Half a decade in San Francisco will do terrible things to a person
A year ago I happened to visit my brother Zack in New York during one of the big antiwar marches. Tired and hungry, we broke from the crowd and stepped into some pizza place, the first one we saw. As I bit into a slimy pepperoni slice, my face slackened with pleasure and I made a how-delicious-is-this? gesture. Zack looked at me sadly.
“This is a completely ordinary slice of pizza,” he said.
Half a decade in San Francisco will do terrible things to a person. Caen’s beloved bitch-goddess is a wonderful city in some ways, and an OK city in other ways, but it will never be a world-class city until we address the pizza thing.
Pizza doesn’t do well in San Francisco because, like the sonnet and the blues song, it responds poorly to innovation. San Francisco likes foods that it can gussy up or riff on or reinterpret. Pizza—I’m addressing New York-style thin-crust here—does not need to be reinterpreted. Its rigorous parameters offer little scope for amendment and scant margin of error. The sauce must be flavorful but not too sweet, the cheese stretchy and opulent but not overpowering, the crust thin but not too dry. It’s not an impossible culinary feat—countless anonymous dough-tossers in holes in walls across the country pull it off fifty times a night. But San Francisco’s pizza chefs, like ballers with flashy moves but no grasp of the fundamentals, are too busy experimenting with fancy toppings and alternative sauces to spend time on something as pedestrian as a perfect slice. (We need a local ordinance barring pizza-makers from handling pesto or sun-dried tomatoes until they’ve passed some sort of test.)
You can get a decent pizza here. There’s Zachary’s in the East Bay, which is excellent if you’re prepared to wait three hours before you eat. (It’s Chicago-style, though, which is outside our purview at the moment.) There are all those proper Italian restaurants in North Beach where they serve perfectly good individual-sized crispy-thin pizzas for you to eat with a knife and fork like some kind of European.
But that’s not what we talk about when we talk about pizza. Pizza’s raison d’être is takeout. Pizza is the slice you eat on your way from the bar to the party, the pie delivered to your apartment after everyone decides they can’t be bothered to go out. In this sense, pizza isn’t a food so much as a utility: less necessary than energy or water but more than cable or DSL. You should be able to pick up the phone and, after the federally mandated 45-minute wait time, receive a hot pie. It’s not stipulated that the pie must be excellent, any more than we expect our tap water to be excellent—only that it should satisfy our basic needs. It’s part of our birthright as Americans.
But here in the wealthy and progressive city of San Francisco, instead of reliable pizza service we have our choice of bitter compromises. For delivery we have Mozzarella di Bufala, where the ingredients are good but the eponymous cheese disequilibrates the gestalt. (Pizza is a cheese-sauce-dough threesome, not a lactocentric solo performance.) We have Marcello’s, where the balance is right but the crust is rubbery. We have Cable Car, where the pizza tastes perhaps slightly better than the cardboard box it comes in but they deliver it until 3 a.m. For walk-in slices there’s Escape from New York, which tastes like perfectly good pizza that has somehow been dehydrated, perhaps by NASA scientists; Arinell, where they seem to view the sauce as a kind of lubricant to be sparingly dabbed between cheese and crust rather than a real ingredient; and Extreme Pizza, for those of us who thought that the one thing pizza was missing was barbecue sauce. (Word to those who would involve pizza in fusion cuisine: pizza is already a fusion cuisine, merging the Italian flavors of mozzerella and marinara with the Anglo-American pie form.)
And then there’s Giorgio’s.
I have eaten in San Francisco for seven years now, and I swear that Giorgio’s, an unpretentious red-and-white-checked-tablecloths restaurant in the Richmond, is the only place where I’ve eaten a good, honest, ordinary American pizza. It’s thin but not too thin. It’s got that rush-to-get-another-slice-down-your-gullet-before-you-get-too-full-to-enjoy-it kick that makes pizza the ultimate anti-Atkins carb-stuffer meal. The toppings are tasty but not reflexively exotic; the crust is chewy but not too. Cheese, sauce, and dough are balanced with the delicate stability of a trio of contortionists from Cirque du Soleil. Freaks who are only in it for the cheese won’t be disappointed, but neither will purists who insist on being able to taste the sauce as well. It’s not a refined Italian-style pizza, it’s not a high-concept California pizza, it’s just a good pizza.
And yet, this being San Francisco pizza, there’s a catch. Giorgio’s delivers anywhere in the city before three p.m. Before three p.m.: exactly when no one wants to eat pizza. And there’s a minimum charge of $25 to get your pre–three p.m. pizza. (In the Financial District the minimum is $50, which I kind of endorse; it’s like a culinary version of a special assessment district.) They serve slices most of the time, but they tend to run out on nights when the tables are full.
Giorgio’s has a local monopoly on a basic service, and yet I don’t see any regulatory agencies or consumer watchdog groups—or even this paper’s editorial page—raising a finger. It’s as if PG&E shut off our power at three p.m. every day. Why is this allowed to happen? Where’s the outrage?