Moving from bakeries to savories and then to chocolates and ice-cream the rest of my quick meals and ancillary bites during this visit to the Bay Area would run the gamut from $3 chocolates to a $20 pizza to a $48 chicken – some enjoyed with others, some by myself, and some saved as leftovers for the next day (or a late night snack.) Beginning first with the savories my first “food destination” after hopping off the plane and having lunch with my interviewer would be a place I’d unfortunately missed out on by literally 20 minutes during a previous visit to New York City – a place that likely needs no introduction to those interested in pizza or haute-cuisine; Una Pizzeria Napoletana.
Owned and operated by famed pizzaiolo Anthony Mangieri – a man so dedicated to his craft that he imports everything in his pizza (rumor has it even the water) from Italy I have to admit that my expectations walking in the door were high – much like my visit to Great Lake in Chicago or Lucali in Brooklyn I simply wondered how much better his product could be than the competition in order to justify a ~16 hour work week, a line-up before opening, two hour waits for a table, and $20 per pie with no modifications allowed. Sure I’ve never been to Italy, but I have to say I’ve had some great pizza at less cost and far less hassle, but arriving 15 minutes before opening I actually managed to nab free parking and was fifth in line when the garage door lifted and the doors were unlocked.
Entering the former garage and greeted first by one of three servers and then Mangieri himself I have to say that although a bit sparse I actually have to give the team at UPN some credit for the design – minimalistic to be sure with the handmade turquoise oven dominating the center of the room, but incredibly appropriate for the restaurant’s “Pure and Honest” theme. Confirming my seating was for one I was given my choice of seats and opting for the back corner so I could watch Mangieri work I browsed the menu for a mere moment before placing my order; to be quite honest the menu is short and I was there for the Margherita.
With Mangieri chatting up a table of regulars it would be mere moments before my water was full and essentially the second my order was placed the chef stepped up to his counter, washed his hands, and gently picked up a ball of dough – first kneading it, then spreading it, topping it, and placing it delicately in the oven. Astutely watching the temperature of the oven while he worked and frequently rotating my pie the experience was quite like that at Lucali but in broad daylight and less than ten minutes later the still bubbling (uncut) pie was resting before me with the air perfumed by basil and tomatoes.
Working with utensils first so as not to burn my hand (or mouth) and cutting through the crust my first bite of the pizza was precisely what I expected – the tart sweetness of San Marzano tomatoes, the slight funk of authentic buffalo mozzarella, a tinge of salt, and poignant notes of basil – it was precisely what I expected and it was sitting atop a crust that is rivaled only by Lucali in my experience for best ever – crisp yet toothsome and robust with the naturally leavened pockets smoky at times and sweet at others…truly remarkable with the center largely liquid and the outer ring just short of crunchy.
With plenty of time before dinner and tables still open I took my time eating and with my carafe of water refilled before half empty service was excellent throughout – never did I feel rushed and watching Anthony turn out pie after pie one at a time was like watching an artist or musician compose a work of art. Overall a great experience and although perhaps not a “bargain” considering the $26.00 bill (after tax and tip) nor the best pizza of the trip (for someone who prefers a topping or two) a spot well worth visiting to see simplicity perfected.
While not complimented with enough time or co-diners to engage in another pizza-crawl (a la Brooklyn or Columbus) during this trip, a second mandatory stop during this visit to San Francisco was to another Mission favorite – this time the oft-raved Pizzeria Delfina; a location not only open 7 days a week for dinner but also open six days per week for lunch and featuring a wide variety of toppings and choices thereby making it far more accessible than Una Pizzeria.
Having heard excellent things about the small storefront but horror stories of the limited seating leading to waits greater than two hours I planned my arrival to Delfina well and having spent the morning wandering the Mission I walked up to the front doors mere minutes after 11:30am to find myself the first guest to arrive and greeted by a pleasant young woman I was told to sit anywhere I liked – the bar being the most logical option given the comfortable looking backed-stools and the opportunity to watch the kitchen in action. With a menu in place but my order largely pre-determined by my research I politely listened to a list of the day’s specials and hearing none that sounded better than my original target I made my selections and was left to nibble on the crisp grissini while sipping water and listening to The Shins and Band of Horses as the restaurant slowly filled to capacity.
With the small kitchen plainly visible through the array of fresh ingredients before me it was interesting to watch the cooks at Delfina in jovial spirits assemble my pizza and place it in the oven with other pies while chatting about work and life with their co-workers – a stark contrast to Anthony Mangieri’s zen-like approach days prior and with the smell of fresh herbs and yeasty dough in the air I grew more excited as I waited approximately fifteen minutes for my pizza to be baked, sliced, and served up hot and bubbling.
