Earlier this year, I embarked on a quest to find the best Neapolitan pizza around. L.A.’s Pizzeria Mozza is my favorite, but in the Bay Area, that title currently belongs to Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur with Pizzaiolo in Oakland a close second. But after yesterday, Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco’s Mission District just squeezed itself into the number two slot.
I always like to start with the basics, so we ordered the Margherita pizza. The tomato sauce was a little bland, which was disappointing, and my wife said it could have used more fresh basil, as well. However, both the mozzarella and the crispy/chewy/salty crust were great and almost made up for these deficiencies.
Our other pizza was one of the daily specials, the Carbonara, which featured pancetta, leeks, Pecorino Romano and two runny eggs. Thanks to Pizzaiolo, I love eggs on pizza, but Delfina was able to ensure that the eggs covered the entire pizza so that there was a little in every bite. This pizza was perfect and sinfully good.
The Carbonara and Delfina’s pizza crust were enough to put Pizzeria Delfina just slightly ahead of Pizzaiolo in the pizza category. (To be fair, Pizzaiolo offers a much more diverse menu that includes fresh burrata, as well as some excellent pastas.)
Pizzeria Delfina’s in a great location about 4 blocks from the 16th Street BART station, which is good because finding parking was a big issue for us. But its 18th Street location means that it’s also sandwiched between the venerable Tartine Bakery and Bi-Rite Creamery, my favorite ice cream in San Francisco. Maybe next time we go to Pizzeria Delfina we’ll try one of their desserts, but with those two options nearby, would you blame us for asking for the check when we were done with our pizzas?
3611 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110 map
415.437.6800 Web site
We went back to Pizzeria Picco a couple weeks ago when my sister in law was in town. (She ate really well during her stay with us.) As we were enjoying their sublimely delicious pizzas, I was reminded that they also sell frozen versions of some of their most popular pies, so we bought a few (Marin, Cannondale, and Seven) so we wouldn’t need to drive to Larkspur for our next Pizzeria Picco fix.
You can tell by the black char spots in the crust that the pizzas are par cooked, so you only have to heat them up in a 500F oven for about 3 minutes…it’s that simple. The crust isn’t quite the same as a fresh pizza, but it’s still the best frozen pizza I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, the pics I took of the Cannondale came out blurry, but here’s what it looks like fresh from the oven at Picco.
We haven’t eaten the Seven (seven mushroom pizza) yet, but the Marin (roasted garlic, young potatoes, mozzarella, parmesan, rosemary oil) was nearly as good as the fresh pie. (This pic is also from one of our Picco visits)
I used to hate white pies, but between Mozza’s Bianco pizza and Picco’s Marin, I’m definitely a convert. Next time we go back to Picco, I think I’m going to stock up on the Marin.
My friend Maria was in town on business, which gave us another excuse to go to Ad Hoc. I learned there were some issues with the menu on this night. Originally, the main course was supposed to be veal osso buco, but by the time we arrived for our 9pm reservation, the main course was prime New York steak. Apparently the osso buco wasn’t up to standard and they made some changes on the fly. A coworker who had been there earlier in the evening said he was served pork belly and that they made the menu change after the first table had received their osso buco.
While I was bummed about not being able to get my hands on some osso buco, the steak was really good. But the revelation of the meal was the Heirloom Tomato Salad—thick, juicy, and meaty tomatoes with mixed greens and kernels of Brentwood corn.
Can’t wait to go back in August when my sister-in-law comes to town.
A couple months ago, my friend Steph asked me what was in Spaghetti all’Amatriciana, which just so happens to be one of my favorite Italian dishes. The minimalist combination of tomato sauce, fried pancetta and chili flake tossed with noodles (usually spaghetti or bucatini) is comfort food at its simplest and best.
I first fell in love with Amatriciana when it was a regular menu item at Buca di Beppo, the chain of kitschy, obnoxious, family-style Italian-American restaurants. I would have been happy replicating something similar to that version, but I was extremely pleased to see that Babbo Ristorante had posted their recipe online.
