Empire State of Mind
“Good pizza breaks down into four basic components: the cheese, the sauce, the crust, and the love.”
This is my first lesson from Jake Lesnik, a 29-year-old, fast-talking New Jersey native nicknamed “Mozza” for eating almost exclusively plain cheese pizza (literally 80 percent of his diet since he was a five). All four components are essential, but the love is number one because for Mozza, “pizza is love.”
This is not a slogan. This is actually Mozza’s life philosophy, and I’m listening attentively while we take down a very tasty slice at the Presidio’s Pizzeria Avellino. We’re eating Mozza’s favorite SF slice and this is the first stop on our San Francisco pizza tour, a quest to teach me about good New York–style pizza, and, hopefully, to find some new spots worthy of Mozza’s high East Coast standards.
And let Mozza be clear, this tour will not include some Chicago-style deep-dish mumbo-jumbo (the mere mention makes him angry). Nor will it include any organic caramelized onions and pear toppings. This is about traditional, thin-crust, plain cheese pizza – “love in its most basic form.”
I’m a little suspicious. I’ve had some good cheese pizza when I lived in New York and Italy. And Avellino’s bubbly crust and sweet sauce is certainly tasty, especially for $2.75 per slice. But I’ve never really gotten the whole classic pizza obsession. Pizza Margherita is pretty much a meal I order when I don’t want to spend a lot. Mozza assures me I am missing out on the best part of life. Growing up in California – “a great place to live but a pizza wasteland” – I have not learned to use my senses, to be aware, to live.
“You think I can be saved?” I ask.
“To quote the poet Mary Oliver,” Mozza says, “‘The only life you can save is your own.’ I can help you, but to truly be saved, you’ll have to want to save yourself.”
After Avellino's, Mozza and I hit a place claiming to be a New York pizzeria whose name I’ll spare from Mozza’s wrath, but that I’ll include so as to describe one of Mozza’s first lessons – “looks can be deceiving.”
“Please, sit, sit,” says the pizza man, looking like he could be from Brooklyn.
“No, we know what we want,” Mozza says with New Jersey bluntness. “We’ll have two cheese…”
“Please sit, sit-sit-sit-sit!”
We sit, annoyed. What’s the point of having a hole-in-the-wall pizza-slice spot where you can’t order at the counter? Still, the slices come fresh out of the oven and look tasty – nice ratio of cheese and sauce.
“Now,” says Mozza, “this looks like it has all the right stuff, but I’m already suspicious: cornmeal crust, usually a sign of an inferior pie.” He picks up the slice to do his structural test – the pizza should stand up fairly straight with a little bend allowed – and the crust goes limp. Mozza sighs. “This, for $3.60? Seems undercooked. Plus, look, when the cheese might all come off if you tug on it like this, that’s usually poor quality.”
I’m listening, but I like my slice. The sauce is flavorful, with a little more salty oomph than Avellino’s. But tuning in to every nuance of the pie, unlike I did at Avellino, by the end, the saltiness is too much and the cornmeal makes the texture grainy.
I’m not sure I’d agree with Mozza’s final verdict: “I think I need another Avellino slice to get the taste out of my mouth,” but I’m noticing that it’s a notch down in pizza pleasure, a good first step.
Only Mozza can eat pizza twice a day, every day, but even on days when my belly needs a break, Mozza sends me YouTube videos of his favorite New York pizzaiolos, trying to get me to understand “the purity, the dedication, the love.” My training must be constant, he says.
I’m still unconvinced that a cheese pizza can really change my life. And I’m feeling especially skeptical at Gialina's in Glen Park, a bustling spot where we wait an hour to sit at a very cramped table. When our Margherita pies ($12.50 each) come, they look nothing like what I imagine of a delicious cheese pizza. The crust is whole wheat-colored and the cheese is just dabbled in stretched-out chunks so that the majority of the pie seems to be covered by sauce and basil leaves. This is what everyone’s waiting for?
“Don’t judge a pizza by its cover,” Mozza advises, reminding me of my first lesson.
I shrug, take a tentative first bite, and – what in the? It takes me a minute to even adjust to what I’m tasting, but I can’t help mumbling with a mouthful, “the love, the love!” which comes out more as “rah rah, rah rah!”
Finally, I get it. All my annoyance with the wait and the lack of elbow room dissolves. The crust is only millimeters thick, but it is so crisp and delicate at once. The sauce, the cheese, the basil, the olive oil – they sing together. They are a happy Italian family. Even Mozza is impressed. Pizzeria Delfina on 18th Street still has a slight edge as his “best overall San Francisco pie,” he says. (He divides best slice and best pie.) But Gialina's is now ranked as having the best crust. Mozza’s final verdict: “This is what I mean when I say pizza is love.”
