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08.04.2005

Restaurant Review: Pizzeria Delfina, San Francisco

What is it with pizza anyway? Short of sushi and steaks, I don't know any other foodstuff that inspires so much fervor of specificity among people who love to eat. And I'm not talking about pies from your local delivery service, however good they may be. What really sends people into paroxysms and polemics of culinary criticism are proper thin-crust pizzas that are increasingly finding their way onto menus of all types, from the casual bistro to the chic upper-end restaurants all over the city. Everyone has their own opinion of where the best pizza can be found, and what characteristics make for the ideal pizza (leaving aside for a moment the fundamental divide pizz.delfina.card.jpg that exists between the thin crusters and deep-dishers). The next time pizza comes up in conversation with people who like to eat, just watch for the superlatives that get rolled out like so much dough.

Credit must be given to several restaurateurs in the Bay Area for either having their ears to the ground on this growing appreciation for meals-in-the-round, or perhaps for starting the trend in the first place. In any case, San Francisco is undergoing a pizza Renaissance of sorts, with several new restaurants popping up in the last 6 to 9 months that have pizza as their singular focus or at least a major part of their offering. To the list of recently opened Zuppa, A16, Pizzaiolo, and Pico Pizzeria, now we can add Pizzeria Delfina.

Delfina, of course, is the hugely popular Tuscan-influenced trattoria in the Mission, which remains in my opinion, one of the most underrated restaurants in all San Francisco (I supposed I should write a review one of these days, but I'd rather spend the hour or two standing out front waiting for a table). So when news broke a while back that they were opening up a pizzeria next door, I got pretty excited, and when the doors opened a couple of weeks ago, Ruth and I simply had to go down and check it out immediately.

Pizzeria Delfina occupies a narrow space just beside its parent restaurant. It would be all too easy to miss but for the few shiny metal bistro tables that are closely spaced in front of the restaurant's large main glass window. These tables are crucial to the restaurant's capacity as they pretty much double (OK, not quite) the available seats of the restaurant, making me wonder what will happen when the weather turns cold and rainy here in a couple of months. I didn't notice heat lamps or an awning in place to fend off the coming winter.

From November to March, in the absence of such protections, presumably everyone will pack into the small interior space, which provides counter seating along the front of the miniscule kitchen for about 12 people, and then into the four or five available small tables in the front of the space. Despite its diminutive size, the restaurant has a nice feel to it. Bright white tiles run along the floors and up onto the walls, and the counter fronts the industrial, stainless steel impressiveness of the kitchen and its ovens. There's no sense anywhere that you're here for an "experience," because this place is only about one thing: food. In case that wasn't obvious from the furious workings of the pizzaiolos in front of the ovens and the constant stream of full plates going over the pass and empty ones coming back, you'll likely walk by working pastry racks of freshly roasted tomatoes and oven dried oregano on your way to use the one bathroom at the back of the restaurant.

Most probably you'll stand for a while under a blackboard just inside the entrance where you've written your name and party size to wait for a table. While you do, you can gaze across and above the blurred forms of the speeding waitstaff to the large blackboard which dominates the east wall of the restaurant and which advertises the components of the exceedingly simple menu. Did I mention this restaurant was only about one thing? For the main event, you choose from one of 5 pizzas (Neopoletana, Margherita, Salsiccia, Clam Pie, and Quattro Formaggi) or a broccoli rabe calzone or whichever of their single daily specials is on offer that day, which might be lasagna or meatballs or mussels with garlic and peperocini. Note with seriousness the way the waitstaff tell you that you can't make additions or substitutions on the pizzas with the exception of adding anchovies or pepperoni. These people aren't kidding around. They will, of course, accommodate any food allergies by removing ingredients within reason.

While you wait the 15 or 20 minutes for your pizzas to be made (oh yes, you'll want more than one) you have the option of snacking on a few bits of antipasti. The always-on-the-menu insalata tricolore, an arugula, radicchio, and endive salad dressed with lemon, olive oil and shaved grana cheese is a bright, zingy dish with fresh contrasting flavors. If you're a cheese fan, you won't want to miss the fresh-stretched mozzarella, which is fabulous. The rest of the antipasti offerings change on a daily basis and range from marinated beet salads with fresh ricotta cheese, to eggplant caponata, to fried calamari with zucchini.

