Hot. Very, very hot.
Six years ago, I got to write one of my favorite pieces about this fair city of ours for Where magazine about long-standing San Francisco restaurant families. I interviewed the Sanciminos of Swan Oyster Depot, the Chans of Yank Sing, the Mechettis of the Gold Spike (it was still open in 2005), and the charming Bermejos of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant. Each story was such a powerful one, of hard work, immigrating to a new country, vision, tenacity, family. So it was with great sadness I learned that the effervescent and ever-in-motion Tommy Bermejo of Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant has suddenly passed. I know many people are raising many glasses of tequila right now, saluting this delightful, big-hearted man, and his wonderful family. Sincere condolences to the Bermejo familia.
So, it’s Friday. Review time. I didn’t intend to write about yet another place with rules and not your usual front-of-house experience this week, but here we are at Una Pizza Napoletana in SoMa.
It bears mentioning my personal rule of thumb about reviews on tablehopper: I only write a place up if I could recommend it to a good friend. And in the case of UPN, the pizza really is one of the best in town, so I’d tell any pizza-loving friend they have to go and check it out. But on the flip side—like I’d tell my friend—there are a number of components to the experience that make it really challenging (namely, the wait), and one visit drove me borderline insane. I’ve eaten there three times, and it has totally been a reenactment of the three bears: one time the wait was incredibly short, one time it was ridiculously long, and one time it was just about what I’d expect. In the end (like it always is), it’s up to you to decide if you want to spin the UPN roulette wheel and see how long you’ll wait (and how you’ll be treated) for the payoff of an utterly delicious pizza.
It’s time for a Tommy’s margarita.
My sister and I are sitting at a tiny little table at UNA PIZZA NAPOLETANA, and our pizzas both land in front of us. Mine, the margherita; hers, the filetti (more on what that is in a sec). The smell of tomato, basil, hot cheese, and smoke starts rising up. We gleefully grab our forks and knives, and start cutting into the pies. The first bite, full of creamy cheese; the second bite, tangy tomato, charred crust, and salt. A texture that makes you want to shove the whole thing into your mouth at once.
We start grinning at each other madly.
We’re both instantly transported back to Italy. She, remembering her trip to the Amalfi coast with our father; me, with my cousins in Calabria, eating at their favorite late-night place in the mountains. We trade pizzas halfway through, not talking too much since with each passing minute, the heat escapes from the magical disco volante (flying saucer) that somehow cruised in hot from nine time zones away.
There was so much buzz about this place when it was opening, the famed pizzaiolo, Anthony Mangieri, closing up his shop in Manhattan to come to San Francisco and reopen his spartan pizza spot on a desolate stretch in SoMa (fortunately Bar Agricole is just down the street, so it’s not that lonely). He’s been called a god of pizza. And it’s not too far from the truth: he has that necessary maniacal focus on one thing to attain a level of perfection and pure mastery of the craft. (Just watch this video and see.)
I have visited three times since he opened, and if it wasn’t such a nightmare to get fed here, I would have quadrupled that number of visits by now. It’s a quirky place, sometimes bordering on completely maddening, and admittedly, I have found quite a few things off-putting. Let’s start with the first thing you’re greeted with: a metal gate around Anthony’s pizza-making stand, a stage of sorts, but creating enough separation that you feel like you’re watching a rare creature in its cage. Which is kind of apt. Or, are we the cattle that need to be separated from the rancher? The effect is a bit disconcerting. And certainly chilly. And guess whose patience might be sent to slaughter this evening?
When the business first opened, everyone had to wait outside on the cold and breezy street, lined up in a polite and subservient queue. Now, you’re actually allowed inside to mill around the entrance and watch the pizza-making process, or sit on a few hard benches by the bathrooms (you should be so lucky). One night I actually got there toward the end of service and walked right in—and hallelujah, they weren’t out of dough.
Don’t even think about writing your name down on the clipboard at the “host” stand (I use quotes because hosting seems to be lost in translation here). Anthony’s wife, Ilaria, is the one usually in charge of writing people’s names down and getting them seated—my poor friend got nastily snapped at when she was misdirected by other waiting guests to write her own name down. So, uh, don’t do that—this isn’t Brenda’s. I actually don’t know why she’s hosting here—she’s quiet as a stone and reminds me of so many of the sullen girls when I lived in Italy who look so bored with everything and just wish you’d go away (the result of years of having men chase them mercilessly, I suppose). I miss the friendly hostess who was here when the place first opened—she was a delight, and handled the long line of waiting guests with ease (and warmth).
But you want to know what’s funny? Anthony looks like he should be all kinds of surly, tatted up to his neck, wiry like most bike messengers in town, but he’s actually a nice guy. Kinda friendly. Happy to answer questions. You just have to take a leap of faith and engage him—otherwise he’s intently staring down at his pizzas, pressing his dough into shape, and poking at the oven.
