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Pie High 

At a tiny Delfina spinoff, pizza is optional, cannoli mandatory

Wednesday, Mar 15 2006
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I love pizza. It's my desert island dish, my last meal, my favorite snack. I will detour hours out of my way or volunteer for an unnecessary business trip to try a famous pie. When visiting hot spots like New York City, Chicago, or Rome, I'll happily eat it every day if my companions don't interfere.

So I'm happy as a Pepe's white clam pie at the big increase in quality and variety of pizza hereabouts recently. In the past two years, Christophe Hille brought us world-class Neapolitan-style pies at A16, Brian Sadigursky raised the bar for Chicago deep-dish at Little Star, and Charlie Hallowell built a whole cuisine around his wood-fired pizza oven at Oakland's Pizzaiolo.

Craig and Anne Stoll joined the trend last July by opening Pizzeria Delfina next door to their longtime Mission District destination, Delfina. The place is a self-conscious, upscale take on a classic hole-in-the-wall pizza joint: no-frills décor, mostly stainless steel and white tile, brightly lit, looking more hygienic than hip. Douglas Burnham, the designer, made clever use of the tiny space, arranging the kitchen so that the friendly, efficient staffers can go about their business easily even when the place is packed. Still, seating's quite limited -- 24 seats, including six small tables for two or three and eight stools at the counter (with great views of the oven action). Weather and space heaters allowing, sidewalk tables can hold another eight diners. The restaurant is popular and takes no reservations, so expect a wait.

The menu's as small as the dining room: 10 antipasti, six pizzas, and three desserts on the printed menu, with daily specials -- one antipasto, two pizzas, one hot entree, and one dessert -- written in by hand. As at the mother ship (or, for that matter, in the motherland), the kitchen focuses on maximizing the flavor of top-quality local ingredients through simple combinations and straightforward preparations.

In the sad event you aren't in the mood for pizza, you could make a great meal of just appetizers. On my first visit, we started with warm marinated olives, a mix of black and green, pure and fruity, like good olive oil. Felino salame from the venerable and formerly stodgy local Columbus Salame Co. was a big surprise, like Nonna getting her tongue pierced. The Felino holds its own against top local charcuterie producers such as A16, Paul Bertolli, and the Fatted Calf (and, not surprisingly, costs a whopping $22 a pound retail). A warm salad of cauliflower sauced with capers, garlic, and chilies and another of marinated beets tossed with grated ricotta salata were perfect for a cold winter night. The fresh-stretched mozzarella (made nightly from fresh curd), drizzled with good olive oil and served, like several other dishes, with warm olive oil crostini, was tasty, but not in the same class with the Gioia burrata served at A16 and elsewhere -- though it'd be great in the summer, paired with ripe tomatoes.

Next visit, at the server's enthusiastic recommendation, we began with romaine lettuce with green goddess dressing. Good tip; the toasted hazelnuts and fresh tarragon in this salad were remarkable, highlighting the effort the restaurant puts into sourcing the best ingredients. To my taste, the otherwise scrumptious salad of tuna confit (aka conserva), white kidney beans, and radicchio had too much lemon zest, but my companions strongly disagreed. We didn't polish off a generous plate of tangy wedges of pecorino pepato cheese with slices of crisp, sweet Pink Lady apples until dessert, in which context it made more sense.

On to the main event: The pizza's billed as "Neapolitan-inspired," and that influence is clear. Like pizza in Naples, it's thin compared with the typical American version, though not so thin as in Rome. The 12-inch pies are small enough that a hungry pizza lover can easily polish one off alone. The sauce (used on only half the pizzas) is pure tomato -- simple and sweet. The amount of sauce, cheese, and other toppings is restrained, so the crust doesn't get soggy.

And, ah, that crust. Naples' influence ends here: You can't make a true pizza napoletana without a wood-burning oven like A16's. What Pizzeria Delfina has instead is the best crust I've seen come out of a gas deck oven: crunchy, chewy, good wheaty flavor, just the right amount of salt, cooked to a golden brown with a few specks of darker brown and black. I don't know what to call this style -- it's not as tender as Neapolitan or as thin and crisp as Roman -- but taken on its own terms, the crust is perfect. Delfina also departs from Naples on toppings, using a variety of stronger-flavored cheeses rather than just fresh mozzarella.

The first pie I tried was a knockout. The amatriciana special, named after a Roman pasta recipe, was topped with tomato sauce, guanciale (unsmoked hog-jowl bacon), caramelized onions, and pecorino cheese. The careful balance of funky aged pork, fruity tomato, sharp cheese, and slightly smoky onions put me in pizza heaven. That day's other special, a bianca (no tomato sauce) with hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, was subtler but still delicious. Its fresh thyme and mix of rich, mild Taleggio and Fontal cheeses brought out the umami in the buttery, earthy, slightly nutty mushrooms. That night's third pizza -- a bianca of broccoli rabe with ricotta, oven-dried tomatoes, and mozzarella -- I'd have liked better had the greens been blanched less, so as to retain more of their bitterness.

Second time around I tried some simpler pies. A classic New York combination (chunks of house-made fennel sausage with onions, peppers, and mozzarella) reminded me of my favorite pie at John's of Bleeker Street, only better. The margherita, just tomato, mozzarella, a few basil leaves, and a pinch of Parmesan, let me appreciate the excellence of the sauce, but next time I'd add the optional pepperoni.

Save room for dessert, even if you have to take some of the pizza home; the crust doesn't get soggy, so it's great cold or reheated. You must try the cannoli: thin, crisp pastry tubes filled with creamy, light Bellwether Farm ricotta slightly sweetened with chestnut honey and a bit of candied fruit. To beat this, you'll need a ticket to Sicily. The chocolate-hazelnut torta, like a big brownie, and a daily special pear-huckleberry crostata were similarly subtle and not overly sweet or rich. These are desserts for grown-ups.

The short list of Italian wines, most available by the glass ($4 to $8.50), features southern varietals such as falanghina and aglianico that pair well with the food. The beer selection's disappointing -- just Anchor Steam, Sudwerk Märzen, and Peroni. Maybe there's no room in the kitchen for a keg, but a fresh, hoppy, local microbrew on tap would be a finer fit with the outstanding ingredients in the food.

One testament to Pizzeria Delfina's greatness: I ate there two nights in a row, then the next day polished off a whole pie's worth of leftover slices while writing this review. The day after that, I was still craving the stuff, and if I hadn't had a birthday party to go to, I'd have gone back to try the clam pie. In fact, I'll go do that right now.

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Robert Lauriston

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