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That's Amore 

Pizza parlors

Wednesday, Sep 25 2002
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A friend from North Carolina once told me that one of the more popular snack items in the Raleigh area is something called California pizza. What's that? I asked. "Oh, you know," she said, "pizza with a lotta weird stuff on it." This is a fine description of California cuisine in general, and of the nationwide bemusement with Left Coast pizza in particular. Émigrés from New York search in vain for the simple, skinny-crusted slices of their homeland; Chicagoans are rightfully horrified by the dearth of decent deep-dish. The local affection for pizzas accented with green tomatoes and asparagus, meanwhile, is regarded with a mixture of awe and disdain. As for myself, although I'm a purist when it comes to martinis, you can throw anything on a pizza (or a burger, for that matter) and I'm perfectly happy. As usual, the best criterion is if it tastes good.

Not every pizza in San Francisco comes topped with purple basil and dandelion greens, of course; many are positively traditional. Numero uno, at least chronologically, is Tommasso's, which has been baking pies in its wood-fired brick oven since 1935 -- a generation or two before Alice Waters adapted the technique for more upscale consumption. What sets Tommasso's pizzas apart are soft, chewy crusts and light, simple toppings -- a far cry from the heavy slabs of goo that infest so many North Beach pizzerias. Three pies in particular exemplify the variations possible within Tommasso's old-country framework. The sausage-mushroom pizza is an earthy classic: lots of minced mushrooms and sweetly spicy Italian sausage melting into a bed of tangy tomato sauce and bubbly mozzarella. The Genovese is a brighter, sharper rendition bursting with the contrasting flavors of provolone, pesto, and sun-dried tomato. The seafood pizza strikes a simpler note: Sweet chunks of tiger prawn and sea scallop share crust space with tender little clams still in their shells and minced tomato and scallion. All three pizzas are ebulliently crafted, served, and consumed in a friendly, low-ceilinged space dominated by a long communal table down the middle and old-fashioned booths along the sides: very North Beach.

Competing for the neighborhood pizza crown is Golden Boy, a tiny storefront operation two blocks to the north. Here the crust of choice is focaccia bread, the really rich kind of focaccia that leaves a satisfying sheen of olive oil on everything it touches. Huge sheets of the stuff are layered with five kinds of toppings and then baked until crisp and bubbly, carved into squares, and placed beside the open front windows to entice all passers-by. The thick, spongy focaccia is a perfect foil for the lusty toppings, particularly the clam version, laden with chopped garlic; the vegetarian, a garden-fresh mixture of zucchini, black olives, juicy tomatoes, and a savory pesto; and the combination, in which smoky pepperoni and chunks of Italian sausage mix it up with mushrooms, onions, peppers, and zucchini. You can get a square to munch while you stroll Grant Avenue, but it's more fun to sit at the long, narrow counter and accompany your pizza with one of the quality beers available on tap while you absorb the bare-bones, boho-rustic ambience.

Meanwhile, down at the tiny, terrific Arizmendi Bakery in the Sunset, there's a different sourdough-crust pizza to be sampled every day of the month, each one of them delectable. Though known for their whimsical toppings -- watercress/carrot/hazelnut and bok choy/ peanut/cilantro are two prominent examples -- the Arizmendi ovens have lately taken a more traditional route. One recent Sunday, for instance, the daily slice featured ripe-to-bursting tomatoes, minced fresh basil, sweet red onion, and creamy mozzarella -- your basic pizza given new life through superior, explosively flavorful ingredients. Packed onto its thin, chewy triangle of sourdough crust, it was an intensely Mediterranean taste treat. The worker-owned cooperative also makes three or four focaccias, including a marvelous dessert variation baked with whole, juicy raspberries and blueberries and dusted with powdered sugar.

At Vicolo in Hayes Valley the pizza's a bit more upscale, despite the fact that you stand in line, order your slice at the counter, and find your own table, just like at McDonald's. The bar's raised a bit higher here, though, since the restaurant is operated by the tony Hayes Street Grill around the corner and the clientele's mostly well-heeled pre-curtain opera- and symphony-lovers. The wild mushroom pizza is a signature example of Vicolo's understated élan: chopped porcinis and shiitakes combined with bits of tomato and basil presented on the house's pièce de résistance -- a thick, lusciously dense cornmeal crust layered with creamy whole-milk mozzarella. The Quattro Formaggi (four-cheese) pizza is equally rich and satisfying, particularly when the kitchen adds a couple of handfuls of crisp, spicy house-made pepperoni slices for an extra 50 cents. The salads are bright and bountiful, the setting is spare, light, and airy in the industrial-chic tradition, and the brief wine list includes Chianti Tenuta Farneta at six bucks a glass.

As one might expect, Postrio steers the entire pizza concept in an even more elegant direction. This is the sort of pie you nibble along with a flute of Veuve Clicquot or a Bombay Sapphire martini, especially if you find yourself in the earth-toned, brass-accented upstairs bar, where the tiled pizza oven resides. Forswearing the four-cheese or smoked-chicken Wolfgang specials attainable in any supermarket freezer section, we ordered la crème de la crème -- the smoked salmon and caviar pizza, the only purposely cold pizza I sampled for this report. Luxurious layers of the creamiest lox this side of Scotland are strewn with golden caviar and snippets of fresh dill, set upon a bed of tangy crème fraîche, and served atop a cracker-thin crust; it's a decadent, ridiculously delicious hors d'oeuvre. Another pizza is in a more familiar vein -- tomato-mozzarella -- but in Postrio's version the tomatoes are orange, green, and red heirlooms, the mozzarella is made from buffalo milk, and sprigs of fresh basil add that culinary panache.

With Pauline's, we enter true California-pizza territory. Sorrel, chicory, ruby chard, spiced pork shoulder, Portuguese sausage, and salted Meyer lemon purée are among the toppings that even the menu designates as "eccentric." This Mission District hot spot has been pushing the pizza envelope since it opened 17 years ago, but show biz and fireworks notwithstanding, the pies are exemplary. Many of the ingredients come from the establishment's organic gardens, adding a certain vitality to the Thai basil-pear tomato-chicory-Stilton salad as well as to the pizzas. For instance, try the Louisiana, a fragrant combination of scallions, red peppers, fontina, and spicy andouille sausage presented atop the house's light, crisp crust, or Pauline's signature pie, the pesto, a satiny-smooth interaction of fresh basil, pungent garlic, melted Romano, and crunchy pine nuts. The boisterous ambience of the place contrasts nicely with its polished-wood setting, a thoughtful wine list, and attentive, intelligent service.

When it comes to intricate, imaginative, beautifully balanced, half-a-world-away-from-Napoli pizzas, though, Pizzetta 211 is in its own special realm. Tamar Peltz and Ria Ramsey craft fantastic crisp-crusted creations out of a friendly four-table hideaway in a remote corner of the Richmond District. One of the best pies (all of them unnamed) on the ever-changing menu combines shaved manchego cheese, a bushel of fresh arugula, and clumps of rosemary, black pepper, and crushed garlic with paper-thin slices of red, German Butterball, and Yukon Gold potatoes; it's like a dementedly good scalloped potato on a cracker. Another favorite features smoky prosciutto, spiky sprigs of green garlic, and a mild Valle d'Aosta fontina topped off with a runny, farm-fresh egg sunny side up, one of the better breakfasts available around town. To complement your pie there are special wines, salads, and desserts offered daily -- the cheese board might feature a nice Perigord wrapped in brandy-soaked fig leaves -- and there are sidewalk tables for alfresco dining. Edge-of-the-continent pizza is alive and well.

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Matthew Stafford

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