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I moved to San Francisco back in September and thus far, it's been nothing but lovely. The weather's great, the people are friendly, the mountains, oceans, and vineyards are a short drive away, it's the most dog-friendly city I've ever lived in, and the food has been fantastic. Yes, even the pizza. Whether it's one of those wacky California-style things from the Cheese Board in Berkeley, a slice of Focaccia from Liguria Bakery, a world-class Neapolitan pie from Una Pizza Napoletana or Delfina, or a crisp-crusted neo-Neapolitan from Ragazza or PizzaHacker, San Francisco has not left me wanting when it comes to sauce and cheese-topped bread.
Makes sense, given that San Francisco is nothing if not a bread town, and great pizza all starts with great bread.
But despite it all, there's one thing I've been missing: A good slice. And I'm not talking a sit-down-at-the-table-order-and-wait-thirty-minutes type of slice. I'm talking the kind of slice that you grab on your way out of the train station or late at night while stumbling home from the bar. The kind of slice that can be hot and in your hands for a couple of bucks and a wait of no longer than five minutes. The kind of casual slice you grab as a snack, not as a meal. The kind of slice you'd be willing to drag yourself down the street for on the morning after stumbling home from the bar to stave off that killer hangover. Square, triangle, or Grandma, it doesn't matter to me—you're all equally loved.
In short, I miss my New York slice.
Now it may seem unfair to even attempt to pull together a list like this: San Francisco is simply not a great slice town in the same way that, say, New York is not a great taco or burrito town. But this was an entirely personal—and entirely necessary—quest for me. See, I moved to San Francisco for the long haul, but I'm just not sure I can hang my hat anywhere where I can't get a decent single slice of pizza when the urge arises.
Luckily, it turns out there is great pizza by the slice in San Francisco. You've just gotta know where to look.
DISCLAIMER: I'm gonna try and stave off the inevitable "but what about this place?" or "every pizza is slice pizza if you're hungry enough" blah blah blah comments right now. This list is about pizza available by the slice ONLY. If a place didn't serve slices, I didn't taste it. It's also totally, completely, unabashedly subjective. I know what I like in pizza, I've eaten and written about a lot of it, I'm pretty clear with my criteria. Disagree with my criteria? No problem. You love rivers of cheese on your slice? OK, fine. You want your crust thick and dense? That's OK too. But don't expect to see your favorite slices on this list if that's what you're looking for.
How to Identify Good Pizza Before You Buy It
A good slice of pizza first and foremost starts with good bread. As you bite through the tip, you should first encounter a thin, thin layer of crispness at the very bottom. Less than a milimeter. Very quickly, that crispness should shatter, revealing a soft crumb that is pliant and chewy, not crackery or tough, that transitions from being soft and bread-like to moist and slick right where the sauce meets it.
That sauce, by the way, should be savory and bright, not sweet or cloying. Too many pizza slices suffer from Chef Boyardee syndrome. Salt, good acidic tomatoes, a bare hint of sweetness, and perhaps a touch of oregano are all it needs. Finally, the cheese should be fully melted, just starting to brown, and it should mingle with the sauce, not form a thick blanket.
There's no surefire way to tell whether a pizza is going to be great until you actually take that first bite, but there are a few ways to tell if they're gonna be at least worth your time. These are my guidelines for identifying good pizza in the wild:
Look for employees who seem like they care: Good pizza is one of those foods that can only be made by someone who is passionate about what they're doing, and that passion should rub off on the service. If the guy manning the register looks like he'd rather pick his nose than take your order, chances are the guy slinging the dough behind him doesn't care much about what's going on either. The best pizza and the best service almost always go hand in hand.
Not too much cheese: You want the top of your pizza slice to have a mottled, red/white/orange appearance, NOT a solid blanket of white melted cheese. While more cheese may seem like a good thing, it throws the balance off the slice and weighs it down. A great pizza is about restraint. Besides: if they're throwing a pound of cheese on a slice and still charging you a few bucks for it, you can bet that it's the worst kind of bargain-basement quality cheese they're using.