Considered by some publications to be the best pizza in San Francisco proper my selection of the Panna Pizza with added Prosciutto di Parma turned out to be an absolutely stellar decision and one of those fortuitous moments where something definitely lived up to the hype. Beginning first with a cracker thin crust with a small amount of bubbly char and blistered air pockets I’ll simply say that this is crust done right and while not as perfect as that at Una at the edges, actually better at the center where a slight doughiness held up well to the wet ingredients; a lovely amalgam of sweet yet mildly acidic tomato sauce and smooth and tangy cream plus fresh basil, sea salt, and shavings of both parmigiano and prosciutto – each in perfect balance.
Making short work of the $16 pie my server made her way back over to check in and see if I wanted anything else – an obvious “yes” to anyone who knows me and my love for Baba Au Rhum, in this case a seasonal selection entitled Baba Rum with Peach Sauce that arrived in short order as the cake was already prepped and stored in the refrigerator ready to be filled, soaked, topped, and served. Beginning first with the cake I will note that this Neapolitan-styled version of the French classic utilized a fairly open sponge to great effect allowing the dish to soak up a substantial amount of rum yet by filling it with cream and currants the team at Delfina actually managed to temper the booze quite admirably while a pool of reduced peach puree added a touch of sweetness that made everything all the more fragrant. Simple in presentation and light on the stomach despite its large size and flavor this baba proved to be a veritable bargain at $7, as well.
With the restaurant now full and a small line beginning to form my waitress returned surprised I’d finished the baba so quickly and declining coffee the check was presented as the soundtrack progressed to Radiohead – ironically “Everything in its Right Place” which is pretty much exactly how I felt about the food, style, and service at Pizzeria Delfina.
For my final pizza stop during this trip out west I found myself in the lovely (kinda) city of Berkeley shopping for used music and books and having heard good things about The Cheeseboard Collective and next-door Cheeseboard Pizza Collective I decided to stop in for a look. Beginning first with the Cheeseboard I will first say that although I’ve certainly seen a better selection of cheeses I don’t know that I’ve ever met people more interested in discussing their selection. With a largely local slant to the collection there were a number of “new-to-me” cheeses on display and while I admitted up front that I was not likely to buy much/any as I was flying out early the next day the young man behind the counter offered me countless samples and long (but not long-winded) descriptions of what he thought was most interesting; it was the kind of customer service that brings clients back and if I end up living locally I will undoubtedly return.
Moving past the cheese bar and excellent customer service I next decided to browse the breads and pastries as a potential dessert for my pizza and although there were many nice looking options none save for the Sticky Bun really jumped out at me after some of the other great pastries I’d had on the trip and knowing I had Knead in a cooler in the car for the next day’s flight I opted only for the Sticky Bun – a nicely prepared crispy whole wheat version with plenty of brown sugar and maple notes marrying with aromatic pecans and the buttery pastry.
Featuring only one (vegetarian) pizza per day my choice of a half “Fresh Corn, Onions, Chile Pasillas, Mozzarella and Feta, Garlic Oil, Cilantro, Key Lime Pizza” for $10 would unfortunately turn out to be much less impressive than either the customer service or the sticky bun and to be perfectly honest what I received was only a pizza in name but more accurately described as a really fresh (warm) salad served atop warm bread rather than crust; certainly better than the rocket pizza I was subjected to at Chez Panisse Café, but save for the sweetness of the corn and the intriguing kick of the lime balancing out the heat from the peppers definitely nothing to write home about and certainly not worth $10/half, organic or not.
Moving along in my exploration of some of the Bay’s most celebrated dishes another destination would be Zuni Café, a restaurant I’d passed on during my last visit for two reasons; the fact that I was lacking a co-diner and the fact that the only item that truly intrigued me was a $48 chicken designed for two (which in retrospect I guess is only one reason in the setting of someone who once ate a whole lamb shoulder at Zahav…but I digress.) At first planning to skip Zuni once again as I simply couldn’t justify the price or the portion as a snack and did not want to commit to a full meal it was with great fortune that literally a few weeks before flying out it became known to me that a friend had recently relocated to San Francisco from Boston – a friend, no less, well versed in clean eating and nutrition as it relates to bodybuilding (IE an expert in all the ways to prepare a chicken breast as a source of low fat protein, often at the expense of taste.)