One Thursday evening we had what we thought was the bright idea to go get a drink down the street while waiting for our table. #FAIL. Upon our return (admittedly 10 minutes over the suggested half an hour wait), we were flatly informed we were out of luck, we missed our spot. After pleading our case, we were put at the end of the list, and literally got the very last pizzas of the night. Almost three hours after we had originally signed in. By the time our pizzas finally arrived, our blood was boiling. Hangry is not colorful enough a term to express our state. The pizza was almost a bitter pill to swallow at that point.
And just because you’re seated, the wait isn’t over, amico. Anthony can only make three pizzas at a time, so it will take a while to even get your order brought over to the cage. Take note: if you’re a table of four, only three of you are going to get your pizzas at the same time (maybe). I really advise coming as a twosome—it’s easier all the way around (and you’ll get through the line more quickly). And if they ask you if you want your pizzas at the same time, say no. Just split that damned thing as soon as it hits the table.
More advice: drink some wine. A bottle. Because you’re going to be sitting there festering for a while. There are some unusual and hard-to-find wines from Campania on the list, like the ‘09 Lettere from Cantine Federiciane ($8/$32), a refreshing fizzy red (served chilled) that goes remarkably well with the pizza. I have it each time. Shame I didn’t have any salumi with it while I was watching my fingernails grow. Oh wait, there isn’t any salumi. Would you like a salad before your pizza? Well, tough luck, you’re not getting that either. Either of these appetizers would make for a much nicer dining experience while you’re sitting there watching other people eat, but this place would rather keep it simple than make you happy. How simple? Here’s the menu: 5 pizzas, 15 wines, 3 beers, 6 sodas, and espresso with a chunk of Neapolitan chocolate. I was kind of shocked they took credit cards, to be honest. But when a pizza is $20 a pop, well, good thing they do.
Speaking of the $20 per pie price, some people are like, “What, for bread, tomato sauce, and cheese?” But those people are completely missing the point. When was the last time you ate somewhere, and the pizzaiolo was the only one making one thing the entire time, carefully and lovingly assembling each and every pie? Tending the sky blue, wood-fired brick oven, feeding it, maintaining the necessary temp to cook the pizzas in the magic two minutes. Let alone the intensive process he goes through to make his naturally risen dough for each day of service, a two-day process. It makes for an incredible consistency of product: when Anthony is away, the place closes. And when he runs out of dough, the roller door comes down—it’s not like he can suddenly whip up some dough.
As for the ingredients, well, of course, they’re excellent. Top freaking shelf. Fresh and sweet mozzarella di bufala, DOP San Marzano tomatoes imported from Italy, Sicilian sea salt, and pure flour. Plus a golden flourish of extra-virgin olive oil that he pours out of a classic Italian oil can.
The crust is downright captivating—it’ll make you insane, like some bad girlfriend or boyfriend who knows what you like. It’s smoky, it’s chewy, and elastic, and has a salty-sweetness to it—a dream showcase for the clean ingredients that meld into it. The char will end up all over your fingertips and napkin—even the next day, the smoke lingers on your dominant hand.
The margherita, of course, is where I always start with any pizza place. Here, it’s a benchmark for our city of what a true Italian margherita tastes like. Pure ingredient alchemy. The filetti, with fresh cherry tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, the twang of garlic, and little whispers of salt, is a pizza I have ordered twice. It’s a richer pizza, a bit more decadent. But my new favorite is (oh, irony) the Ilaria ($22), made with smoked mozzarella, cherry tomatoes, and fresh arugula. Your other choices are a marinara (no cheese), or a bianca (no tomato)—but to be honest, I just can’t bring myself to order those pizzas. Until I get diagnosed as lactose intolerant, I gotta have cheese and tomato. Together. Actually, the night we had our table BS to contend with, we tried to order a third pizza, but they cut us off (hey, I tried to write about the marinara!). At least our server offered us a complimentary top-off on our glasses of wine.
It’s utterly frustrating: this place compresses you like a piece of coal. Tests your patience like some trial out of the Bible or a mythological tale. The attitude is this: you are so damned lucky we will serve you this precious pizza, so take it or leave it. And in the end, the pizza is like a diamond on the table, so fricking perfect, the cheese (one of the four Cs) and oil glinting in the dim light. With each bite, it tries to erase your annoyance and impatience.
In a few weeks, the memory of the pizza is gonna be just like that rotten ex-boyfriend, calling you in the middle of the night, “Hey, you wanna come over?”
There is a part of me that bristles with this line on the postcard that came with our check: “Nothing more pure or honestly wholesome can be bought at any price.” All I can think of are some amazing artisans who work their asses off, but would never pronounce something like this in their bakery or cheese shop—they just do it. They make their product, and don’t need to verbalize the rarity of their craft or product with such puffery.
So, there is some definite ego here. But then I’m like, whatever. This pizza kicks ass, and I salute the independent mofo who makes it. I appreciate his hours, nay, years of obsession, study, research, and craft. And to make something this excellent day in and day out, well, you gotta have some pride about it. So all we can do is hope some sense of hospitality will come here down the road. Maybe it never will.
Una Pizza Napoletana - 210 11th St. San Francisco - 415-861-3444