Every time I think San Francisco has finally vanquished its reputation for bad pizza, I make the mistake of casually mentioning that such-and-such spot does a good job. Whoever I’m talking to wrinkles their nose in disbelief, and the cycle starts anew with me offering a defensive prebuttal to whomever I next speak to about the topic.
That might change with Ardiana. Into the Noe Valley space that La Nebbia occupied for three years comes Sharon Ardiana’s third venture, after Ragazza and Gialina (and a sort of triangulation between their locations, in the Lower Haight and Glen Park, respectively). The oven here is very large, and the pizzas is cranks out are the kind that can feed two people — and can be used as Exhibit A in the battle against S.F.’s pizza detractors. The magic is in the alchemy of the dough, which emerges from the oven with a good tear, a good chew, and enough durability to hold up against half a dozen or more toppings.
It needs a warm-up, though. You could go with a little gem and grapefruit salad with Green Goddess dressing ($12) or an intriguing, get-it-while-you-can dish of heirloom tomatoes prepared with brown butter, lemon verbena, and shiso ($14). But I would suggest The Whole Shebang, a $36 assortment of pita wedges with six dips and sides. Not a single one of them goes without at least one novel ingredient, including cauliflower dressed with something zippy called “capzer-currant salsa” and a wonderfully creamy smashed avocado with Meyer lemon, Aleppo pepper, chili oil, and toasted sesame. (It’s avocado toast without the toast, therefore dipping the crusty end of a pizza slice into it is the way to go.)
Although it’s oily, the roasted eggplant comes with a rich pomegranate molasses that echoes around the palate, plus a dollop of mint-flecked Greek yogurt — and the balsamic reduction on the carrot hummus makes it looks like a savory sundae with watermelon radish streamers poking up.
Of the pizzas, a burrata with squash blossoms, shaved garlic, and preserved lemon ($24) was the head-and-shoulders standout. I have to applaud any crust that can avoid giving way, especially in the center, with that pile heaped on it. The funghi — with trumpet mushrooms, caramelized onions, thyme, fontina, and truffled Pecorino, $18 — sounds overload-adjacent, but it was surprisingly muted. And maybe it’s just because heirloom tomato season is waning and I feel like I didn’t get nearly my fill this year, but this $22 pie — with smoked bacon, mozzarella, basil, and arugula — was handled beautifully, without any wilt to the leafy topping, leaving it fresh and heterogeneous. The BLT and the caprese need to link arms like this more often.
It’s easy and it’s approachable, but the trouble with Ardiana is that it’s a little too casual for its own good. The pizzas are reasonably priced, but the trick with having pizza as your center of gravity is the ripple effect. With exceptions like Pizzeria Delfina and Del Popolo, people associate pizza — even higher-end, thin-crust pies — with napkin dispensers, canisters of red pepper flakes, and other accoutrements of a quick pit stop.
That’s entirely OK, but Ardiana is trapped between its ambitions and reality. There are no napkin dispensers, but there are paper napkins, and with larger plates in the over-$25 level and creeping close to the $40 at the top end, that’s not the ambience most people want on a nice date. Not to be harsh about it — because parents of young children deserve a meal out more than the rest of us combined — but this is stroller-land, and it shows. Ardiana’s location is a tough space, uniformly lit and filled with right angles everywhere, and it’s perilously low on the romance quotient. Assuming it opens for lunch or tweaks the menu a bit, it could have a better claim to being a proper neighborhood restaurant, but for now, it needs to be more of itself to match its wonderful predecessors’ charm.
Ardiana, 1781 Church St., 415-926-5962 or ardianasf.com