Little Star Pizza
Questioning some of my most deeply-held beliefs
One of the crucial skills that comes with maturity is the ability to anticipate hunger. We don’t blame infants for expecting sustenance on demand: they don’t have enough experience to recognize that they may not be hungry now, but it won’t last. Adults, though, are responsible for procuring their own food, and it behooves them to call the Chinese delivery place 45 minutes before they want the fried rice to arrive.
At a yet higher level of sophistication is the ability to predict, from a position of satiety, what you might want to eat at that future moment when you become hungry. I have trouble ordering off a menu at a restaurant, because how am I supposed to know what I’ll want in 10 minutes when the waiter brings the food? So the kind of clairvoyance that allows people to start cooking a dish that won’t be eaten for three or four hours, calmly foreclosing every other option, strikes me as frankly magical. I assume it involves a combination of logical inference (starting from what you ate earlier in the day) and the kind of nebulous hollistic intuition that takes a decade of yoga to achieve.
This is the site of a sad lacuna in my development along the path to adulthood. Past the start of my fourth decade in this body, I’m still surprised to realize, every day at one or two, that I’m going to have to interrupt what I’m doing and go get some lunch. One of the disadvantages of this is that you tend toward foods that can be obtained or prepared in short order, and thus your diet is thrown off balance, away from preference and toward convenience. Specifically, you eat a lot of sandwiches and not so much deep-dish Chicago pizza.
Chicago-style pizza sits at the intersection of every factor that might slow down your meal. The most obvious reason is intrinsic to the food: it takes longer to cook something thick than something thin. (Duh.) But until recently, San Franciscans have had to factor in two additional delays: the time it takes to drive or BART to Berkeley (45 minutes to an hour), and the time it takes to get a table at Zachary’s (about six weeks). Zachary’s has been so firmly entrenched as the Bay Area’s monopoly deep-dish provider that this was sometimes worth doing, if you were with someone who had the capacity to plan ahead.
(There was an alternative: I have sometimes chosen to eat at branches of Pizzeria Uno, particularly if I was going to a movie at the Embarcadero Center. The chain’s deep-dish pizza functions as a placeholder or placebo: it’s just good enough to allow you to go another couple months without real deep-dish pizza. Also, they have helpful little clocks on the wall, displaying both the current time and the time your pizza will be ready. I assume this is because the staff got sick of obnoxious hungry people who can’t plan ahead bugging them.)
But now there’s Little Star, in the Western Addition, and the math is different. I’ve seen a boom-and-bust’s worth of restaurants come and go in their eternal cycle, like the snows of winter and the flowers of spring, but I can’t think of a time when a new restaurant has filled so significant a gap in the city’s culinary infrastructure as Little Star does. Little Star has such an obvious business model that it’s kind of amazing it took this long to show up: 800,000 underserved pizza consumers grateful not to have to go to Zachary’s; a mixture of traditional and California menu items, pepperoni and sun-dried tomatoes joining hands at the table of brotherhood; and hipsters.
The Western Addition is the new Mission, apparently, and that means it’s ready for a restaurant with a jukebox that sounds like a rock critic’s iPod (everything we heard was unimpeachable: Neutral Milk Hotel, Pet Sounds,the Pixies, Exile on Main Street) and a bar that serves Pabst Blue Ribbon in cans. (Suggested slogan for PBR: More of a signifier than a beer.) I am fine with all these things—I even like PBR, perhaps because I don’t like beer much—but there’s a thin line between cool and trying too hard, and listing the contents of your jukebox on your web site, as Little Star does, is maybe on the nether side.
So the travel time is radically less than to Zachary’s, especially if you live in the new Mission already. The wait time, though, still leaves something to be desired, at peak hours at least; on a Saturday night we waited about an hour and a half for a table, and when you figure in the pizza-preparation time and the hunt for a parking space, that’s more than two hours between leaving the house to get some pizza and eating the pizza.
But if there’s pizza worth a two-hour wait, this is it. It follows the inversion model of Zachary’s: a thick bed of cheese sits on the crust, with chunky diced-tomato sauce spread evenly on top. It’s basically perfect—salty crust, stretchy mozzerella, real tomato flavor. We got two deep-dish and one thin crust, in the interests of research. I’m generally a partisan of traditional pizza toppings, but the standout was clearly the deep-dish Mediterranean Chicken, with feta and olives and artichoke hearts and other things that you would rarely find on a pizza in Chicago. I don’t know why it worked, except that the chicken was more flavorful than any I’ve had in a long time, even outside a pizza. It made me question some of my most deeply held beliefs, such as Don’t order the Mediterranean Chicken pizza.
The Classic, on the other hand, with the trusty quadrumvirate of sausage, onions, mushroom, and green peppers, was—well, it was still delicious, but not quite as delicious as the pizza I’d been imagining as I sat at the bar drinking my PBR. The sausage’s flavor wasn’t robust enough to stand up to the cheese, was the problem; you need a sausage that can punch its weight. The Italian Combo thin crust was a curious invention, evidently conceived around an Italian sub: pepperoni and salami with onions, peppers, olives, and pepperoncini. The pepperoncini were a dark-horse MVP, giving it a salty antipasto piquancy. Surprisingly great.
And if we hadn’t had such a long time to build up an appetite, we might not have gotten the house-made cheesecake, which was probably the best cheesecake I’ve eaten in 10 years: heavy and textured, with a biscuity crust and no raspberries or chocolate sauce to distract from the iconic pairing of cream cheese and sugar. “People are usually too full, so we don’t sell many,” said the server when I expressed my enthusiasm. There are advantages to working up an appetite.