Mainly due to laziness and because guanciale is not the readily available at Safeway, I took a few liberties with the ingredients. I picked up a box of Trader Joe’s Italian Tomato Starter Sauce, which I felt was basic enough to use instead of making a batch of tomato sauce as outlined in the original recipe. I also picked up some chopped pancetta because I couldn’t find whole or sliced pancetta. You can substitute bacon in a pinch, but you’ll get a much bolder flavor than intended. (which can be good or bad depending on how you look at it…) I used bucatini (thick round noodle with a hole in it) for this attempt, but my wife’s not a big fan of bucatini, so next time I do this, I’ll just use regular spaghetti.
Overall, this dish was really easy to make and the final results were great. If you’re not into spicy food, then adjust the amount of chili flakes to taste. Also, the Trader Joe’s Starter Sauce is a shortcut I’ll gladly take when making this dish again.
Chef Charlie Halliwell is one of the many Chez Panisse alumns opening restaurants around the Bay Area, and his Pizzaiolo in Oakland’s Temescal District has quickly became a local favorite. After heaping tons of praise on L.A.’s Pizzeria Mozza and Larkspur’s Pizzeria Picco for their amazing wood-fired pizzas, I thought I should pay Pizzaiolo a visit since it’s much closer to home. Pizzaiolo has received its share of rave reviews, including a nod from San Francisco Chronicle food critic Michael Bauer and mentions in Food and Wine and Condé Nast Traveler.
Pizzaiolo is committed to supporting locally grown, seasonal, and organic meat and produce, so the menu changes daily based on what’s available. We decided to split an appetizer, a pasta dish and two pizzas for our party of three.
I was catching up on my podcasts today, listening to one of my favorites, KCRW’s Good Food with Evan Kleiman. I’ve been listening to Good Food for a few years now, and it’s exposed me to lots of new and different perspectives on food and eating, and influenced where I eat when I go home to Southern California. Kleiman also owns Angeli Caffe, a cozy Italian restaurant on Melrose Ave. in Hollywood, and I really wanted to know if Evan the chef was as good as Evan the radio host. I’m happy to report that she is!
On our first visit, we were seated by the front window and throughout the meal, I could see my wife’s darting back and forth, watching everyone that walked by. The guy at the table next to us said that sitting facing Melrose is like watching television.
When you walk into the restaurant, the first thing you notice is the open bread station and oven. It’s always comforting to know when a restaurant is making things in house. As we perused the menu, a plate-sized loaf of hot, freshly baked bread was immediately brought to our table. The bread was amazing…a bit salty, which was nice. It went well with the olive oil but was also wonderful on its own. I was tempted to order one of the pizzas after devouring the bread, but I’ll save that for another visit.
In the April 2006 issue of Gourmet magazine, Mario Batali declared the pizzas at Larkspur’s Pizzeria Picco “the best in the country—the margherita pizza is so good, it’s enough to make you cry.” That’s a big statement from Batali, who happens to own a few pizza places himself, including my own personal favorite, Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles.
Ironically, Pizzeria Picco first appeared on my radar when I saw a tantalizing picture Picco’s housemade salumi plate on Susannah’s blog, Amuses Bouche. Considering that Susannah and I share a love for Grimaldi’s Pizza in Brooklyn, Pizzeria Picco instantly joined our list of places we had to visit.
As luck would have it, my friend Nina Storey, an incredible singer/songwriter based in L.A., was in the Bay Area a few weekends ago to play a show in Larkspur just down the street from Picco, so our Friday night was destined to be great. The pizza was so good, we returned the next weekend with a friend (another Pizzeria Mozza fan) for more.
Picco specializes in authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas that are baked in a 900-degree wood-burning oven for around 90 seconds (but never exceeding 105 seconds). What results is a crust that’s crispy and still has bite to it, and I always love seeing the beautiful black spots of char on pizza. Combine that with fresh local ingredients, including a really nice housemade sausage, and you really can’t go wrong with anything you order. During our two visits we sampled four of their pizzas.