With a long morning jog, wandering the Mission, and six innings at AT&T Park behind me (plus dinner plans at Commis at for 7:30) the plan was to meet Jeff at Zuni around 3:30pm – after the brunch rush but before dinner – and therefore reservations were reportedly unnecessary when I called to inquire, yet unfortunately when I arrived at the restaurant just after 3:00 and stepped up to the hostess stand I was told that it would be an hour before we could sit in the dining room but that seating in the front bar was available “immediately.” Slightly confused by this fact given the 3/4 empty space but not wanting to cause a fuss I stated that this arrangement would be “fine” and two steps later I found myself seated at a somewhat shaky table for two where I was greeted by our server, a young and entirely inattentive Hispanic man who dropped off menus and disappeared.
With Jeff running late due to a combination of traffic and parking and myself growing impatient due to the earth-mother next to me making strange requests for meal modifications to fit her children’s needs I seized the opportunity to hail our waiter the next time I saw him and requesting a glass of water I inquired as to whether I could place an order for the chicken then and have some bread – a toothsome cold sourdough served with creamy salted butter that I quite enjoyed but was careful to go easy on due to my rather aggressive dining agenda for the day.
With Jeff arriving moments after our order was placed and pleasantries exchanged our server once again appeared to fill our water glasses and on inquiring as to whether we would like anything while we waited for the chicken a quick perusal of the limited afternoon menu led to the decision of a shared appetizer – the polenta with mascarpone – and a coffee for Jeff…a coffee that would require a second request twenty minutes later and still arrive only perhaps ten minutes before the chicken.
With conversation flowing about everything from how we each ended up in town to the crazy world of sports nutrition it would be only perhaps fifteen minutes before our first course of the afternoon would arrive and although simple and rustic it truly was one of the best preparations I’ve ever tasted with the cornmeal a medium grain and perfectly textured balancing against the creamy mascarpone and just a touch of salt and cracked black pepper. A veritable bargain at $6 for two large bowls I would recommend this to anyone visiting Zuni without hesitation.
With the table next to us thankfully clearing out and the service stepping up a notch to keep water and coffee full the arrival of our main course, a dish considered by some to be the #1 “must try” dish in San Francisco, was announced by the hostess first rearranging our silverware to accommodate the plate and then by an aroma somewhere between sweet and savory, vinegar and rosemary, garlic and onion…and utterly enticing.
Described in the menu as “Roasted chicken for two with warm bread salad with scallions, currants, and pine nuts” but invariably more than the sum of its parts enough has been written about Zuni Café’s chicken to fill a book, but carrying such a hefty price tag I (and my friend, largely inexperienced with fine dining) can only say it is worth the price in precisely the same way Guy Savoy’s Volaille de Bresse en Vessie is worth nearly three times as much – it redefines any preconceived notions you may have about chicken being boring. Beginning first with the bird itself – uniformly succulent and wowing you at each turn with its subtleties the crisp skin was nearly shattering and briny yet lacking fattiness and grease while the flesh was so moist I could have been fooled to believe it was sous-vide. Moving on to the bread salad – at times crispy and others soaked with chicken drippings and olive oil – I absolutely loved the manner in which it augmented the chicken’s taste with the sweetness of currants poking through with one bite and then the bitter mustard greens with another all under the veil of occasionally spicy notes of black pepper bringing the marjoram, garlic, and onion to full attention.
Eating slowly as we chatted (and ooh’d and ahh’d) I first enjoyed a breast, then a leg, and then a thigh plus a substantial amount of the salad before I realized just how big the bird was and taking into consideration my plans for the evening I decided the better part of valor was to stop here – a gesture that provided Jeff with at least lunch and possibly dinner for the following day – and commending us on our effort the hostess collected our plate and returned it to the kitchen for packaging before returning and offering us dessert which we considered but declined and subsequently presenting the bill – a tab that really did not seem all that out of line given the quality and quantity of the food.
Having heard some people complain that Zuni is expensive for what it is; essentially food you could just as easily prepare at home I will note that while this may be true the fact of the matter is that I don’t prepare this sort of food at home very often and when I do it usually doesn’t taste this good. While service could certainly use a little work and I’m still uncertain as to why we were sat up front I can say without batting an eye that I’d absolutely go back to Zuni in the future to try some of their brunch and/or dinner items and all things being equal if I went back with my family I’d probably order a chicken to share once more.
With the supposed best chicken in San Francisco noted above my final savory snack during this trip would be perhaps the most famous pig in all of California – porchetta served by the son of a master butcher out of the side of a shiny silver rotisserie with wheels; a veritable Airstream of slow rotating pork (and some chicken too) whose aroma perfumed a circumference of at least 100 yards and drew a crowd of at least twenty before 8am on a Saturday with the line growing to perhaps fifty by 9:00.