Of course, while you wait, you'll also want some wine. The list here is short and serious, like the pizza. Only Italian wines of course: 1 sparkling, 7 whites, and 13 reds by the bottle, with about half as many poured by the glass. Prices for bottles range from $15 to $45 and glasses fall somewhere between $6 and $11. Campania dominates the list but there are also selections from Sicily, Tuscany, and Basilicata. I'm also willing to bet that if you ask nicely you might be able to order from the main restaurant's list should you have a penchant for something special. Shockingly, their corkage policy is "do not cork," meaning you've got no choice but to order from their list. I was appalled when I heard this, to the point of wondering whether it's some sort of licensing issue. If not, I hope it's something that the owners correct very quickly, along with the fact that the servers seem to cross the line from informative to pushy when it comes to suggesting you enjoy some wine with your food.

After a bit of time to tuck into your antipasti, your pizzas arrive. And now is when I get to step up on the soap box and tell you what I think makes for fabulous thin crust pizza.

Like rhythm and blues, like sand and sea, like sun and clouds, the toppings of a pizza work at once independently and in conjunction with the dough to provide a set of fresh and intense flavors supported by a backbone of crust. Pizza is ultimately about the collision between flavor and texture. So what does this mean for the way pizza should be evaluated? First the dough should be crisp and should crunch slightly when you eat it. Not with the sharp crack of matzo or thick tortilla chips, but with the a softer but distinct crunch of toast. The dough should not be overly bitter or salty, and it should have enough sweetness and spongy moisture underneath the crisp crust so that it's possible (and desirable) to eat the crust without the topping, and without needing to immediately have a glass of water.

The toppings of an ideal pizza should taste barely cooked. You should taste fresh tomatoes and basil; the salty tang of anchovies should evoke clean seawater; and meats should be firm and juicy and bursting with flavor. The toppings should be spare (too much of anything, and then everything can be overwhelming, and in particular, there shouldn't be too much cheese, which even in slight overages can turn a pizza into a rubbery mess).

In short, the thin crust pizza should taste much bigger than it is. It should go down quick and hot, but in every bite it should seem impossible that the flavorful experience of eating it should come from simple bread and vegetables and cheese the thickness of a few sheets of paper.

So how does Pizzeria Delfina match up to this ideal? Remarkably well. They seem to be serving up pizza that is head and shoulders above most in the city, and quite possibly better than all. The only thing I can complain about, really, are minor details. For instance, it would be great if the kitchen would please put more than TWO leaves of basil on the Margherita pizza. The food, both the pizzas and the antipasti, hit a sweet spot between casual and gourmet that seems to be synonymous with the Delfina name. They've even got nice little touches like a small dish of fresh hand grated parmesan, a bit of the oven dried oregano, and roughly crushed red peppers for you to pinch and sprinkle. I'd love to be able to sit with a Pizzetta, a Pizzaiolo, and a Delfina pizza side by side, to make the final call, but for now I'm content to just rotate through the three of these spots to the exclusion of everyone else. Given that Delfina is a few minutes from my home, I'll probably end up there by default.

The desserts on offer change frequently, but tend to express the same freshness embodied in the preparations of your meal. When I was there last they included a cannoli and an apricot crostata, along with some biscotti if you felt like finishing your meal with an espresso. Also, if you've got a hankering for something sweeter, you can always stroll next door to Tartine.

The service at Pizzeria Delfina is what you might expect from a tiny, bustling bistro that way too many people want to eat at during prime time. Things are rushed, or more frequently a little delayed, but good natured all the same, and certainly with an eye towards what makes for good restaurant service, though without the pace required to deliver it. Like most bistros, and certainly any pizza restaurant I've ever been to, you don't go for the service or anything outside of what gets set on the plate in front of you in due time. And by that standard, Pizzeria Delfina is clearly fantastic.

How Much?: Pizzas from $10 to $16, antipasti from $5 to $8, desserts around $5.

Pizzeria Delfina
3611 18th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
415.437.6800

Closed on Mondays until 5:30 PM, otherwise offering continuous service from noonish to 10:00 PM, and 'til 11:00 PM on Fridays and Saturdays.

No reservations accepted, service is on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Parking in the neighborhood can range from difficult to impossible depending on the hour of the day and the day of the week.

Comments (22)

antonio wrote:
08.04.05 at 10:03 PM

I completely agree with your assessment of Pizzeria Delfina. Everything was excellent; however, I still think the best pizza margherita i've had in SF is at Pazzia.

Amy wrote:
08.05.05 at 10:06 AM

Best pizza post I've ever read. Period.

Alder wrote:
08.05.05 at 10:10 AM

Thanks Amy. I try hard to make these worth reading.

