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Pizzeria Delfina - Pacific Heights

Even Better Pizza, but Far Too Frenzied Service

The topic of pizza in San Francisco is fodder for heated dispute, opinions often defended with the kind of fervor usually reserved for a Rolling Stones vs. Beatles-type debate. Wherever you might stand on the matter, the names thrown in the ring are often the same, and Pizzeria Delfina is always a contender. Upon hearing that a new Pizzeria Delfina opened in Lower Pac Heights in September 2008, we were immediately curious: would the new Pizzeria Delfina be as good?

Since opening on 18th street in 2005, Pizzeria Delfina has quickly cemented its status as a Mission destination for exceptional Neapolitan-style pizza. This should come as no surprise -- Delfina Restaurant, next door, is the much-applauded and awarded culinary powerhouse from Anne and Craig Stoll.

Although the new location is nearly double the size of the original, it still seats less than 50 and thus demands a wait nearly any night of the week. As the space has grown so has the menu, offering a slighter larger selection of salads and small plates, and more notably, a few entrées. “Neapolitan Meatballs in Sugo” ($13) and “T-bone Steak al Pizzaiolo” ($19) look promising and “Brick-Cooked Chicken” ($15) classic. Of course, the famed pizzas remain -- ten in total, two of which are daily specials.

The new Pizzeria Delfina has done much to retain the same aesthetic as its older sibling, with blonde wooden tables, a counter with bar seats and a mural along one wall. Even the coveted sidewalk tables and heat lamps are faithfully reproduced, as well as the chalkboard just inside the door that serves as the restaurant’s waitlist.

Unfortunately, the inherent intimacy and charm of the Mission location is lost in translation. Whereas the dining room in the original feels like an extension of the kitchen, the dining room in the new space feels removed, bright and cafeteria-like. Tables are huddled closely together in the front, while seats at the counter mostly overlook the frantic service station and not much of the kitchen. Booths for group dining towards the back are a welcome addition, though: friends and dates alike could be comfortable in this space.

Though difficult to decide between the Salsiccia pizza ($15) with housemade fennel sausage and the 4 Formaggi cheese-lover’s dream ($15) on the night of our visit, a favorite from the original location proved to be a sterling choice. Altered slightly here, the broccoli raab pizza ($15) boasted mozzarella di bufala, olives and hot peppers.

At first bite, we were thrilled to discover that the Lower Pac Heights version was equally if not more delicious than the original. The toppings remained thoughtfully proportioned and each flavor distinct, the subtle heat and salty tang of the peppers and olives playfully lingering in the mouth.

A large part of this pizza’s magic, however, is the dough. This dough is thin and flat beneath the toppings, while the exposed crust bursts up and out at the edges. The outside is perfectly charred and oh-so-slightly crisp. The inside, on the other hand, is unbelievably light and airy, with a springy texture that gives way to subtle undertones of yeast and salt.

There are plenty of other items here besides pizza worth trying. The sand dabs with lemon and aioli ($10) should be ordered without hesitation if available. Marked in the menu with a well-deserved exclamation point, they were fried, crisp, bright and lemony, without being at all greasy.

The seafood special of littleneck clams with tomato and guanciale ($16) was also excellent. Composed but rustic, the sweet and briny tomato sauce blanketed each clam, creating perfect self-contained bites. Our chilled veal breast salad with dandelion greens and anchovy ($10), by contrast, was overdressed beyond repair. We may stick with the reliably piquant “Insalata Tricolore” ($9) in the future.

Desserts are limited -- gelato only -- but the gelato is housemade daily and served in a variety of styles. The Meyer lemon and olive oil gelatos we chose were outstanding, but a little too delicate when served in brioche ($6). The simple Coppa, two flavors alone ($5), may be a wiser choice, but only if you can resist the affogato -- scoops of vanilla bathed in espresso ($4).

The all-Italian and moderately priced wine list has 29 wines by the glass, with most bottles registering at under $40. There are an additional two wines on tap ($9/$27) along with three beers ($5). Another six beers are in bottles.

Sadly, service on the night of our visit was littered with some major rookie mistakes. To start, only one wine glass was brought out with our bottle; the explanation was that all others were either dirty or in use. We were understanding and offered to share the one glass until a clean one was available, but were irked when our server required reminding.

Our food was also brought out in the wrong order. Though expecting our antipasti and salad before our pizza and piatti, our pizza was the first thing out of the kitchen and our salad the last (the wine glass came somewhere in between). Our dessert menus were dropped with the mention (or afterthought) that the fennel appetizer we were still waiting for wasn’t going to be coming at all, as the kitchen had just run out. Our server was friendly, but frenzied, visibly overwhelmed by the busy dining room.

We never felt rushed per se, but we were well aware of the rush around us, which did not make for the most relaxed dining experience. However, the food was inarguably solid. And the pizza? The best we’ve had at any location. In the end, the flaws were notable, but ultimately forgivable, and while we might not become regulars at this outpost, we will be back again.

Pizza, Italian
Lower Pac Heights
$$

Reservations Essential? No.