First it was Farina, then Farina Pizza. The two halves of a once-pretty-OK, Italian-centric restaurant group on 18th Street closed six months apart in 2017, in a saga that involved unpaid back taxes, the seizure of a $275,000 liquor license, embarrassingly public notes from the landlord about garbage payments, and — the kicker — an opaque system that may or may not have pocketed servers’ tips. At a time when distressing restaurant closures seem to punch S.F. in its solar plexus on a weekly basis, Farina’s finis felt more like grimly satisfying rubbernecking at the crash site of a driverless-Uber gone haywire.
It was a bit like the more recent demise of Mission Beach Cafe — only without the vermin, a curiously unflappable restaurateur, or any outpouring of sympathy from the dining public. In other words, did anyone like either the overpriced Farina or Farina Pizza? Anyone at all?
It seems not. Worse, there was a plan to replace the original Farina with a horrendously tone-deaf club for affluent gay men called Yass that was to be funded by the firm attached to the occasionally ghoulish arch-Trumpster Peter Thiel. (That clearly never came to pass.) At the time, I smugly predicted that the nearby Farina Pizza would probably become a fast-casual place that served salad. Boy, was I wrong: Mixt opened its flamboyantly ordinary salad lounge a block down, in the old La Rondalla space.
Saging all this away, the marvelous Liholiho Yacht Club will shortly open Dear Inga in the Farina building and Thomas McNaughton’s Flour + Water has taken over Farina Pizza for Flour + Water Pizzeria. What could be more relieving? The results are charming, especially on a day like Sunday Streets when the restaurant seems to fuse with Valencia, if not the city itself. That porousness can be so lovely in a dining-obsessed city where the boundaries of sidewalk seating are rigidly demarcated, and even al fresco dining can leave you feeling boxed in.
Valencia and 18th is a wow location, unquestionably, and we should all be glad it didn’t become the flagship location for a corporate brand that can pay near-infinite rents without really selling much, because its primary purpose is to absorb hipness from its surroundings. That’s not to say Flour + Water Pizza isn’t hip. It definitely is, but not necessarily in the we-turned-Steve-Jobs-away way that the original Flour + Water on 20th and Harrison streets has always been rumored to have done. More and more, I find myself attracted to restaurants where you can clearly sense that the staff like one another and have fun. This is one. It might not be Yass, but there’s plenty of sass, and it’s contagious. Sit at the counter watching someone slice prosciutto next to three pizzaioli who fluidly handle the tiered, 600-degree oven, and you’ll probably want to do a stage there on your day off. It’s a fun restaurant to eat in even when you have to put your name on the list and kill 45 minutes at The Valencia Room.
Clearly, pizza is the main attraction, as pastas are at Flour + Water. And to be perfectly up front about it, the crust is absolutely spectacular. Thin-adjacent and not particularly charred, it’s chewy, it’s hearty, it holds up to the toppings, and it ferments for three days beforehand to get that ideal mix of microbes that doesn’t render you sluggish. Crust preferences are subjective, no two ways about it, and I’m a white-pie partisan, too. The OG Bear — made with mozzarella, mushroom, spinach, Taleggio cheese, and garlic, and a reference to one of the owners’ nicknames — is probably the best one. While the toppings are thick and gooey, they’re not overkill and they underscore the strengths of the crust. Also nicely balanced is the sausage pizza, whose rosemary is still palpable in spite of the oven’s jet blast.
The trouble is that some of the other pizzas are either mild (as in the burrata pie) or slightly out-of-whack. The speck pie, for instance, tastes almost entirely of onions. And the tame chili oil in the condiment caddies doesn’t really suggest New Jersey slice shops, either. Further, the burrata antipasto was weakly flavored, with unripe nectarines thatched with frisee — thank God for those pistachios — while the fritto misto has too much batter and not enough seasoning, so that even fun components like hen-of-the-woods mushrooms and snow peas feel smothered in cornmeal even after you’ve squeezed every drop out of the lemon.
If you’re searching for a companion wine, you may find the Aglianico is unremarkable at best, so experiment with the Lambrusco, whose mouthfeel holds up to all the cheese atop the pizza crust. Or do a Capelletti Spritz, that summer refresher in this post-Aperol world whose piney undertones always remind me of a syrup called Rooh-Afza that I bought at an Afghani grocery in Fremont. But for dessert, there’s not only a soft-serve swirl, it’s not the usual swirl: It’s fior di latte and salted caramel, which you can get with chocolate sauce (recommended) or with amarena cherries and Mike’s Hot Honey (even more highly recommended.)
So some tinkering is advisable, but the skeletal structure is firmly in place — and since Pauline’s Pizza is gone, FWP is very likely intended to undercut Delfina. I try to hold the idea of relevance at arm’s length, because, yeah, everybody wants to be “relevant,” but that’s why Burger King has an app and sells “Real Meals” and also why the organizers of the Fyre Festival thought they had a real winner on their hands. But, sigh though we may about how excellence is no longer considered as important as relevance, relevance matters. It’s not as though Flour + Water had completely faded from view, but other spots in the Ne Timeas Restaurant Group like Central Kitchen and Salumeria had overtaken it. A few years after their ill-fated tapas project Aatxe folded, this is a shrewd move, with obvious and near-universal appeal. Flour + Water Pizzeria is enjoyable, affordable, and utterly in tune with its surroundings — and again, that crust! Considering the address and the history of Farina, this could have all gone hideously awry. We lucked out.
Flour + Water Pizzeria, 702 Valencia St., 415-341-0154 or flourandwaterpizzeria.com