But the sauce—the sauce is complicated
In addressing the pizza situation—the dearth of decent New York-style, the promising signs in the Chicago deep-dish area—I have given short shrift to the many respectable chefs in North Beach who produce traditional Italian-type pizzas on a nightly basis. I mean no disrespect to these artisans, but in my experience there is little to choose from among such pizzas. The ingredients are fine, the crusts tossed with reasonable skill, the toppings a matter of preference or theology.
But now Delfina has gotten into the pizza game, a development I imagine inspires those established pizza makers to quail the way tech startups do when Microsoft comes after them.
If you’re reading a food column, you probably already know about Delfina, the Italian new-wave place on 18th Street distinguished from other such places by its total excellence. Several years ago, I had a roast chicken there that has become the standard by which I will forever judge poultry: It tasted as though someone with a master’s degree in basting had devoted a full 24 hours to repeatedly basting it with a fine-pointed sable brush. I never went there again, although Delfina is around the corner from my house. This was partly because I didn’t want to spoil the memory of that chicken, which has taken on such mythical stature in my consciousness that any comparison with reality, no matter how delicious, runs the risk of shattering my faith and damaging my childlike sense of wonder. But it was largely because Delfina is, y’know, spendy—not on the only-for-rich-people-on-their-anniversary level, but definitely in the wait-until-your-parents-are-in-town-assuming-your-parents-have-more-money-than-you-do category. (The Bay Guardian listings rate it at two dollar signs, but cross-referencing those listings’ own stated criteria with Delfina’s menu suggests that a rating of three dollar signs would be more appropriate.)
A year ago, this newspaper reported that Delfina owners Craig and Anne Stoll were taking over the storefront next to their building, turning a musty and slightly frightening junk shop into a pizzeria. The author of that article regarded this development with ambivalence, as though the replacement of a bunch of rusting kitchenware by gourmet thin-crust, Italian-style pizza had a downside. While you will now have to go elsewhere for out-of-date computer manuals and scratchy vinyl copies of Fiddler on the Roof: The Original Cast Recording, you can get some Delfina-quality cooking for ten bucks and an hour’s wait.
Chicago pizza is thick; New York pizza is thin; Italian-style pizza yearns asymptotically toward the two-dimensional. The physical challenge this presents to the pizza chef is obvious—a step too far, and your crust has holes in it. But that’s a conceptually trivial problem; it requires only mastery of existing technique, not new thinking. The philosophical challenge is getting that kind of extreme thinness while maintaining flavor. Most Italian pizza passes over the palate as a ghost or a rumor: the sound of the teeth breaking through the crispy crust, the slippery sensation of hot melted cheese, and it’s gone. Craig Stoll (or some genius pizza specialist who’s subcontracting for him) has solved this problem. The pizza is as thin as anything made up of three vertically stacked layers can be: When it’s hot you basically pour the tip of each slice into your mouth like a liquid. But it warps time and space, like the chewing gum in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The thinnest sliver of Delfina’s pizza is as powerfully and elegantly flavorsome as a full deep-dish pie.
I am not a purist by nature, but I do stand foursquare against the tendency of this absurd culture to think adding more flavors necessarily improves a food item. In the two weeks since Pizzeria Delfina opened, I’ve tried almost all the varieties on offer (eschewing only the obscenely named Clam Pie), and I’d recommend that you get the margherita: just tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, and a little basil and parmesan.
The mozzarella cheese is described in the menu as “fresh-stretched,” a phrase I had to look up on the Internet. (More than half the hits refer to Delfina, which suggests that the Stolls made the term up.) Every day, Delfinians pour hot water over mozzarella curds and stretch them into cheese; the result has a purity of character usually found only in young children and trusty dogs. The crust is crisp and unsalty in that self-effacing way of Italian bread products.
But the sauce—the sauce is complicated. I will not attempt to reverse-engineer the sauce by pointing to a hint of whatever or a pinch of the other thing; that would be like trying to describe The Marriage of Figaro by observing that there’s an F-sharp in there somewhere. The flavors are so perfectly balanced and integrated that it’s hard to believe the recipe was invented; it seems more likely that it came into being over millions of years, like the Grand Canyon or the human brain.
There are other varieties of pizza beyond the margherita, and some are pretty good, but each in some crucial way distracts from what’s really important, which is the combination of the cheese and the sauce on the soft, slippery crust. The worst offender, and the only pizza that I think is really misconceived, is the Napolitana, which with capers, olives, and anchovies is essentially a saltfest unmeliorated by cheese. There’s the quattro formaggi, whose blend of cheeses might want to be fine-tuned a little; the sharper ones overwhelm the creamier ones. The broccoli rabe calzone is an enjoyable pouch of melty ricotta and mozzarella, but it’s also a missed opportunity to eat that tomato sauce and, as such, a small tragedy.
On the other hand, the pepperoni, available as an extra topping on any pizza, is a champ. The slices are a mere half-inch in diameter, in the Italian style, but they curl up into little saucers, each containing a few drops of orange grease in the American style. The taste is dark and salty and smoky and sophisticated, without the bro ad hamminess that would overwhelm the pizza.
There are a bunch of things to complain about: The pizzas are smaller than I’d like, and the crusts extend too far toward the pizza’s center, which means that some of the slices consist of a tiny little triangle of sauce and cheese attached to a big handful of bread, and the amount of table space is absurdly small, but if you get one of the sidewalk tabl es or order the pizzas to go, they’ve cooled off that crucial few degrees by the time you get to them, and even though it wouldn’t be appropriately Italianate, they should sell big slices to walk-in customers for a few bucks. But it would be churlish, confronted with perfection, to complain too loudly.