Observations on Food in the Bay Area
(last updated 08.11)
Sooner or later, I had to start this one, so it may as well be now. Pizza, like burritos, is one of life's perfect feel-good foods, when done right. Unfortunately, far too many out there just don't do it right. For something so reasonably simple, consisting mainly of bread, sauce, cheese, and toppings, it's amazing how many opportunities there are to completely ruin the final product.
The most important aspect to really truly get right is the sauce. How often do you run across a pizza whose flavor is just bland? And then there are those pizza places that can pull you in from a block away, the aroma is just that good. It's almost all in the sauce. The most fascinating thing to me is how many pizza places smell fantastic, yet the flavor of the pie itself doesn't live up to the aroma. After sauce, the crust and cheese are pretty much equal in importance - how buttery? too greasy (think Pizza Hut)? bland or flavorful? Is the cheese just perfectly melty, or has it been burned to a brown, hardened, ruined crisp? Toppings really aren't a problem, beyond being fresh and of good quality, unlike the oft-encountered 'rabbit-turd' sausage you find at such quality establishments as Dominos. hah.
On to the ratings!
The Best of the Best
Zachary's Chicago Pizza, in Berkeley and Oakland
#1. The single best pizza I have ever had the intense, excruciating pleasure to enjoy. The sauce is the perfect combination of fresh, chunky tomatoes, oregano, and various other spices. That astounding aroma that has you drooling for the entire time you await the arrival of your perfect pizza, and keeps the 2 restaurants perpetually full? The pizza is even better. This is not a place where the pie doesn't live up to the standards set by your nose. The crust is fantastically flavorful, with just the right mix of soft in the middle, crunchy around the edges, and pleasantly buttery. Perfectly cooked everytime, this is Chicago Pizza. While my friends from Chicago will claim that it's not quite as good as the originals - Gino's East and Pizzeria Uno (not the chain, dear god no), non-Chicagoans I know who've had all of the above say they think Zach's is the superior pie. I really can't praise it enough. Bow, scrape, and prostrate yourself to the altar of this pizza!
A couple of notes: first, I speak only of the deep-dish. While Zach's makes ordinary thin-crust pie as well, it's not what anyone in their right mind goes there for. Second, some pizza purists who believe that New York style is the be-all, end-all of pizza may attempt to discredit Zach's for not being "pizza". Personally, I don't care what you call it. Some reviews I've seen describe Zach's as a "cheese pie", which is actually remarkably accurate. So to you East Coast pizza dorks I say, call it what you want, but recognize the brilliance. Finally, to those of you who think that Pizza Chicago represents authentic Chicago style pizza, well, you're wrong.
I'm amused to note that in the '04 Zagat survey, Zachary's was rated the 20th most popular restaurant in the entire Bay Area. Um. I can't even guess how many (tens of?) thousands of restaurants there are around here, and Zach's beat all but 19 of them. Yeesh.
And in a remarkable tie for first place,
Patxi's Chicago Pizza, in Palo Alto
#1. See the review
While I haven't yet had a pie there that was quite as perfect as the pie at Zach's (largely because I've, for various unfortunate reasons, ended up having nothing but pepperoni so far, which is a bit too salty for my taste) the pie I have had has been very, very nearly as good, and the wonderful bar, great beer and wine selection, and how fantastically friendly the staff has been on every occasion has combined to equal everything out. Unlike Zach's which is perpetually over-full, Patxi's doesn't rush you through your dinner, but lets you relax as you over-stuff yourself. Treat yourself tonight, and if you do, say 'Hi' for me.
Marcello's Pizzeria, across from the Castro Theatre in SF
The best New York style pizza I've found in the Bay Area. Possibly the only other pizza joint from Zach's where the flavor lives up to the expectations set by the aroma - their sauce is fantastic. And for those of you who like lots of weird crap on your pizza, they're quite willing to accomodate. Avoid the Sicilian style - it isn't bad, but it's nothing compared to the thin crust. As a final bonus, they deal in slices and are open until 1 or 2 in the morning for that late-nite fix!
