Probably the earliest thing I remember about pizza is my worn out VHS of “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: The Motion Picture”. Whenever my parents ordered a pie, my sister and I would try and time it so that the delivery guy would arrive at our house in sync with the pizza man in the film, specifically the moment when Mikey rains wisdom on the guy from below, explaining what “122 and an 8″ meant in New York City addresses.
When it wasn’t the usual Pizza Hut or Dominoes delivery, we were at Mama’s, an Italian restaurant so perfect that my family still sighs each time it’s mentioned, fifteen years after the place closed. My dad would order a small anchovy pizza as a side and that too would remind me of those awesome amphibians eating pizza covered in cereal and making barf noises when someone mentioned the word “anchovy” or Splinter ordered sushi as a topping.
Last in the trifecta of my pepperoni-and-cheese-filled childhood could be found at Shaky’s Pizza, the destination of many post-Little League game dinners, where the entire team gathered to share possibly the worst tasting pie in Los Angeles while the dads and coaches shared pitchers of domestic beer. I, of course, didn’t know there was such a thing as a bad slice of pizza, and I never really understood what my dad meant on those trips to his home town of Chicago, when we’d pick up a pie from the corner joint and he’d say, “This is what pizza is supposed to taste like.”
I didn’t know there were kinds of pizza other than pepperoni, olive, cheese or Hawaiian until college, when late-night dining on my budget often led me to Telegraph Ave’s Blondie’s or Fat Slice. Even then a slice of plain cheese went the farthest on my wallet and it wasn’t until I lived in an apartment and we started ordering pies from places like North Beach Pizza that artichokes and BBQ chicken became commonplace toppings.
Jalapenos and hot sauce were the next big thing. The height of that phase occurred during an epic science-fiction television marathon in my senior year, when JDC, friends and I ordered three three-topping x-large pizzas from Pizza Fiesta (RIP) twice in one evening, once at five in the afternoon and once at one in the morning, killing a 32 oz. bottle of Tapatio in the span of ten hours.
Pizza in college was about convenience and cost to me and not much else. That changed when I had a New York-style slice of anchovy at Arinell’s, on one of the few occasions that they didn’t burn the crust, and I realized that those silly ninja turtles didn’t know what they were talking about after all. Maybe Cap’n Crunch pizza wasn’t really that tubular, Donatello, and maybe my dad had a point when he said, “Pizza was invented as a vessel for anchovies.”
Even at its best, I still thought pizza could never quite break the barrier from good to great, and that didn’t change when Mele and I took a trip to New York a couple years ago. We followed Sensei James’s finger to Di Fara, wondered if Brooklyn always looked that dreary and marveled at an incredible man at the oven crafting pies with better stories than flavors (sorry Brooklyn). We grabbed a few slices at a corner joint in Inwood, too, and I wondered if this was also what “pizza was supposed to taste like,” and in that case, why was I still pretending that it’s something more than a convenient pairing to hunger and soda?
Maybe there’s something to be said about what pizza joints are supposed to look like – at least, that’s what I was thinking as I waited for my pies in Outer Richmond’s Pizzetta 211, a little caffe that would mesh well next to an overpriced clothing boutique. There were four tables, high ceilings and a giant stove like any decent slice box from Berkeley to Brooklyn, but this one was a little softer around the edges, with modern art on the walls and scented candles by the cash register.
There’s something disconcerting about watching a beautiful young girl in a camisole, covered in pizza grease, manning the stove, especially after watching Di Fara’s maestro and his stonebuilder forearms do the same on the other side of the country. That’s what happens when individually-minded young adults with economic means have a passion for the food service industry; they come up with places like Berkeley’s Pie in the Sky (RIP) and Cheeseboard, pizza joints that revolted against the traditional family business model of independent slice factories across America. Pizzetta 221 is the Richmond’s contribution to the trend since 1999 and it ups the ante with higher prices to match its weekly alternating menu.
Pizzetta 211 doesn’t deliver or sell by the slice. It isn’t an old don or dona taking your order. Their pizzas aren’t covered in Leonardo’s or Raphael’s favorite toppings, or the favorite toppings of anyone in the pepperoni-and-cheese years of their life, but the pizzas are delicious. The toppings are the favorites of California adults; prosciutto, butternut squash, fried sage, crescenza, arugula, pancetta, brussels sprouts, walnuts, etc.; and some of the combinations are more ingenious than I might have guessed (and much tastier than I’d like to admit).
A motley crew of gourmet cheeses change the munching experience. The familiar stretch and snap of cheap cheese is nowhere to be found and teeth cut into Pizzetta’s dairy blankets as if it were tomato sauce. The sauce is somewhat unspectacular and often missing from pies with less traditional toppings, but the flavor is redeemed by those usual and unusual suspects, highlighted by the delicious crisp of the surfaces bared to the gas stove. The cheese and toppings are the highlights of these pies, and they make up for a thin crust that might be a little more greasy than tasty on its own.
The basic pizzas aren’t much more than overpriced pies, but occasionally the rouletting menu lands on something possibly worth the fourteen dollar price tag. I don’t live with a bunch of dudes and party all the time anymore, so I rarely have need to order pies delivery. The Richmond doesn’t have much in the way of quick slices, so I don’t eat much pizza at all these days, I don’t miss it, and I rarely crave it. But once in a blue moon like a big pizza pie, I’ll drop too much money at Pizzetta 211 and marvel at how much has changed since those evenings of watching Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and drinking root beer out of Styrofoam cups.
211 23rd Ave
San Francisco, CA 94121