Antonio, I have enjoyed many Margheritas at Pazzia, and it is worth mentioning in this crowd. It is definitely a high quality pizza, however their other pizzas aren't quite as consistent.

I still haven't reviewed Pazzia either....

Geoff Smith wrote:
08.05.05 at 1:11 PM

Thanks for the post, Alder. I'll have to check it out to see if it measures up to my favorite SF pizza place: Pizzetta 211! Cheers, Geoff

Neil wrote:
08.05.05 at 10:12 PM

I'll have to check out Delfina, as well. Adler, have you ever been to Pizza Orgasmica in the Marina? I wonder how you would rank the two.

Alder wrote:
08.05.05 at 10:28 PM

Neil,

I've never been to Pizza Orgasmica, but I've had their pizza delivered before, and it's definitely in the zone of your neighborhood pizza joint (though much more creative with its toppings). Perhaps they've got some gourmet thin crust stuff on the eat-in menu, but without being snobby, I'd be likely to think that we're not talking in the same league here.

Steve Edmunds wrote:
08.05.05 at 10:47 PM

I think if there's one thing right off the bat that separates the quality levels with pizza, it's the wood-burning oven, and then, probably, whether the people making pizza have some experience that gives them a sense of what sets the most distinctive pizzas apart. One of the partners at A16 got certified as a "pizzaiolo" in Naples, no small feat, and the pizza reflects it; it's so beautiful it almost glows in the dark! And the taste is haunting.
I know Delfina does a great job, and I can't wait to dine on pizza there.

Jean-Louis wrote:
08.06.05 at 1:15 AM

Nice review of this new spot. I will give that one a try. I still rate A16 as the most authentic and spot on thin crust pizza, in my experience.

Alder wrote:
08.06.05 at 8:11 AM

Steve, Jean-Louis,

I think A16 is a great restaurant, but the pizza can't compete with Delfina's. I actually ate at both in the course of a week, and there was a pretty clear difference.

Alder

Olivia wrote:
08.07.05 at 12:13 PM

Great write-up Alder. I have been delinquent in doing my own and now feel I can just point people to yours instead.

My only additions: The pizza was excellent, as you described, but I was slightly disappointed in the strawberry torta, which was a little too sweet and jammy, and with the recommended sparkling red wine by the glass. There was actually mention in an opening-night review that the margherita only included two basil leaves, so when we went a week later, I specifically asked for extra on ours. We thought the request had been received, but no luck: we still got exactly two leaves.

Have you tried pizza from the Cheese Board in Berkeley - though they only have one kind a day and the crust isn't quite at the same level, it remains my other Bay Area favorite pizza.

Mauro wrote:
08.15.05 at 1:26 AM

Delfina's pizza cannot compare to A16's. Delfina's pizza is dried out crackery and bland. The lack of a wood burning oven shows. In fact, I just ate lunch at pizetta 211 followed by early "dinner" at Delfina and late "dinner" at A16 yesterday. A16 is far better than either pizetta 211 or Delfina, and Pizetta is better than Delfina. Lets not even mention that A16's wine list is vastly superior to Delfina's and lets not even talk about the sorry glassware that Delfina uses.

As someone who grew up in the Salento just outside of Naples, I am insulted that Delfina uses the word Neapolitan next to its pizzas and I told Craig Stoll as much. To which he responded "I said my pizzas are Neapolitan inspired not Neapolitan". Maybe he should be a lawyer instead of a pizzaiolo. If Delfina is Neapolitan pizza, inspired or otherwise, I am an Eskimo. Stoll should stick to Tuscan cuisine which is what he knows. His pastas are devine, his pizzas are mediocre at best.

I guess you were right about pizza eliciting emotional responses.

Andy wrote:
10.05.05 at 9:29 PM

I just tried Delfina's pizza and was seriously underwhelmed. I would have to agree with Mauro's assesment of the dough as crackery and bland. My wife said it reminded her of a saltine cracker. Not what I'm looking for in a pizza dough.
I've only had A16 once and think somewhat forgot the salt, so I'll definitely try that again.
For the best Neapolitan pizza I've had you would have to visit "Una Pizza Napoletana" in NYC at 349 E. 12th St. Superb. Only open Thurs-Sunday 5:00 pm until out of dough. But that is authentic flavorful amazing pizza.