The Quite Good
Applewood Pizza (Menlo Park) - great. Very yummy pizza, if a not terribly traditional flavor. One of my favorite crusts - just very very flavorful and a perfect consistency. They've got a fascinating take on garlic bread also: it's a pizza crust (whole and round) with a roasted head of garlic in the middle. That's it. As an added bonus, they've got a fantastic selection of imported German beer. And we all know there isn't much better than beer and pizza.
CPK, or California Pizza Kitchen to you non TLA fans - they've got a lot of odd stuff, and they're clearly overpriced (they took the California bit too much to heart) but it's definately yummy.
Victor's Pizza (Polk & Pine, SF) - good NY style stuff. They do slices in the easy-cheat of take a pre-made cheese pizza, add toppings and cheese, toss it back in the oven for a couple minutes, and serve. Advantages are that the underlying pizza is often fresher, since as there's only one pizza out at a time being eaten, it is replaced more often. Disadvantages are, obviously, that the toppings and pizza don't mesh as well. The pie itself, however (especially when ordered whole and not as a slice) has good flavor, better than average sauce (if not quite fantastic), and good slightly crispy (if variable) crust. They also employ the less common whole-slices of cheese approach, rather than covering the pie in ground up cheese. This tends to offer a more uniformly thin cheese layer than the scattering of ground cheese, which can be good or bad depending on your preference.
Amici's East Coast Pizzeria - tends to be quite greasy, but is reasonably authentic East Coast style. Very thin-crust, foldable, oregano-y pizza. I like their spicy sausage.
Pizza My Heart - clearly owned by, and showing a strong family resemblance to, Pizza a GoGo, these stores have obviously learned something of a lesson from real pizzerias. The slices are actually edible. Not great by a long shot, mind you, but at least edible.
Windy City Pizza - they may once have been a good Chicago pizza store, as evidenced by the photos on their walls which show what Chicago pizza is supposed to look like, but they clearly haven't looked at those photos in years, because their pizza bears no recognizable resemblance. Bland, disappointing flavor, crusty overcooked cheese, overly buttery crust that really has no flavor apart from the butter.... There's nothing to recommend this place.
Pizza a GoGo - thank whatever god(s) you believe in that there are only 2 of these. A worse pizza I doubt I've ever had. Everything about this stuff, from the cardboard crust to the straight-out-of-a-can sauce to the nasty fake cheese is virtually inedible. I doubt I'd be able to choke this down at gunpoint.
Avanti Pizza (San Mateo) - I'll give them this one credit: they're generous. However, they use the age-old cheating techinque of taking a slice of pizza that's been sitting out for 2 hours, burying it in fresh cheese, dumping your desired toppings on it, and putting it back in the oven to pretend it's fresh. Unfortunately, all you end up with is a slice that tastes like cheese, and not much else, as the slice itself has long since lost all desirable flavor.
Pizza Chicago - By far the best of a generally very poor crowd. The deep dish crust tends to be a bit too thick, but the cheese is not over cooked, the toppings are good, and the overall flavor is pretty tasty.
Pizza Hut - pure crap. One of the quintessential examples of (a) too much grease and oil in the crust and (b) overcooked, hard brown cheese that is so stiff it tends to pull all the way off the pizza on the first bite. What a waste.
Mr Pizza Man - not impressed. The slices are often old, and not that great. And there's little worst than old pizza sitting under a heatlamp.
Dominos - not as greasy, but always overcooked, nastily-flavored crap. Creators of rabbit turd sausage.
Round Table - generally very greasy, but that's because they mix cheddar into their cheese. Generally pretty good, and they never, ever, ever skimp on toppings. Sometimes you can't even see the pizza underneath.
Little Caesars - what a mix. Can be tasty in the way that fast food is tasty, but can also be awful. Bit of a gamble, really.
Extreme Pizza - like Round Table, they're generous with toppings, but are more fast-foody and less sit-downy. Reliable in a pinch.