Titled Roli Roti and seemingly as popular with locals as with tourists and as much with “foodies” as with people simply curious as to what that intoxicating aroma was all about I will go ahead and spare you the details of my early arrival and the subsequent wait only to say that while I was fortunate find myself fourth in line when the sandwiches went on sale in retrospect an hour or more may have been worth it. To say the least the sandwich was fantastic.
Beginning first with the bread – provided by ACME and sliced to order – the thick white roll was somewhat similar to thick French style crusty bread yet slightly more dense providing on one hand a chewy mouth feel and on the other plenty of sponge to sop up the plentiful juices. Moving next to the toppings – a tangle of baby greens, onion marmalade, and crunchy salt – a bitter/sweet and vegetal balance to the hefty pork. Finally, the aforementioned porchetta – juicy and robust yet surprisingly light given the thin cuts and full of flavor laced with crisp crackling skin…if there is a better way to serve pork I’ve yet to find it anywhere.
With savories, bakeries, and fine dining well represented another focus of my San Francisco snacking would be ice cream – an area where Humphry Slocombe still reigned supreme as my favorite ice cream of all time despite being from a place many consider to be one of America’s Ice Cream “capitals” in Columbus Ohio. Beginning first with the novel preparations of Smitten, a relative newcomer to the scene based on owner Robyn Goldman’s liquid nitrogen small-batch/from-scratch concept I arrived at the small…shed…late in the afternoon to find a small line. Taking my place in the queue and reading the signage about Smitten’s concept of “using only the freshest, purest, locally sourced and seasonal ingredients” while hoping that what they lacked in ambiance was made up for in taste I made my way to the front of the line where I placed my order, paid my $4, and proceeded to wait perhaps 10 minutes for my cone.
Seeing others receive their product before me – a selection of four rather standard flavors with some outlandish toppings including candied jalapenos – I had to admit I was excited when my name was finally called as everyone really seemed to love what they had ordered, yet when I finally received my selection of TCHO Chocolate on a pizzelle cone I was instantly of mixed emotions because although good and certainly chocolate I guess I expected more both in flavor and in portion. Beginning first with the ice cream – a bit of a misnomer as what Smiitten is serving is more like cold pudding in texture – the flavor was fine, but for $4 and a 25-minute wait I could have had twice as much ice cream (and two different flavors) elsewhere with less “technology” and just as fine of ingredients. Moving next to the cone – actually the star of the show – the hand made pizzelle was actually fantastic with a crisp exterior and just a bit of “chew” supporting the small dollop of ice cream. Overall it was worth the try and I’d consider going back to sample some of the more esoteric fruit flavors, but considering the quality of The Bay Area’s Ice Cream scene I most certainly wasn’t *sorry* smitten with Smitten.
Later in my travels a second ice cream stop would lead me to Berkley, land of Alice Waters, her Chez Panisse ethics, and expectedly the location of many of her disciples including Mary Canales, a 9 year pastry chef at Water’s famous flagship of sustainability who opened Ici in 2006. Again with a focus on the natural, fresh, and sustainable with small-batch product made daily I’d heard excellent things about Ici from a number of friends and with time to kill before dinner on the final day of my stay in Oakland I decided to pay the small shop a visit.
Arriving around 5:30pm to find a line of only two before me as a number of folks sat outside enjoying their ice cream I made my way into Ici and within moments was greeted by a young lady asking what I’d like. Still browsing I told her “just a moment” to which she responded “if there is anything you’d like to sample just let me know;” music to my ears – and sample I did despite knowing what I was going to order. Beginning first with Strawberry Balsamic Caramel and moving through Honey Rosemary and then Black Rice Coconut Sherbet each flavor proved to be totally unique, full-bodied, and perfectly balanced with the two ice creams harboring a lovely sweet meets savory interplay while the intensely creamy sherbet literally had the texture of cold butter.
Resisting the urge to sample each and every flavor but taking the opportunity to taste a chocolate almond dragee my actual order would consist of two large scoops on a buttery house-made chocolate-tipped waffle cone; the first Bourbon Salted Pecan and the second Maple Gingersnap – both intensely sweet, flavorful, and smooth with solid bits suspended in creamy organic milk and while the Maple Gingersnap was good (think Gingerbread man in ice cream form) the salted pecan was a revelation with flecks of fleur de sel adding a remarkable textural component to the already dazzling flavors. Overall an outstanding collection of Ice Cream well worth the trip to the East Bay and the sort of customer service and ethics that will certainly warrant future visits and samplings in the future.