Andy wrote:
10.16.05 at 6:40 PM

i have had significant pizza experiences in naples, and in tasting A16, i think one would be hard pressed to find a closer match in the states, with that being said i can still criticize, and four out of the five best are probably in NY. i'm headin to Delfina and the other recomended spots soon, and for the record mauro, salento is not just outside of naples.
ciao

Manuel Garcia wrote:
10.27.05 at 2:17 PM

Just want to add to your list of places in the Misison. Check out La Solea Dance Cafe' This is a cozy cafe'located at 19th and Mission (on 19th). They have friendly people, a cool african inspired decor and it offers a variety of etnic dance and music classess,yoga, and recently they started serving up delicioud East Indian food for lunch and brunch for a moderate price. The Indian food there is really home made style and has fantastic flavors. Try the fish croquette, the coconaut string-beans and one of my all-time favorite a delicious chicken masala. It's one of my favorite spot in my favorite neighborhood.
-Manuel

Jean-Louis wrote:
01.07.06 at 12:40 PM

After so many weeks, I did make it at Pizzeria Delfina and I am going to side with Mauro above and others. While PD does a decent job, the big difference between A16 and them is the wood burning oven. PD does not have any and thus one misses that fine burnt edge that cannot be produced in a gas oven. I am prepared to admit that the burnt edge thing may be an acquired taste, but in my book, that is a sine qua non to great pizza. And the Southern Italian wine list compiled by Shelley at A16 is hard to beat. Only drawback: the place is soooo crowded, even late at night.

Alder wrote:
01.15.06 at 10:47 PM

Jean-Louis,

Thanks for the comments. Yes, the wood burning oven does set A16 apart, but I haven't found that it makes for qualitatively better pizzas. I'm not sure Pizzeria Delfina can be considered a safe haven from the crowds at A16 -- it's pretty crowded too.

Aiden wrote:
01.18.06 at 9:26 AM

Delfina is a good restaurant.Are there better? Probably.What I wanted to comment on was your shock at not being able to cork a wine. It is clearly their establishment and clearly their rules. "No cheapo guest bringing in wine!" That is what they say and I agree with them whole heartedly!. They opened a business to sell their products and that is clearly what they intend to do.The restaurant affords very little in the way of profit margin for owner or for server(a typical restaurant keeps 4-8% of profits), so who in their right mind would fault them for watching their bottom line or being sales people. Get a grip Alder. They provide a wonderful service and good food. If you dont like their corkage rules dont patronize them. Cheapos with their bottle in hand should stay at home anyway!

Alder wrote:
01.18.06 at 9:59 AM

Aiden,

Thanks for your comment. By suggesting that my complaint about their no corkage policy is somehow to "fault them for watching their bottom line or being sales people" you've clearly shown you don't understand the purpose of a corkage fee.

The reason that restaurants have them is so they CAN make the profit that they need to if someone brings their own wine. It's a very simple equation. All the restaurant needs to do is set the corkage fee above the profit they make on the cheapest bottle of wine on their list (heck, if they're really worried about it, they can even DOUBLE it) and no more worries about a bottom line. I'm sure you wouldn't suggest that if their corkage fee were $30 (more than you would pay for 25% of the wines on their list) they'd still be in danger of not making their profit margin.

But that's almost beside the point considering that just 10 feet away is Delfina Restaurant -- same owner, same wine director, same wine cellar, same distributors, and it HAS a corkage fee and somehow manages to stay in business (and THEN SOME considering the restaurant is literally sold out every night it is open).

Finally, Aiden, in defense of wine lovers everywhere, I resent the implication that the reason we bring bottles of wine to a restaurant is because we're "cheap." That may be the first thing YOU think of, but plenty of us bring special wines that we've been saving to drink with friends, or a bottle that we think is especially suited to the food.

Or in the case of Pizzeria Delfina, we just may want a really GOOD bottle to drink with dinner, rather than one of the decent, but not amazing few that they have on their short list.

Alex wrote:
02.23.06 at 10:02 AM

So is there anything like a real Italian-style everyday pizza place in SF, like the ones seemingly on every block in Italy, where you can get a good thin-crust pizza with a half-liter carafe of regular old (perfectly fine but unpretentious) Dago Red table vino instead of having to shell out $40+ a bottle? There's a time and place for special bottles, but with an everyday pizza meal, sometimes you just want to keep it simple.

Alder wrote:
02.23.06 at 1:06 PM

Alex,

Many of the wines on the Delfina list are under $30, and the wines available at Pizzetta 211 ( http://www.vinography.com/archives/000085.html) in the Richmond are pretty inexpensive as well. The vibe at Pizzetta is probably closer to what you are looking for, and the prices a little lower.

The most inexpensive way to have wine with your pizza, of course, is to bring your own !! It doesn't have to be a special bottle. Corkage at Pizzetta is $5.

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