Putting all his love into pizza, Mozza has little left over for any other foods, especially those without carbs or dairy. So the fact that flour + water is across the street from Café Gratitude in the Mission seems to get Mozza flustered. All those raw foods! He shakes it off. There is reason to be happy. flour + water prides itself on making traditional Neapolitan pie, meaning baked in a wood-fired oven at 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
But these pies have a hard act to follow after Gialina's, and when the Margheritas ($13 a pop) come, our waitress tells us the wood-fired oven is made from California clay, as if this West Coast fusion will impress Mozza. If she only knew! Despite all the California vibes, the actual pies turn out to be solid. Mozza is impressed with the quality of the cheese. He just has to sit facing away from the window, lest the neighboring gratitude for raw vegetables should taint his palette.
Mozza has been known to build pizza ovens out of whatever he has lying around, holding spontaneous pizza competitions amongst friends. So he is particularly excited by Pizza Politana, a portable pizza oven cart that serves Neapolitan pies at the Ferry Building Farmers Market on Thursdays.
I’m expecting this Pizza Politana to be pretty mediocre – I mean, a traveling wood-fired oven? But when Naomi, the pizza chef herself, serves our pie fresh out of the oven; it’s as delicate and delicious as a French omelet. “This is why good pizza can’t be taken home in a box,” says Mozza. “It’s like a soufflé.” Mozza eyes his pie like he’s investigating a diamond. “Well-charred Neapolitan style,” he says.
“Nice bubbles on the crust. A little bit floppy in the center but,” as he takes a bite, “high quality cheese, nice sweet sauce. For $8, definitely legit. I’ll have another.” Naomi comes out to talk shop with Mozza and it’s clear they share the same passion: spreading the pizza gospel. Enjoying my pie in the sun, I wonder if I’ve been converted. Mozza’s final verdict: “Naomi is embodying the pizza-is-love spirit.
Then, just when the pizza tour is really building momentum, Mozza has to make a surprise business trip to the East Coast, his pizza Mecca. “But there is so much still to taste,” I say. “We haven’t done Pizzetta 211, A16, Pizzeria Delfina, Tony's.”
“Silence,” Mozza says in the middle of my rant. “You’re ready to complete the tour alone.”
“Really? But I don’t have a date for Tony's. And I don’t feel ready.”
“You should never be ashamed of a solo pizza mission,” Mozza says. “Never. Trust your intuition.”
It’s a rainy Friday when I pull up to Tony's Pizza Napoletana, a restaurant that at first glance looks like so many other North Beach tourist traps. I sit down at the bar, but I already feel a little lonely. This isn’t the same without Mozza.
My friendly bartender, JP, brings out my Margherita pizza 10 minutes after ordering; it’s bubbling and oozing in all the right places. Visually, it’s a work of art, an $18 work of art, but still gorgeous. I take a bite, wondering if I’ll just be confused about whether this is a truly excellent pizza as the critics say. Tony is the only American to have ever won the best Neapolitan pizza award in Naples, Italy. But there is no question.
Holy Italian Grandmother! This is a good pizza, the best yet. Suddenly I feel frisky and young and I get chummy with the bartender. The words mozzarella di bufala, virgin olive oil, and Napoli roll off my tongue easily, all my training coming together for this one moment. The love is all around us here. Tony himself comes out to inquire and laugh with us. This is all so perfect. If only my guru were here. I send Mozza a text message: “Yo! @ Tony's now. Miss you. Pizza really is love!”
And it’s then that I realize that Mozza wanted me to do this alone. He didn’t want me to fit Arinell and A16 and Pizzeria Delfina and Pizzetta 211 into my story. This was his final teaching. The pizza tour isn’t ending. It’s just beginning. And it lasts a lifetime.
If you’re anything like me, to truly appreciate good cheese pizza, you need to eat a lot of pie back-to-back, compare, and contrast. Pizza is something we’ve all had so much of, we’re desensitized. So try a mediocre pizza, say, from a national chain, and then go to Gialina's, Tony's Pizza Napoletana, Pizza Politana, Pizzeria Avellino, or flour + water and let the flavors take over. We may not live in New York, but as much as Mozza is reluctant to admit it, San Francisco is very slowly becoming a pizza force to be reckoned with.