Having already noted Slocombe, Smitten, and Ici plus spending substantial time in the Mission it seems only logical to conclude my comments on San Francisco Ice Cream (for now) with the most famous of all – Bi-Rite Creamery, an offshoot of the lovely Bi-Rite marketplace down the street and yet another purveyor of frozen treats made locally, sustainably, and with Straus Family Dairy milk.
Arriving at the small store just short of dinner time I found myself greeted yet again by a relatively short line of about ten and with four folks working the counter it would be perhaps five minutes before I found myself in front of the case being asked not what I wanted to order, but what I’d like to sample as though they read my mind. Again knowing what I’d come for but wanting to take a couple of tastes I started Balsamic Strawberry and Honey Lavender, the first a slightly tangy take on rich strawberry ice cream and the second reportedly created with organic dried lavender and honey that is gathered in Sonoma especially for Bi-Rite the profound sweetness honey suspended in cream with a faint top note of lavender that perfumed the sinuses more so than obscuring the honey; it was good enough that I almost changed my preconceived order and to an extent I wish I had – at least half of it.
Beginning first with the Salted Caramel – certainly Bi-Rite’s most famous flavor – the texture was expectedly creamy and the flavor rich and sweet, but overall I have to say it was simply too much salt and not enough caramel. Having tried myriad iterations of this classic (and still uncertain as to who did it “first”) the flavor of Bi-Rite’s option fit somewhere between the impossibly smooth and textural Salty Caramel of Jeni’s Splendid Ice Cream in Columbus and the Burnt Caramel of Toscanini’s in Boston and although excellent it was not as good as either overall. Moving next to the Ritual Coffee Toffee, however, I found what could potentially be my new favorite ice cream of all time – a dense admixture of Straus and Ritual teaming up to form a perfect latte flavor that was smooth as silk punctuated by crunchy bits of house made almond toffee that was sweet but not overly so, more acting to highlight the creaminess of the ice cream and the slight bitters of the coffee.
With a price slightly less than any of the competition I tried and the taste and texture every bit on par or better I can say that overall the Mission is certainly the place to be for Ice Cream these days and while I’ll admit my predilection for breakfast foods and sweets in general I can only assume that a scoop of Slocombe’s Secret Breakfast and Bi-Rite’s Ritual Coffee Toffee would be blissful.
For my final sweet bite of the Bay I would happen across a location based not in San Francisco, but rather in Kansas City, Missouri – Christopher Elbow Chocolates. Having read about and seen the American born chef’s work at such fine retailers as Dean&Deluca DC, Trotter’s to Go Chicago, and Le Chocoholique right here in Columbus but having never decided to indulge previously I decided to stop in to browse and having experienced some of the better chocolates here in the United States as well as in Paris I can say without a doubt that I’m glad I made that decision.
With the store itself rather minimalist – tablets, bars, and cocoa powders on the wall with a case of truffles and chocolates at the room’s center – I was greeted by a pair of young ladies while two couples sat in the small Jacques Genin-esque tasting room to the left chatting and enjoying their selections. With ambient music playing overhead and the store quite serene I took my time making my decisions and while browsing was offered first a piece of the Dark Almond No 7 “61% with ground roasted almonds” bar and then a $2 “Extra Dark – Bittersweet dark chocolate ganache” – both intense, smooth, and with deep floral notes giving praise to the cocoa’s Venezuelan roots.
Continuing to browse as a pair of young ladies stopped in to pick up some pate a fruit and chocolates to go I eventually made my decisions – 4 chocolates and a “liquid chocolate” to be enjoyed while I flipped through my e-mail via the store’s free wifi. Beginning first with the chocolates my selections included Tupelo Honey, Bananas Foster, Port Wine and Fig, and Caramel Fleur de Sel – the first two part of the summer seasonal collection and the second pair part of Elbow’s signature series – and each was wonderful, a perfect balance of the expected chocolate tones and the high quality ingredients contained within. Difficult to decide which was my favorite I would lean largely to the boozy selections as the rum and the port both really highlighted the nuances of the chocolate while still allowing the fruits to shine.
Moving on to the “Liquid Chocolate” described as Cocoa Noir 71% with milk (also available with water or as a white chocolate) with a thick spongy marshmallow on the side this $4.75 selection was equal to or better than the outstanding chocolates and with rich bitter notes punctuating the low cocoa tones the flavor reminded me very favorably (again) of Jacques Genin in Paris, though not quite as rich, creamy, and throat coating overall. Comparable to the dark chocolate hot cocoa at Cambridge stalwart LA Burdick and vastly more dense and nuanced than the raved versions Recchiuti I’d strongly recommend giving it a try because whether native to the area or not San Francisco is lucky to have one of only two Elbow storefronts and the style, service, and quality are every bit worth the price.