Marin (roasted garlic, young potatoes, mozzarella, parmesan, rosemary oil)
Pizza of the Day (sausage, tomato sauce, garlic, mozzarella, and wild nettles)
While all of these pizzas were excellent, the Marin was a standout and the only pizza we felt compelled to order on both visits. There’s just something about potatoes on pizza, and the rosemary oil added a depth and flavor that made us say “ooooh” while we were eating it. I haven’t been a fan of white pizzas until recently, but with the Bianco Pizza at Mozza and Picco’s Marin, let’s just say I’m officially a convert. The Pizza of the Day is probably my second favorite of the bunch and was as beautiful as it was tasty. It was a perfect combination of sauce, cheese, meat and veggies. This is to take nothing away from the Margherita or the Cannondale, which are great pizzas in their own right. In fact, the Margherita might be the finest cheese pizza I’ve ever had (if you think of a classic cheese pizza from your childhood that’s just tomato sauce and cheese).
Aside from pizza, the aforementioned salumi plate was another decadent treat. All the meats are made in house and feature lardo, salumi, soppresata, coppa, and mortadella. When our plate arrived though, the lardo was missing. We asked our server and she said that they didn’t include it because most of the time, it’s just left on the plate. She told us that she’d have the lardo brought out to us, and when it arrived, the chef that delivered it cheerfully thanked us for requesting it. It’s a shame that a majority of their customers seemingly have no appreciation for this beautiful fatty goodness.
We finished off our respective meals with some incredible soft serve ice cream. Normally, I don’t really go for soft serve, but when it comes from Straus Dairy, that’s a different story. We tried the chocolate soft serve on our first visit (because they were out of vanilla) and got it drizzled with some pumpkin seed oil and sea salt. The chocolate was rich and smooth and didn’t really need the other additives, although the sea salt was a pretty nice combo. The combination they’re famous for is the vanilla ice cream with olive oil and sea salt, which we got on the return visit, and it’s amazing. If you only come here once, that’s the dessert to get.
So is Pizzeria Picco the best pizza in America? That’s a really loaded question, and I’ll leave it up to you to decide for yourself. Personally, I still like Pizzeria Mozza a little better mainly because of the wider selection of high-quality toppings and the more diverse menu. My wife and friend also put Mozza ahead because they liked Mozza’s crust better than Picco’s. If we’re just talking about the Bay Area, I’d put Pizzeria Picco at the top of the list.
How long will it reign? I’ll let you know after I visit Pizzaiolo in Oakland.
320 Magnolia Avenue
Larkspur, CA 94939 map
415.945.8900 Web site
Since the mid 90s, the restaurant location on Melrose and Highland has been, for lack of a better word, cursed. Ever since the long-standing Emilio’s closed its doors, it’s been hard for another restaurant to gain a solid footing in that space. This changed in 2007 as both Pizzeria Mozza and Osteria Mozza, joint ventures by culinary luminaries Nancy Silverton (La Brea Bakery, Campanile), Mario Batali (Babbo, Iron Chef, Iconoclast) and Joseph Bastianich (son of Lidia and Mario’s business partner), look like they’re ready to set up permanent shop at this famous Hollywood intersection and transform Southern California into the West Coast epicenter of fine Italian cuisine.
Osteria Mozza was the third stop on our wedding anniversary eating tour, and we were excited about this new restaurant after our visit to Pizzeria Mozza, as well as the incredible meal we had at Batali’s flagship restaurant, Babbo, when we were in New York last May. Could Osteria Mozza possibly live up to our expectations?
If you want reservations, you need to call in advance up to one month before your desired dining date. I managed to get through after a few tries and got a 7pm reservation. (When I called for Babbo, it took me 4 hours to get through, and the only tables available were at 5:30pm or after 9pm.) We were 15 minutes early for our reservation and were seated on arrival. The room is dark with lots of espresso wood furnishings. The mozzarella bar is in the middle of the space, and it was nice to see Nancy Silverton back there working her magic. And while Mario’s influence on the cuisine is undeniable, Osteria Mozza really belongs to both Nancy and Executive Chef Matt Molina, a Batali protege who’s running the show at the tender age of 29.
