Stellar pies in a variety of styles, all baked in a troika of visible ovens
Carrying coals to Newcastle is hard work, so when we've finished up, how about some pizza to refresh ourselves? And where would we begin the search — North Beach, the Newcastle of pizza? No, too obvious. Chic pizza these days is found practically everywhere in the city except North Beach — in Dogpatch, in Glen Park, in the Mistro, and the Marina. Why would anyone go to North Beach?
Well, one good reason would be Tony's Pizza Napoletana, which has an air of Neapolitan or Roman authenticity that goes far beyond the pies themselves and is really unmatched in this respect by any of the newer places, despite their commendable pizzas. While I am not a huge fan of trying to recreate the foods and styles of other places — restaurants are not zoo exhibits, and the best way to have authentic food experiences is to travel to the places where those experiences are indigenous — Tony's is relaxed enough in look and atmosphere, and intense enough about the food, to become an authentic experience in its own right. It feels unforced and right, like a place that's been there forever yet is as fresh as if it opened yesterday. (It actually opened early in the summer in the longtime home of La Felce.)
One of the underrated joys of North Beach is the display of fabulous, oversized culinary apparatus — the kind of implements you could never have in your own home, unless you're Pat Kuleto. One example is the coffee roaster in the window of Caffe Roma, and another is the pizza oven — I should say, one of the pizza ovens, since there are three — at Tony's, which isn't in a window, but you can get a booth quite nearby and watch the action.
The oven of which I speak is gas-fired (no, not coal-fired, this isn't Newcastle) and has an attractive dome covered in a mosaic of red tiles. The oven's heat is steady and fierce, and as the clad-in-white pizzaioli — led by owner Tony Gemignani — wield their long-handled peels, you have a brief sense of men working in a foundry, except that what emerges from the heat isn't a sequence of gold ingots but of pizzas, and pizzas in a surprising variety of shapes and forms.
At most of the newfangled places, pizza takes its familiar form, as a yeast-leavened wheat dough rolled into a thin disk and topped with various combinations of sauces, cheese, vegetables, and meat before being baked. You might luck out and spot a calzone, in which the disk is folded over on itself to form a mezzaluna-shaped pocket. But nowhere else are you likely to find stromboli, a sort of pizza roulard in which the pie is rolled up into a log, baked, then sliced into rounds like a büche de Noel. Tony's Romanos Original 1950 version ($11) is stuffed with ham, pepperoni, sliced Italian sausage, sweet peppers, and mozzarella and American cheeses — and if that isn't rich enough, the crust acquires a pastry-like flakiness, perhaps from the rolling.
Also plenty rich-looking are the Sicilian-style pies, which are baked in square pans, like focaccia, and heavily laden with toppings. They look like party platters as they emerge from the oven and are rushed to large, clamorous tables of partiers. Smaller parties, though, can probably make do with the more svelte, conventional pies, among them the margherita ($18), which is probably the signature Italian pizza, and also Tony's, and is baked in a 900-degree wood-fired oven.
The margherita also is so simple that there isn't much maneuvering room. You have your crust, your tomato sauce, a few blobs of mozzarella, and some basil leaves. Not much to go wrong; not much to stand out, either. Tony's tomato sauce is tangy, the basil leaves lightly blistered but still basically fresh and fragrant, the coins of melted mozzarella like reflections of a full moon on the still surface of a pond. One's attention, then, is drawn to the crust, and it is gorgeous: a thin but not too thin mat, soft but not droopy and blistered just enough on the bottom to lend character. I would hesitate to say Tony's is the best margherita pizza I've ever eaten only because I've eaten so many good ones, and in part this must say something about the soundness of the recipe. I've never had a better one than Tony's, can I put it that way?
Since humans do not live by pizza alone — or bread (and the bread is excellent, with pesto, EVOO, and chopped garlic for dipping) — there is also a host of unleavened items on the menu, including pastas, small plates, and salads. An antipasto-style plate of white Italian anchovies ($10) couldn't be plumper, nestled on their bed of fresh arugula leaves like middle-aged, bleached-out snowbirds surrounded by palm fronds on a Florida beach in February while, nearby, lurks a clutch of Calabrese peppers — sort of like blood-red pepperoncini, sweet with a bit of bite. They could be snowbirds who've been in the sun way too long.
For a salad, how about spinach ($10) with pine nuts, goat cheese, slivers of red onion, a balsamic reduction, and EVOO? All immaculately fresh and nicely balanced, though the sweet-tooth found the balsamic a bit too sweet, and I thought the price was a little dear for what was, in the end, ordinary.
The sweet-tooth did like the chocolate truffle cake ($7 for a massive, ship's-prow slice), which was refreshingly not all that sweet. Sometimes it's best to carry fewer coals to Newcastle, particularly if the coals are sugary.
TONY'S PIZZA NAPOLETANA
Wed.-Sun., noon–11 p.m.
1570 Stockton, SF
Beer and wine