If you ever want to start a ruckus in San Francisco, all you need to do is either A) pull into a parking place in front of someone who's been waiting with his blinker on (albeit 20 feet away), hedging his bets between two potential spots, who'll then puff up with righteous indignation as he claims it was yours he was waiting for the whole time, and nearly burst a blood vessel when you suggest that if he weren't so lazy and unwilling to walk a few extra yards he could have had three spots by now, not to mention slowed the onset of global warming by a decade; or B) ask a roomful of people — especially a roomful of New York-type people — who's got the best pizza in town.
The former is likely a brief, though potentially violent encounter, often limited to words of a four-letter nature and disparaging remarks about the other person's personal hygiene. The latter is invariably a more protracted, vitriolic affair, one filled with three- and four-syllable epithets, which invariably call into question one's taste, judgment, intelligence — even one's very right to exist.
Indeed, at a party a few years ago I found myself in the midst of the pizza dispute (which we'd arrived at by way of the bagel argument — a slippery slope if there ever was one), when an acquaintance informed me that my opinion had rendered me too stupid to live.
Well, who's got the last laugh now, monkey boy? Me and my slope-headed, mouth-breathing opinion are about to be immortalized in print, where they'll be taken as gospel by at least three impressionable S.F.'ers — and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.
Of course, said monkey boy might not be quite as hot under the hairy pits once he learns that my loyalties have changed since that ugly exchange.
Back then, I was more focused on sauce flavor and cheese: Quattro formaggio was my middle name, and tangy tomatoes were my game. These elements are still important, but of late I have come to regard texture — i.e., crust — as the make-or-break ingredient. And for me thin is in. Thin and crisp, just like you get on the streets of Rome, and sometimes New York.
So while I don't exactly take back my endorsement of North Beach Pizza (on Grant), with its sloppy, old-fashioned, saucy dough pies, or Panhandle and (the recently, and sadly, closed) Vicolo, with their gourmet toppings and chewy cornmeal crusts, I'm not stumping for them these days.
I answer to a crunchier god. One that doesn't overwhelm the pizza with too much gooey cheese and that doesn't cause you to gasp for beer by presenting stretches of unsauced crust. Arinell (509 Valencia, 255-1303) is that pizza. This no-frills street-slice joint offers nothing by way of atmosphere, not really even a place to sit down, but it delivers the goods. Large slices (big enough to just overflow the edges of a paper plate) emerge from the oven with a slender layer of mozzarella blistering on top of a coating of tart, tomato-y sauce. And the delightful crust — brittle enough to break in two when folded, but not so thin that it qualifies as cracker bread, sprinkled with a dusting of cornmeal on the bottom — crunches under your teeth the way it's supposed to. If you feel the need, you may embellish your 'za with oregano, red pepper flakes, and Parmesan. If you don't, you may simply take your perfect slice, fold it inside your paper plate, and consider yourself a member of the too-stupid-to-live club.