I will not now, nor will I ever, confess to being a know-it-all, despite much evidence to the contrary. But if I were ever to admit putting my mouth where my money ain't, it would certainly not be in the arena of things San Franciscan, a subject that I can say with some confidence rarely catches me with my pants down.
Which is why my discovery of the Indian pizza at Zante (3489 Mission, 821-3949) is even more disconcerting. In all the years I've been in this city (a great, great many) and through all the years of takeout dinners (a great, great, great many), Zante has crossed my path dozens of times — but almost exclusively for its nostril-searing, amply portioned, and extremely cheap Indian food. (I'm not a huge fan of its American-style pizzas.)
Then, a couple of weeks ago at a girls' night out where I was not in charge of ordering the food, an Indian pizza from Zante arrived on the doorstep. Shut my mouth. Or rather, open my mouth and shove in another slice.
My only excuse for not knowing about a dish that is apparently a well-established part of S.F.'s culinary vernacular is that I have a long, storied history of bad experiences with “blender” restaurants — places that offer two disparate types of cuisine and give them equal weight on the marquee. Fusion is one thing; Indonesian-satay-disguised-as-burrito is quite another.
Those preconceived notions about pizza and Indian food, specifically, were formed during my college days at Berkeley. One of our favorite low-budget haunts was an endearing little joint that also billed itself as a pizza/Indian restaurant. We came for the rock-bottom pitcher prices and the samosas; we stayed for the unique interpretation of a double cheeseburger, which involved two meat patties, two sets of buns, two slices each of tomato, cheese, and onion, and two separate plates — all for under $3. We made the mistake of ordering the pizza only once.
It never occurred to me that pizza could be combined with Indian food to form a more perfect union.
But there it was, a giant circular bread disc laden with toppings that looked like pizza but smelled like the inside of a tandoori oven. Approaching with caution, I poked a finger tentatively into the dough — perhaps thicker and spongier than I prefer traditional pizza crust, in fact closer to chewy naan bread, but not unpleasant. A closer sniff revealed garlic, ginger, cumin, and chile seasonings — again not standard pizza fodder, but strangely not off-putting, either. Working up some courage, I took a small, hesitant bite. Expecting tomato sauce, my taste buds were met instead by spicy spinach purée (traditional sag paneer) and then by scallions and bits of tandoori and tikka masala chicken. The effect was something like an Indian calzone: an amalgamation of just about every Indian dish I've ever ordered, rolled into one redolent pie. But it worked.
From there, I found myself wolfing down chicken, cauliflower, eggplant, and diced lamb — and slowly my barriers to hybrid cuisine began falling away.
To its credit, Zante doesn't mix its culinary metaphors. It doesn't even try to approximate an American-style pizza in the Indian version, which may be an issue for some purists. This 'za isn't gooey. It's not cheesy. The crust isn't crispy. There's no tomato sauce. And by that yardstick, it's not a successful venture. But it reminds me of the old Bill Graham saying about the Grateful Dead: They may not be the best at what they do, but they're the only ones who do what they do.