Avoid hot boxes: You know, those rotating displays that they have at mall-style pizza shops and convenience stores where the "fresh baked" pizza is kept hot and ready to serve? Sure, they reach your mouth faster, but you'll never find a hot-box pizza with a crust as crisp as one that's reheated to order.
See how they're stretched: Pizza dough should be stretched on a lightly floured surface by hand, not a sheeter or a rolling pin. Some pizzerias stretch their pizza on oiled countertops. This is easier for them but worse for the pizza. Such pizzas are invariably baked on screens instead of directly on the oven floor (oiling them makes them impossible to slide off the peel into the oven). This takes us to...
Avoid pizza baked on a screen: A screen completely preempts the possibility of a well-charred crust.
Check the crust char: The bottom of a pizza should have a very wide range of colors on it, from pale, pale brown to nearly black. It's this variation that gives New York pizza crust its great flavor. If the crust is a solid monotone brown (or worse, pale yellow) all over, it's a good indication it wasn't baked hot enough and therefore is going to be either dry or doughy and lacking in flavor complexity. Unfortunately it's a little hard to see the bottom of a slice before you buy it, but you can a) look at other patrons in the store or b) examine the outer edges (cornicione) of the slices on display. It's not a perfect litmus test, but if there's not at least a little char on those edges, there's probably none underneath either.
The Cracker Crust Effect
If there's one issue I ran into more than any other, it was a problem I call the Cracker Crust Effect, and it's one of the most common afflictions in the world of pizza-by-the-slice. Instead of having an extremely thin layer of crispness immediately followed by pliant, flexible, ever-so-slightly chewy bread, your slice ends up with a layer of crispness that extends all the way up to the cheese, which turns what should be good bread into a cracker.
This is particularly rough when you try and do the New York Fold—folding the slice in half lengthwise so you can comfortably hold it in one hand while eating. Instead of folding nicely, it cracks in half, like this:
It's no wonder that I also saw many folks eating slices of pizza with a fork and knife, a technique that, as Jon Stewart will tell you, New Yorkers don't look highly upon.
I'm not sure why so many shops suffered from the cracker crust. Most places in SF use a separate small oven to reheat slices instead of throwing them on the deck the way they do in New York pizza shops. They also seem to spend a far longer time reheating. My theory is that those small reheat ovens just aren't hot enough to reheat the pizza before the crust starts drying out.
In any case, this does mean one thing: If you can get a slice out of a whole pie straight out of the oven, you'd be wise to do so. Fresh slices fared better than reheats.
Oh, and could someone explain this one to me? Why do some San Francisco slice joints cut the slices in half lengthwise? The first time it happened I assumed it was a fluke, but it happened at least a half dozen times. Weird.
I stuck with plain slices throughout my crawl—it's the only way to have a real baseline standard of quality—but in some cases, I did pick up an extra topped slice if the toppings looked especially good. One interesting thing I noticed: "a slice" doesn't mean what it does in New York. Back east, if I want a slice of pizza—one with sauce, cheese, and no other toppings—I say "gimme a slice," or perhaps at the very most "a plain slice."
Here in SF, you say that and folks will either give you a blank stare and wait for clarification, or slowly say, "um... you mean a cheese slice?" I even had one pie-slinger ask me "you mean no cheese, no sauce, no nothing?"
In SF, if you want a slice, you say "one cheese slice, please."
Pizza featuring natural-casing pepperoni slices that curled up into little cups like this were an auto-order for me:
It's something you rarely see even in New York (most people use cheap, pre-sliced stuff), but is essential if you want to get those crisp, curled edges. (If you're interested in why pepperoni curls, read up! It's far more fascinating than it seems.)
Overall, I found that despite California's reputation for putting all manner of fresh vegetables on top of their pizzas, when it came to inexpensive slice shops, topping choices were pretty much on par with what you'd find in New York. Pepperoni, sausage, and mushroom were ubiquitous, as were onions and broccoli. I didn't see anyone serving ridiculous pasta-on-pizza creations or buffalo chicken pizzas or ranch dressing or any of the other non-traditional pizza toppings that are nefariously invading New York slice joints these days.
