By Paul Reidinger
"IN GERMANY" my young German friend was saying, "if you go into an Indian restaurant, the people doing the cooking are from India, or if it's a Turkish restaurant, they're from Turkey. Here it doesn't matter what kind of food it is, the cooks are all from Mexico or Central America."
I wondered about that while he paused for a sip of white wine a glass of fairly buttery Falanghina ($5.75), from Campania and a bite of the pizza we were sharing, which was surprisingly excellent. Or maybe not that surprising, since we were sitting in Pizzeria Delfina, whose owner, Craig Stoll, was all over the place, seating, serving, supervising, training his new staff, making sure the place's early days (it opened in mid-July) are good ones. Opening a restaurant is like laying a linoleum floor or raising a baby: Those first moments determine much of what will come after. So the strong beginning is highly desirable, highly sought-after, and perhaps essential.
Were the pizzeria's peel-wielding chefs native to, or descended from natives of, one of our hemisphere's many Spanish-speaking lands? It was difficult to tell in all the blurring, though pleasant, commotion; Pizzeria Delfina is, among other things, an echo of the original Delfina (which, now expanded, is next door) in its narrow, hectic, youthful space. It is generally understood, though, that many of the people who actually do the city's restaurant cooking are of Mexican or Central American heritage, and this tends to be true whether the restaurant is Postrio or a Chinese take-out place operating in a storefront in the vague borderland between North Beach and Chinatown.
To help these people many of whom are immigrants or do not speak fluent English or both find their way through the labyrinth of San Francisco's restaurantland, the Mission Language and Vocational School operates a culinary school, the Latino Cuisine Culinary Academy, whose courses of instruction include cooking, baking, and restaurant management and, if appropriate, English as a second language. The academy, in turn, operates a breakfast-and-lunch restaurant, the Florida Street Café, that provides on-the-job experience and rather winningly emphasizes the academy's preferred cooking styles: California and Latino.
The lunch menu has a mishmashy quality like that of a potluck party. You could open with a tortilla salad ($4.75) of fresh, freshly chopped romaine leaves bathed Caesar-style in a thick, milky ranch dressing and nested in a deep-fried shell with guacamole, pico de gallo, and cubes of queso blanco before moving on to trout papillote. Fish cooked in paper seemed a little grand for the moment; we drifted away from the papillote, heading lazily downstream toward the bottom of the menu, where we found such stalwarts as an excellent Cuban sandwich ($6.25) and a well-seasoned turkey cheeseburger ($6.25). The former consisted of roast pork loin and ham slices on a soft baguette, with pickles, Swiss cheese, hot mustard, and crisp home fries on the side. The latter had a little less personality, as is often the case with turkey burgers, but that and everything else washed down nicely with watermelon aguas frescas in which we detected a nippy undertone of cucumber, one of watermelon's closest relations.
The setting, an airy, dimly lit box of a room, could be a hotel restaurant in a Graham Greene novel set in the sleepy capital of some politically unstable, postwar, backwater land. Table service is efficient and correct (water glasses refilled without asking, et cetera), and the kitchen swiftly responsive. There is also sidewalk seating, which has the effect of reminding one how appealingly warm, sunny, and unwindy the Mission's weather is, particularly when it is cold, windy, and foggy in other, more high-end neighborhoods. ("Sunny" Noe Valley!) Over at Pizzeria Delfina the splendid summer weather has also been noted and a sidewalk-café scene set up; with Tartine at one corner, Pizzeria Delfina, Delfina, and Bi-Rite in the middle of the block, and the Dolores Park Café at the other corner, that passage of 18th Street now is like one of those stretches of Melrose just west of La Cienaga.
There is, for me, a powerful confluence of memory around the combination of good, thin-crust pizza and good Italian beer and Pizzeria Delfina actually has Peroni's Nastro Azzurro ("blue ribbon"), which is more or less the official beer of Rome, though Romans enjoy it on tap while we must make do with bottles. But the blistered excellence of the pizza has a way of erasing such minor indignities. A salsiccia pie ($13.25), lightly swabbed with a sanguinous tomato sauce and dotted with bits of house-made sausage exhaling a strong perfume of fennel, could easily have been served to sing-song acclaim at one of those trattorias where Neapolitans and Romans so festively gather on warm summer evenings. Instead it came to us, at lunch, in the Mission, and I made no complaint and heard none, even if we were seated inside, amid a sleekness of blond wood, stainless steel, and chalkboards.
Like any American pizzeria worthy of the name, Pizzeria Delfina does a take-out business, and because an element of the place's identity is Lunch at Delfina (the mother ship has never served lunch), the menu also features various Tuscan-flavored lunchables such as pastas and bean salads. Yet Pizzeria Delfina is also open for dinner a useful factoid to have in hand in case a walk-in attempt on Delfina itself turns out to be mission: impossible.
Florida Street Café. 710 Florida (at 19th St.), SF. (415) 648-5227, mvls.org. Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-3 p.m. No alcohol. MasterCard, Visa. Not noisy. Wheelchair accessible.