A wise person once told me that chefs should treat cacio e pepe the way they do eggs: as a job interview. Prospective line cooks would be asked to prepare the simple Italian pasta dish just as a chef tasks them with cooking a fluffy omelet, and pass or fail based on that alone.
If that's the litmus test, then Fiorella passes con colori volanti. And while that's only one item, the small restaurant on Clement Street — almost in the very center of the Richmond — punches above its weight. Fiorella contains only 40 seats and its slim menu — eight pizzas, three pastas, plus a dozen or so antipasti and other starters — implies it's a local spot drawing patrons only from the immediate neighborhood, in the style of pizza places worldwide.
But to get a grasp of what owner Boris Nemchenok, chef-partner Brandon Gillis, and chef de cuisine Gavin Braid are aiming for, you need only look at the neo-Art Nouveau wallpaper, which pays homage to Bay Area greats like Joe Montana, Alice Waters, and Angela Davis, plus a leafy tribute to BART. (The restroom wallpaper is similarly large-scale, depicting San Francisco as a megalopolis of hillside Edwardians, with a roller coaster tucked in there.)
So Fiorella is a pizza place — custom-made, mosaic-tiled wood oven and all — that fires regional pies and puts out solid pasta without losing focus. It's not as mighty as Del Popolo on Nob Hill, but it's still very good — good enough that people who refer to the Richmond and the Sunset as “The Avenues” should go.
The only real misstep came at the top. The thinly sliced beef tongue (with horseradish mayo, marinated scallions, and breadcrumbs, $10) was limp and bland, as if the cow had indeed stuck out its tongue with exaggerated fatigue. The scallions were faint, the horseradish was fainter, and there was no art to the way things were plopped on the plate. Stacked in Civil War cannonball formation, the suppli al telephono (fried rice balls stuffed with mozzarella, $10) were considerably perkier. Dusted with Pecorino shavings, these arancini sat in repurposed pizza sauce that was too good not to lap up even after they were gone. Why is the dish called “suppli al telephono,” you might ask? Because when you bite into one, the cheese is supposed to stretch like a landline cord, reverse-Lady-and-the-Tramp-style. It didn't even come close to that, but it's hard to fault the kitchen for experimenting here.
Then it was pizza time. It's hard to resist The Alamo, a $17 mushroom-rosemary-garlic-fontina-and-cream beauty that tithes to a nearby elementary school art program. (Is a child from Fiorella's management enrolled there? Probably.) Besides the leopard-print char and the speed with which it's ready, the best thing a wood oven does to a pizza is reinforce the crust so that it withstands more toppings than it otherwise would. By all rights, this pie should be a gooey mess whose center feels like a kitchen sponge saturated with grease. But it's even all the way through, and the way the cream and fontina interact with the mushrooms to give them a buttery gloss is beautiful. The same goes for the Spicy Salami Pie (tomato, salami, chilies, marinated onions, and provolone picante, $16) whose onions did what the scallions on the beef tongue could not: add a little acid. It was on the salty end of things, and its crust was baked unevenly, with one side noticeably blacker, but that only gives you the opportunity to nibble around.
I can see California natives regarding the New Haven pie (tomato, Parmigiano, Pecorino, and olive oil, $13) as a dry exercise in sub-minimalism — using the simple margherita pie as the benchmark for minimalism — since it doesn't have any melted cheese or large toppings of any kind. Fiorella could be a little less stingy with the Parmigiano and Pecorino, but as a nice index of the baseline, our table approved. You could also make the case that white pizzas are more minimal than even that, and that The Alamo puts them to shame, but I don't think Fiorella is looking to rock the boat quite that much — plus you also have the option to add things like salami, anchovies, arugula, or egg, so you don't have to be smitten with the idea of a crust-forward pizza in order to like it. What was missing on our visit, though, was any kind of seasonal pizza. With Alice Waters smiling on the wall, you'd expect to see some broccolini, ramps, or maybe even peas.
Now back to that cacio e pepe ($14), which was by far the best thing of the night. Those al dente noodles (plus butter, plus cheese, plus a heavy shake of black pepper) hit critical mass in a way that was clearly not by chance, as they were satisfying in a truly elemental way. Like a jealous younger sibling, the rigatoni with fra diavolo (tomato, chili, garlic, herbs, and ricotta, $16) couldn't quite outshine it, but mixing that blob of ricotta around the firm, garlicky rigatoni yields a stick-to-the-ribs satisfaction.
We shared a fudgy bowl of Guittard chocolate budino, like a room-temperature pudding with hazelnuts, for dessert ($8). If there hadn't been three of us, it would have been romantic, but as it is, Fiorella has the power to enchant. In a city where excellent pizza is not yet common, I expect tables at this not-quite-four-month-old restaurant to become harder to procure. Just don't forget the cacio e pepe when you get one.