There are two kinds of people when it comes to pizza: those who place an inordinate amount of importance on the crust, and everyone else. I'm squarely in the former category. Others might be wary of carbs or distracted by the cheese and meat, but for me, the crust is the quiet hero of a great pizza — absolutely necessary for a slice's integrity, but also to provide a textural counterpoint to the salty, greasy toppings (there's a reason no one serves bowls of melted cheese and pepperoni). Recently, there's been a wave of pizza-shop openings in the city, and while their pie-making styles vary wildly, to my delight there's one constant: All of them get the crust right.
The best of the new crop is PizzaHacker (3299 Mission, 874-5585, thepizzahacker.com), the 3-month-old brick-and-mortar in La Lengua from former pop-up proprietor Jeff Krupman. He bases his crust on the Tartine country bread method, naturally leavened with a bit of whole-wheat flour thrown in, and its pedigree shows: The crust reaches that magical sweet spot where it's thin and crisp but retains a bit of chew to keep things interesting. Its time in the 700-degree oven gives it textbook blackened bubbles. The final touch? The outer crust is salted and oiled, which "seems to keep the 'bones' left behind by customers to a minimum," Krupman says.
Toppings are California-style, which is to say, anything pretty much goes as long as it's seasonal and high-quality. A pie topped with Brussels sprouts and bacon on the menu when the place first opened has been replaced by one with nettles and spring lamb. Another had dried figs, bitter radicchio, and Gorgonzola cheese. The Yo! Vinny has Mama Lil's peppers and Avedano's sausage; the Top-Shelf Margherita has a sauce made with dry-roasted Early Girl tomatoes. My favorite is the Rocket Man, a bright pie adorned with lemony arugula and a farm egg. The pies run $13 to $16.
Krupman started his pizza-making business in 2009 atop a converted Weber grill — hence the PizzaHacker moniker. But the atmosphere is more backyard-casual than techy-sleek. You eat pizza on communal picnic tables beneath strings of cafe lights, next to a chalkboard wall open to all comers. This, of course, attracts families, so if you go early in the evening, be prepared to contend with children. Later, when the tables are dotted with $5 pints of local brews, the pizza party is (slightly) more adult.
A laid-back, California-hippie approach to pizza comes from Josey Baker, who is now making Monday night pies at The Mill (736 Divisadero, 345-1953, themillsf.com). The bread-maker and flour miller has added pizziolo to his résumé, turning out weekly pies with whole-wheat sourdough crusts on Monday evenings. These seem almost wholesome, but the crust is surprisingly airy despite the amount of whole-wheat flour in them. There's one topping offered each week, and it's vegetarian — Baker says they're considering adding a meat option, but with one pie they want to make sure everyone can eat it. A lovely pie with spring onions and garlic had just enough allium flavor without totally overwhelming the palate; past toppings have included chicories, and mushroom and asparagus. ($2.50/slice, $20/whole pizza.)
The cafe infamous for its "$4 toast" (actually $3.50) is filled during the daylight hours with the laptop-toting masses, but it converts surprisingly well to the evening hours. With the lights turned low, friends happily sharing whole pies (and subtly BYOBing), the gleaming white space feels like a warm hub of the neighborhood. The team at The Mill seems to have taken notice: Baker recently announced that Monday pizza night is going to be a permanent fixture, and they are working on an online ordering system so neighbors can order pies to go.
Dogpatch residents have been cheering the appearance of Long Bridge Pizza Co.(2347 Third St., 829-8999, longbridgepizza.com), a welcome addition to a neighborhood that recently was something of a pizza desert. These are whole, thin-crust pizzas somewhere between New York and Neapolitan style, with a chewy crust that nonetheless isn't too dense and doesn't droop when you pick up a slice. The signature style comes from friends and business partners Andrew Markoulis and Neal DeNardi, who have honed their pizza-crafting skills at places like PizzaHacker, Tony's Pizza Napoletana, and A16 before opening their own place.
The restaurant itself is small, with around 20 seats, and has the usual San Francisco restaurant uniform: weathered wood, subway tiles, poured concrete floor, old industrial signs. But it mostly seems like a takeout operation. While the White Pie could use a bit more seasoning, the Margherita hits all the high notes with its sweet-acidic tomato sauce. Heartier appetites will like the Loading Dock, a fully loaded pie with sausage, mushroom, soppressata salumi, and plenty of garlic. Prices range from $12.50 to $16 for a small, $22 to $29 for a large. Markoulis and DeNardi are taking their location in the village-like Dogpatch seriously, too: The restaurant is named after a wooden causeway that once ran down Third Street, connecting downtown to the waterfront.
But there is still something to be said for the simple, floppy New York-style pizzas, and the city now has an excellent purveyor of such pies at the appropriately-named The Pizza Shop in the Mission (3104 24th St., 824-1840). The slices are heated when you order them for a crisp, eminently foldable crust with a subtle yeasty flavor, allowing room for the toppings to shine. A fabulous white pie with just the right ratio of ricotta, spinach, and garlic is the version I've been searching for since I moved to the city. Classic pepperoni is everything it needs to be, as are other classics like sausage-and-mushroom — all reflective of owner Thomas Jividen's Jersey slice-shop roots. Slices are $4, whole pies start at $18. Also on point is the small shop's spare décor, save for an odd wooden mural of a deer on one wall.
Above The Pizza Shop's short menu is a motto of sorts: "Believe in pizza again." As long as the city keeps turning out great pies, that shouldn't be a problem.