Thursday, April 7, 2011

Letter from Linguino (2): Guest Post from San Francisco

My dear Antoinette,

At long last, I am able to return to describing some of the other gastronomic delights that I encountered on my recent trip to SF. As I wrote in my first installment, despite having made an ambitious number of reservations at area restaurants, we ended up eating out only two other nights. One of those nights, we tried another new entry in the SF restaurant scene, Local Mission Eatery, which George had heard good things about. It is a small storefront place on 24th Street in, you guessed it, the Mission District, where something of a restaurant renaissance is in progress. We liked its rustic modern decor and youthful edginess immediately. It was lively and packed even though we were there in the middle of the week and early in the evening, which we took to be another good sign. We were escorted to the back, past thick wood shelves with cookbooks and plants in sconces (I think they are called "hipsters" now) decorating the brick wall on one side and past the open kitchen, bustling with activity on the other. We were seated at a high table on bar chairs, which afforded a view into the kitchen, as well as the back of the restaurant, which contained what appeared to be a shop or cafe and, behind a glass window, a bakery. The space, it turns out, is shared with the Knead Patisserie, closed when we were there, which produces the desserts for the Local and the pastries for the brunch offered on weekends.

All of the food, as it says on the menu, is "entirely local, humane, and homemade", and the various farms that produce the ingredients for all of the dishes are also listed on the menu (available on line). The menu is limited, but changes daily, depending on what is available from suppliers, and the food is all very fresh. We may have ordered the wrong dishes the night we were there, but we were slightly disappointed in the blandness of the farfalle with wild mushrooms and nettles, the squid, served with tiny cubes of butternut squash, black rice, fennel, and blood orange, and even the lamb meatballs, served with heirloom beans, chard, and goat cheese. Sounds like it should have knocked our socks off, right? But didn't. We did love the asparagus soup, the chocolate pain perdu for dessert, and a local beer from Napa (Napa Smith) that was sweet and nutty and a better value than the wines by the glass from the same area. Sadly, the much-touted Four Barrel french press coffee also only seemed to be firing on two barrels that night, so we went home a little disappointed and not sure we would go back.

Not to worry, though. The next night we went for pizza which, as you know, is one of the major food groups as far as my friend George is concerned. He has been known to fly clear across the country for a slice of his favorite pizza (which used to be Ray's when we were in grad school, now "Ray's Famous" with several locations in Manhattan and not quite the same). But this time, George's favorite pizza had flown across the country to him! George had been telling me about a place that had opened in SF just after my previous visit last year called Una Pizza Napoletano, which had actually first opened in 2004 in the East Village in NYC but had moved to SF last year to George's delight. It is located in the warehouse district of SF at 11th and Howard Streets in an industrial-looking, high-ceilinged room, devoid of decoration and devoted entirely to the pizza.

You MUST check out the website and watch the videos to get the real flavor of the experience. The whole place is like entering a shrine or cathedral to the purity and perfection of pizza, with Anthony Mangieri, the proprietor and master pizza-maker, the pizza priest. As you walk in, there is Tony (as his devout followers affectionately call him), behind the marble-top altar, separated by a metal railing from his flock (who regularly form a line out the door, waiting for a table), lost in concentration, with every visible inch of his skin covered in tatoos, expertly shaping the crust and assembling the 12-inch pies that he then carefully places one at a time in the blue-tiled, beehive-shaped wood-fired oven behind him. Tony has dedicated his life to pizza-making, and imports all of his ingredients (and I do mean ALL) from Naples (Italy). From the flour for the dough to the olive oil and buffalo mozzarella, he says that he has been unable to find anything up to his standards anywhere else. He is such a perfectionist that, as he tells the story in the video entitled "Obsessives: Pizza", he actually tore down the first brick pizza oven he had built in his NYC location because it wasn't heating evenly enough and rebuilt the whole thing from scratch. The first video, entitled "Naturally Risen", (with obvious allusions to the religious atmosphere that Una Pizza evokes), shows the meticulous method by which Tony makes his pizza, all set to appropriately spiritual-sounding music. But the other two videos available on his website, "Pure & Simple" and "Obsessives Pizza", tell his story in his own words and give you a real appreciation for what this guy puts into his pizza-making.

So, what about the pizza itself? Well, I have to say that the crust, which is the real focus of Tony's craft, is the best I have ever tasted. It was substantial and chewy, but light enough that one person can easily consume an entire 12 inch pie without regreting it. There was a delicious and distinctive, but not over-powering, wood oven flavor to it, and the crust was crunchy and stood up to the sauce without being either sogged or brittle. Tony is a minimalist and, as he explains in his videos, does not believe in a lot of fancy toppings. So, he has only four pies on the menu, all with essentially the same ingredients in varying combinations. The sauce, cheese, olive oil, tomatoes, arugula, and salt were all fresh and blended together perfectly. It was like a gastronomic version of a great performance of a Mozart or Haydn symphony, in which you can hear each instrument distinctly but the total effect is both balanced and perfectly blended and nuanced. Ironically, though, Tony's extra-ordinary crust is one of the few that really could stand up to a greater variety of toppings with even stronger flavors, so I was a bit sorry, after sampling the four pies that we ordered for four of us, that there wasn't more choice on the menu. However, that was my only complaint, and I am longing, as I write this, for another of Tony's perfect pies right now!

That's it for this installment. I will send my third and final one later. But first I need to eat something!

Regards from your faithful correspondent and friend,


Local: Mission Eatery on Urbanspoon

Una Pizza Napoletana on Urbanspoon

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