The Best Slices in the San Francisco Bay Area
Over the course of the last few months, I've been to over 30 by-the-slice pizzerias, hitting up every neighborhood from the Outer Sunset to Oakland to the Mission to Alameda. There were days when I wanted to give up, nights when I wanted to keep going, times when my car smelled like a mobile pizza oven from all the half-eaten slices it had collected, and entire week-long stretches where I could almost feel melted cheese oozing out of my pores.
I do believe that in the end I visited every single slice shop that could even be remotely considered a worthy contender, including every single pizzeria suggested to me by you folks on Twitter. Go ahead. Name a place you like. I've been there. At least once, probably two or three times. If it's not on this list, there's a reason.
Here are my favorites.
The Closest to a New York Slice: Avellino in the Presidio
Avellino, right on the eastern edge of the Presidio, has that New York pizza shop aroma down pat. I walked in, bumped my way through a few of the construction workers ordering their lunch, and breathed deeply, a smile involuntarily appearing on my lips as the intense aroma of charred bread, tomatoes, and a hint of oregano curled up into my nose. Texturally, the crust was spot on: a thin, thin layer of crispness that holds up just well enough to let a single slice stand outward when you give it a slight crease down the center. The outer cornicione could have done with a little more color and a few more large bubbles, but bite for bite, this slice brought me closer to home than any place else I visited. A little greasy? Sure, but that's not always a bad thing when it comes to pizza.
Bonus points for their pleasant, dog-friendly outdoor seating right by the park.
The Best When Fresh Out of the Oven: Arinell in Berkeley and The Mission
When you can get these massive, sixth-of-a-pie slices fresh out of the oven, they'd be at home on any street corner in Brooklyn with a thin, crisp crust that has that all-important chewy layer at the crust-sauce interface, not too much cheese and sauce, just the right amount of grease, and a nicely charred underbelly and crust.
This is one of the joints that suffered most from the reheat, so if you're going for a reheated slice, I'd recommend asking that it not be heated too hot. Both the Berkeley and Valencia Street branches serve similar slices, though the outpost in Berkeley was a little more consistent.
Over-the-top Square Slice: Artichoke Basille's Pizza in Berkeley
If you've lived in New York, you probably recognize this guy. The slice you get at the Berkeley outpost of New York mini-chain Artichoke Basille is pretty much identical to the ones you find back east. I like to refer to their regular slices as a "walking lasagna." They're heavy with four different cheese, big chunky tomato sauce, fresh basil, and a thick, cracker-like charred crust. To be honest, I really like them, though they're not what I'd seek when I'm in the mood for pizza.
But if you want the best Artichoke Basille experience, order yourself one of the square slices. Made with the same cheeses and sauce but stretched and baked in a well-seasoned pan with a ton of olive oil, the base essentially fries as it bakes, giving you an insanely crisp, golden-brown bottom.
Whatever you do, just make sure you avoid their signature cheese-dip-on-bread artichoke slice. Your stomach will thank you.
The Best Sicilian Square: Golden Boy on Telegraph Hill
This is what all classic Sicilian-American-style slices should strive to taste like. What at first glance appears to be heavy and greasy reveals itself to be tender, crisp, and light as a feather as you bite into it. A thin layer of sauce covers the well-risen bread while molten mozzarella sweeps and drips into the deep valleys formed by the undulating dough. The base of the pizza is crisply fried with a rich buttery flavor, while the outer crust edges are charred just enough.
Just look at that underbelly! Pretty, right?
Golden Boy's square Sicilian slices rank up there with some of the best I've had anywhere.
The Best Grandma-Style Square: The Presidio Pizza Company in Pac Heights
Despite its name, the Presidio Pizza Company is not actually in the Presidio. That said, they go make a very decent slice of pizza. If it's a regular triangle slice you're after, they've got one. The sauce is a little too sweet and there's way too much of it, but overall the quality of ingredients and the balance of flavors is pleasant. What you should really be ordering, though, is their Grandma slice: a thin, chewy-crisp square style of pizza that originated in Long Island.
