baked smoked mozzarella — only to be disappointed by lukewarm, rubbery cheese and an overabundance of tomato sauce with no bread to soak it up.
The restaurant won points with the octopus salad, which was unexpectedly — though not unwelcomely — warm, with a lemony broth that was soaked up by parboiled potatoes and the tender, well-cooked octopus. And the pasta puttanesca came perfectly al dente, with the assertive zestiness the Neapolitan sauce should have.
Unfortunately, the good dishes were set against pitfalls beyond the food. The menu offers only one red wine, though there are a half-dozen imported Italian beers with price tags to match; it's hard to justify $12 or $18 for a 330 ml beer, no matter how interesting it may be. Service was sloppy: entrees forgotten on two separate visits and then delivered without apology, drink orders confused, plates left on the table for far too long.
Farina is only a few months old, and asking it to compete with its numerous neighbors out of the gate is like asking a college freshman to perform at graduate student level. Pizza is one of the most forgiving and democratic foods there is — like doughnuts, a mediocre version is still better than none at all. So if neighborhood supply of thin-crust pizza has finally outstripped demand, the market will sort itself out. But with so many great options only blocks away, this one isn't calling me back.
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