I’m a pizza snob. To me, a great slice of pizza is a work of art.
I grew up in New York, went to college in New Haven and used to think that the only pizza worth eating in America was on the East Coast.When I first came to the Bay Area over 15 years ago, there wasn’t much here to change my mind.
But San Francisco has experienced a pizza renaissance since then. So much so, that I would venture to say that we now have the highest density of world-class pizzerias per capita of any city in America.
Pizza Pleasure Scale:
With any burgeoning art scene, however, comes a lot of hype. Pizza is no exception. The industry has its fair share of charlatan pizzaiolos and bogus standards, which often have no relationship to how good the pizza actually tastes.
So how does one evaluate the worthiness of a slice?
I use something I like to call the Pizza Pleasure Scale, which has four parameters:
1) Crust. The crust is the foundation of a top-notch slice and tends to be the most difficult to get consistently right. Most artisan pizzas have a crust that’s too thick and doughy, which overwhelms the sauce and toppings. The best crusts have a combination of crispy and chewy, not crackery or doughy. Some have a touch of sourdough.
2) Sauce. I like a saucy pizza. My favorite sauces tend to be bright and acidic, although a sweeter sauce, which is a more traditional New York approach, can work as well. The quality of the tomatoes is key, but strictly using imported San Marzano tomatoes is not.
3) Cheese. High-quality cheese, made from happy cows, has a huge impact on pizza pleasure. Most mediocre pizzerias hide the imperfections of their pizza under mountains of bad cheese. Don’t be fooled. A great slice has just the right amount of excellent cheese.
4) Mouth Feel. More important than any individual element is how it all comes together. Each bite should be supremely satisfying. Balance is everything.
A pizza that scores a 10 on the Pizza Pleasure Scale gets all four of these parameters right, almost all the time.
Note that a pizzeria must be evaluated on the basis of its Pizza Margherita, or plain pie, first and foremost.
The Best Pizzas
There is no such thing as “the best pizza.”
There is substantial variance from day to day in any pizzeria. For example, oven temperatures can be difficult to maintain on busy nights (pro tip: avoid weekends for optimal pizza pleasure). And artisan pizzas are so different from each other that comparisons among them are meaningless.
There are a handful of pizzerias in the country that consistently score a 10 on the Pizza Pleasure Scale. Four of these are in San Francisco.
Here they are:
Photo credit: Pete Lee
This is what I call an American Neapolitan–style pizza, inspired by the traditional Italian style but with modern improvements to the crust texture, the quality of the ingredients and the balance. This crust has a strong sourdough flavor with a slight chewiness while also attaining a charred crisp. It has the perfect amount of sauce, which isn’t too sweet. Their pizza generates high pizza pleasure every time. The vibe here is appropriately hipster, and they can accommodate larger parties too.
This style is best described as California Neapolitan because of the cornmeal crust. Although traditional pizzaiolos consider cornmeal to be heresy, the reality is that, when it’s done right, it tastes wonderful, gives the slice structure and adds a supremely satisfying crumble to each bite. The sauce here is a bit sweet, but it complements the crust nicely. This place uses excellent local ingredients, has a charming atmosphere and is a great place for a date.
Photo credit: Prerna Gupta
Arinell offers a classic slice to rival that of any heralded slice joint in New York. The crust is neutral and surprisingly light and crisp, but it stands up perfectly to the cheese and sauce. As with any proper slice, it’s heavy on the cheese and features shredded mozzarella, but the ingredient quality is impeccable, as is the care with which each pie is prepared. In terms of mouth feel, this is pizza perfection. This place is standing room only, but it’s open late (by San Francisco standards), and you get an authentic Mission experience here.
Photo credit: Eric Wolfinger
Delfina’s pizza is a long-standing San Francisco favorite in the American Neapolitan style, which makes it worthy of its continued popularity. The crust has a slight sourdough tang and is perfectly light and airy on its best days. However, the quality of the crust varies, perhaps because the restaurant is often busy.
Pro tip:squeeze a touch of lemon on your slice! It brings out the flavors of the sauce and cheese.
Think I’ve missed an SF pizzeria that deserves a 10 on the Pizza Pleasure Scale? Let me know!