On advice from our server, we started with two antipasti—grilled figs wrapped in pancetta and the burrata with bacon, marinated escarole and caramelized shallots served on crostini. The concept of pancetta-wrapped fruit is irresistable, and the grilled figs had a beautiful smokiness and sweetness that was incredible. The burrata was really nice, especially when accompanied by the smoky bacon, but the crostini was a bit hard, which made this a bit of a challenge to eat. Nonetheless, the melding of flavors and textures here was wonderful.
Our primi was the Orrechiete, an ear-shaped pasta served with fennel sausage and a light, delicious sauce. After one bite, I was beaming with joy. I actually giggled. The sausage was chopped fine enough so that it got trapped inside every piece of pasta and every bite was hearty and flavorful. This is the kind of dish that you would eat a bowl of on a cold, rainy night…sitting on the couch, wrapped in a blanket and watching a movie or sitting by the fire. This was definitely the the best dish of the night.
That’s not to take anything away from our secondi, which were delicious in their own right. My wife’s Monkfish was outstanding. It was served with a wonderful tomato-based sauce, greens and generous scoop of seasoned breadcrumbs on top that provided a crunchy complement to the tender, meaty fish. I ordered the Beef Brasato, a melt-in-your-mouth beef short rib that was served atop a polenta and horseradish gremolata. I have a bit of a love affair with beef short ribs, so this dish was basically perfect. The polenta was a little bland on its own, but once it soaked up the flavors from the meat, it was creamy and delicious.
For dolci, my wife ordered the Roasted Olive Oil cakes. Served with an olive oil gelato and some salt (maybe fleur de sel?), the cakes were like a mini muffin with a nice olive oil flavor. I didn’t taste the olive oil in the gelato, but my wife said it was very distinct and went great with the salt. I ordered the Bombolini, little round donuts served with lemon mascarpone and Fruiti di Bosco sorbet. The bombolini are similar to the malasadas you can find in Hawaii, only denser, and they have a wonderful creamy interior that’s a nice contrast to the crispy exterior.
Service was on point, much more efficient than the experience we had at Babbo. In fact, I’d say that it might have been too efficient. I’ve been starting to appreciate longer gaps between courses so that we can rest and savor the previous course before diving into the next one. It was nice not having to wait too long for our food, but if it had arrived five minutes later, that would have been fine too.
To say that Osteria Mozza met our expectations is an understatement. It was in many ways a much more satisfying experience than Babbo, which may have a lot to do with what we actually ordered. But when you combine the excellent service with amazing food, and the fact that L.A. is much more accessible than New York, Osteria Mozza comes out on top.
6602 Melrose Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90038 map
323.297.0100 Web site
At lunch, the dining room at Pizzeria Mozza is bright, sunny and bustling. It’s a relatively small space and Pizzeria Mozza’s popularity ensures that is always packed. It was apparent when we walked in that Pizzera Mozza isn’t your ordinary pizza joint. I mean, would you really expect the ordinary when Chefs Silverton and Batali join forces?
We started with Nancy’s Chopped Salad, an upscale take on the classic antipasto salad that featured iceberg, radichhio, garbanzo beans, grape tomatoes, red onions, mozzarella slices and some delicious salumi (I think from Mario’s dad in Seattle). I thought it was a bit overdressed, but it was still delicious, especially the salumi. I even took a couple bits and wrapped it around the skinny, crunchy breadsticks that are on the table.
I ordered the Bianco Pizza (three cheeses and sage) and added some sausage to it (a tip from my favorite food writer, the LA Weekly’s Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Gold). The fennel sausage at Pizzeria Mozza is the most heavenly Italian sausage I’ve ever had, and it complimented the cheeses perfectly. My only complaint was that the middle of the pizza was really oily, probably due to the thin crust and all the cheeses, but the pizza was still really good. Find a way to get some sausage on your pizza, even if it means adding it as an extra. My wife’s squash blossom, burrata and tomato pizza was fantastic. The toppings were really fresh, especially the burrata (mozzarella mixed with cream), and the crust was perfect…no sogginess to report.
We finished off the meal with a gelato/sorbet combination (3 choices for $7). We had chocolate hazelnut and caramel vanilla gelatos, along with the Frutti di Bosco sorbet (strawberry, blueberry, raspberry blend). The vanilla was okay, but the chocolate hazelnut mixed with the fruity sorbet was sinful.