Here, they top the focaccia-like bread with a layer of extra-garlicky sauce, slices of fresh mozzarella, chunky tomatoes, and a little drizzle of pesto. I could've done without the pesto drizzle (it's overkill and not a traditional part of grandma slices), but between the crisp-fried bottom crust and the juicy tomatoes, I left happy.
Most Flavorful Crust and the Best in Oakland: Nick's
Pieman Nick Yapor-Cox lived in New York for half a decade and worked at crazy-good restaurants like Eleven Madison Park and Butter before coming back to San Francisco, taking a gig at the excellent Arizmendi bakery, and finally opening up his own slice shop in his hometown of Berkeley. The result is a New York-style slice made on a distinctly San Francisco sourdough crust. It's a style he calls "Oakland Style Pizza." I just call it delicious.
The crust itself is faultless with some nice char, a poofy, airy cornicione, and the stretch and chew that only a master baker can pull off. This was one situation where I actually wished for a little more sauce and slightly less-browned cheese, but if good pizza is built on good bread, Nick's Oakland Style Pizza has a foundation strong enough to build a skyscraper of cheese.
The Best in the Sunset: The Pizza Place on Noriega
Unless you live there, you probably don't often find yourself eating pizza in the Sunset, the most residential of San Francisco's neighborhoods. You can drive for blocks without spotting a pizzeria, and to be honest, that may be a good thing considering the average quality of slices you'll find in the neighborhood. A big shining exception? The Pizza Place on Noriega, down on 46th avenue right near Ocean Beach. Sure, the slices come served on real porcelain plates instead of paper, and yeah, they've got kale salads, local beers, and all those other hippie trappings, but the slices are solid with a nice dark underbelly and only slightly too much cheese.
Grab a few to go and take a walk down to the beach to eat by the fire pits. Pizza and ocean waves are an underrated combo.
The Best in the Mission: The Pizza Shop
A relative newcomer to the pizza scene, The Pizza Shop on 24th street sure doesn't look or feel like a pizza shop—the decor suggests modern coffee shop more than slice joint—but the folks behind that glass display case know what they're doing. Flavorful, savory sauce and high quality cheese play together nicely on a crust that occasionally veers into crackery territory, but is always tender and crisp. The people who run the place couldn't be nicer.
The Best in Emeryville: Rotten City
I'm not sure what it is, but I like this place, and for more than just the pizza. It's grungy and loud, but it's got a great rock-and-roll bar vibe to it and cheap beer to boot. The pizza? It's good. Not upper echelon in the city, but more than effective at staving off a craving with a crisp, extra thin crust and a very small slathering of sauce.
The Best Close to Downtown: Tony's Slice House
This is the sister slice shop to Tony's Pizza Napoletana, a place where you can't help but know is helmed by 11-time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani. It's impossible to ignore because the damn fact is plastered over every available surface outside and in.
Unlike the classic Neapolitan pies served next door, the slice shop serves big, crunchy, cornmeal-crusted slices, and despite the fact that they break one of my basic New York pizza rules (no cornmeal crust, EVER), they're still damn tasty. They're topped with excellent sauce made from imported tomatoes with just the barest hint of natural sweetness and high quality mozzarella with a sprinkling of dried herbs. They also happen to offer the finest pepperoni of all the pizzerias I tried, not to mention perfect outdoor seating on the street just outside.
Honorable Mention: Serrano's in the Mission
I didn't know what to make of it when this Mission area pizzeria told me that my slice would take about 15 minutes to make. Fifteen minutes for a slice? Really?
When it came I realized why: This place bakes every single pizza to order, whether you're ordering a whole pie or just a slice. I'm serious. They cut a piece of raw dough into a triangle, top it, and bake it to order.
What comes out of the oven is nothing like any slice of pizza I've ever had—puffy, doughy, oozing with sauce and cheese—but damned if I didn't think it was tasty. Pizza is about good bread, and this is some pretty good bread. It also happens to be the best calorie-for-the-dollar pizza experience in town if you're counting your change.