Friday, January 6, 2012

What a Difference an Oven Makes: Tony’s Pizza Napoletana

Tony's Pizza Napoletana, San Francisco

They serve 10 styles of pizza cooked in gas, coal, electric or a 900-degree wood fired oven.  But if you want to eat the famous Margherita Pizza at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco, you better get there early.  Tony’s only makes 73 of this pizza each day.  As the 2007 winner of the World Pizza Cup in Naples, Italy, it goes to reason that this is one popular pie. 

It behooves one to get to Tony’s at an early hour for more than just the famous Margherita Pizza.  It is one of those rare restaurants with rock star status- everyone wants to be in Tony’s aura and they are willing to wait a long time during peak hours just to get a glimpse of what makes this pizza as legendary as it is.

On a recent holiday trip through San Francisco I endeavored to introduce John to Tony’s.  Although not quite experts, John and I have eaten more than our share of pizza around San Francisco- A16, De La Rosa-, New York- Otto, Bleecker Street Pizza-, and LA- Mozza, Gjelina-, to know a good pizza when we taste one. 

I had eaten at Tony’s several times always with groups large enough to justify the order of at least three different pizzas all done in different cooking methods.  Our waiter was a bit skeptical when I ordered two pizzas for just John and myself.  “Have you dined with us before?”  He asked, eyebrows conspicuously raised. 

I confirmed, yes, we were ordering two pizzas.  John had to understand what a difference an oven makes.

Our late dining hour meant the crowds had gone but so had the award winning Margherita.  In its place was a pizza with the exact same toppings but made with caputo flour instead of the San Felice flour of the limited edition pizza.  We ordered one of those, cooked in the wood fired oven, along Diavola Con Rucola done in the “Classic Italian” 650 degree gas oven. 

The Margherita was as I remembered: sweet sauce made of San Marzano tomatoes, sea salt, creamy mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil.  The crust was perfectly browned, nicely chewy on the edges, thin and crisp under the toppings.  John looked happy.

Then came the Diavolo.  The coal oven seems to produce a thinner, crispier crust than the wood oven, with a denser edge.  This was well suited to the pile of toppings- spicy sopressata, mozzarella, parmesan, topped with a scattering of arugula and drizzled in hot red pepper oil.  John’s face changed with one bite.  “The Margherita was like drinking a fine pinot noir. Now this,” pointed to the Diavolo, “is like moving onto a well aged Napa Cab.” 

I couldn’t have put it better myself.  Whether Tony’s makes the best pizza in the world or even the best pizza in San Francisco is up for debate (2007 was several years ago after all).  But it is the only place I can think of where you can do a virtual vertical of pizza, sampling your way through the icons of the pizza world from Italy to Detroit.  At the near toddler age of two and a half years old, one can only hope that like a fine wine, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana keeps getting better with age. 

Amy Powell is a food and travel writer based in New York City. She is a graduate of Cornell University's School of Hotel Administration and the French Culinary Institute. Follow her on Twitter @amymariepowell

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