If it wasn’t for the soggy pizza, Pizzeria Mozza would definitely get five stars, but I really want to go back. There’s so many things on the menu I want to try.
UPDATE: We’ve been back to Mozza several times since this first visit, and I really love the creativity of the pizzas, especially the fresh and sometimes exotic toppings. This is more than enough to warrant a half-star bump for a full five-star rating.
641 N. Highland Ave.
Los Angeles, CA 90036 map
323.297.0101 Web site
In the world of celebrity chefs, Mario Batali was never really one of my favorites, but I always respected his culinary skills (especially on Iron Chef America) and appreciated the joy he gets bringing “authentic” Italian food to the masses. But on our last trip to New York in May, the one place everyone kept telling us to go was Mario’s flagship restaurant, Babbo.
Because of its popularity, getting a table at Babbo is challenging. They take reservations 30 calendar days in advance, and when I called, the phone was busy for hours before I got through to a reservationist. The only seating times open were 5:30 and something after 9pm, so we took the early seating.
We arrived for our 5:30pm reservation and were seated upstairs, which I think is preferable to the darker downstairs because the sun was still out and brightened up the room through the enormous skylight. We fell for the old antipasti, primi, secondi” format of dining, which was fine because it let us sample a lot of the menu. We ordered three antipasti, one primi to split and we each got our own secondi. Our menu consisted of:
Asparagus “Milanese” with Duck Egg and Parmigiano
Warm Lamb’s Tongue Vinaigrette with Chanterelles and a 3-Minute Egg
Grilled Octopus with “Borlotti Marinati” and Spicy Limoncello Vinaigrette
Maccheroni alla Chitarra
with Oven Dried Tomatoes, Red Chiles and Bottarga di Muggine (Grey Mullet Roe)
Barbecued Skirt Steak with Asparagus “alla Piastra” and Salsa Verde
Roasted Veal Loin coiled in Sage and Housemade Pancetta and served with Caramelized Cauliflower (the nightly special)
Tilefish cooked with Pancetta and Giant Leeks
Of the antipasti, the grilled octopus was the standout. It was charred perfectly but had a sweetness to it that was an amazing combination. The asparagus was thick and it was perfectly cooked (you know how most restaurants overcook asparagus so that it’s limp and mushy? NOT here.) The lamb’s tongue was good, very tasty, and not as weird as it sounds.
The highlight of the meal might have been the primi. The Maccheroni alla Chitarra was at once spicy, salty and sweet (leaning towards spicy) and it was amazing. This was split between the three of us, but I was longing for a whole bowl all to myself.
After an amazing first two courses, the secondi were all just pretty good, but nothing really amazing. My wife liked her fish but wasn’t blown away by it. Our friend’s skirt steak was good and the pesto sauce it came with was really nice, but she ordered it medium well, so it was a bit chewy and probably would have been better cooked medium rare or medium. The veal loin wrapped in pancetta was probably the best of the three (I mean, it was wrapped in pancetta!), but I think that sans pancetta it would have been average.
Things picked up again for dessert. The warm chocolate cake was served with a hazelnut gelato that was amazing. The blueberry/coconut crostata with buttermilk gelato was awesome and by the blueberries tartness, you could tell that they were fresh. The warm pineapple cake was extremely sweet, but it wasn’t overpowering and a nice contrast to the other desserts.
Presentation of all the dishes was gorgeous, as it should be at a place like this. I have to say that one dish caught my eye multiple times as it made its way across the room…the deconstructed osso buco for two. It smelled great and looked like a lot of meat for just two people. I really think it could feed four.
I didn’t give Babbo five stars mainly for our lackadaisical service. There were times where we were just sitting there (waiting to order, waiting for our plates to be cleared, etc.) and I thought our server could have been more on the ball. Maybe he was gawking a bit because Luke Wilson was dining with a lady friend on the other side of the room, but that’s really no excuse. Otherwise, we had an amazing meal, and I would defintely go back to Babbo if I had another opportunity.
Babbo Ristorante e Enoteca
110 Waverly Pl,
New York, NY 10011+9109
212.777.0303 Web site