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Five Best Pizza Parlors San Francisco 2005 -

A friend from North Carolina once told us that among the more popular snack items in the Raleigh area is something called California pizza. "What's that?" we asked. "Oh, you know," she said, "pizza with a lotta weird stuff on it." Although it's true that our affection for the offbeat does sometimes extend to the slice-o'-pie experience, San Francisco's finest pizza joints cannot be so easily pigeonholed.

Tommasso's

1042 Kearny (at Broadway), 398-9696

The city's No. 1 pizzeria (at least chronologically) is this perpetually packed hangout, which has been baking classic, soft-crusted, simply topped pies in wood-fired brick ovens since 1935. The sausage-mushroom melts into a bed of tangy tomato sauce and bubbly mozzarella; the Genovese bursts with the contrasting flavors of provolone, pesto, and sun-dried tomato; and the seafood offers tender clams in the shell, sweet chunks of prawn and scallop, and minced tomato and scallion. These Old World pizzas are crafted, served, and consumed in a friendly, low-ceilinged space dominated by a long communal table down the middle and old-fashioned booths along the sides: molto North Beach.

Arizmendi

1331 Ninth Ave. (at Irving), 566-3117, www.arizmendibakery.com

There's a different sourdough-crust pizza to be sampled every day of the month at this worker-owned cooperative in the Sunset, each one delectable. Though known for their whimsical toppings -- watercress/carrot/hazelnut and bok choy/peanut/cilantro are two prominent examples -- Arizmendi's bakers have also been known to take the more traditional route: ripe-to-bursting tomatoes, minced fresh basil, sweet red onion, and creamy mozzarella, for instance. Try the marvelous raspberry-blueberry focaccia for dessert.

Postrio

545 Post (at Mason), 776-7825, www.postrio.com

As one might expect, Postrio steers the entire pizza concept in a more elegant direction. The smoked salmon and caviar, the only (purposely) cold pizza in our experience, features layers of the creamiest lox this side of Scotland strewn with golden caviar and snippets of fresh dill, set upon a bed of tangy crème fraîche and served atop a cracker-thin crust. The house version of tomato-mozzarella, meanwhile, offers orange, green, and red heirlooms, mozzarella made from buffalo milk, and sprigs of fresh basil on top. Served in the restaurant's snazzy upstairs bar, they're pies you really ought to nibble along with a flute of Veuve Clicquot.

Pauline's

260 Valencia (at 14th Street), 552-2050

Sorrel, chicory, ruby chard, spiced pork shoulder, Portuguese sausage, and salted Meyer lemon purée are among the esoteric toppings featured at this 20-year-old (albeit cutting-edge) Mission District pizzeria. Many of the ingredients come from the establishment's organic gardens, adding a certain vitality to, for instance, the Louisiana pie, made of scallions, red peppers, fontina, and spicy andouille presented atop the house's light, crisp crust, or the pesto, a satiny-smooth interaction of fresh basil, pungent garlic, melted Romano, and crunchy pine nuts. The boisterous ambience of the place contrasts nicely with its polished-wood setting, thoughtful wine list, and attentive, intelligent service.

Pizzetta 211

211 23rd Ave. (at California), 379-9880

Tucked away in a remote corner of the Richmond, tiny Pizzetta 211 serves the most intricate, imaginative, beautifully balanced pizzas in town. The day's crisp-crusted creations might include a confluence of shaved manchego cheese, a bushel of fresh arugula, clumps of rosemary, black pepper and crushed garlic, and paper-thin slices of red, German Butterball, and Yukon Gold potatoes; or smoky prosciutto, spiky sprigs of green garlic, and a mild Valle d'Aosta fontina topped off with a runny, farm-fresh egg sunny side up -- one of the better breakfasts available hereabouts. Special wines, salads, and desserts are offered daily, and there are sidewalk tables for alfresco dining.

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