North Beach on a holiday Sunday is not for the faint of heart, but eleven hounds met up at Tommaso's for the first stage of Rochelle McCune's "North Beach Pizza Debate."
Fortunately or unfortunately, not much debate was to be had -- everyone liked the pizza.
Shep: "Write 'it was as good as any East Coast pizza' Shep said sullenly."
Tommaso's [1042 Kearny] is a North Beach institution -- my father remembers when he as a student at Berkeley in the late '40s going there to eat "that exotic food: pizza." The pizza has a thin (but chewy rather than crackerlike) crust lightly charred in a wood burning brick oven. The toppings are thin as well, not overly saucy or gloppy with cheese.
We shared three large pizzas: one with mushrooms, peppers, pepperoni, ham and Italian sausage; one with fresh spinach and shaved Parmesan (half with sausage), and one oregano, garlic and basil.
The spinach was the biggest hit -- I particularly liked the half with the nuggets of excellent sausage. The herb pizza was deliciously redolent of garlic. The combo was good (high marks again for the high quality of the pepperoni), but the busy load of toppings suffered in comparison with the simple goodness and balance of the others.
We started with three seafood appetizers: fried calamari, steamed clams and steamed mussels. The reaction to the calamari was mixed -- apparently the quality varied from piece to piece and over time as it cooled, as some people thought it was crisp, others not some much, some people got tender pieces, others got chewy. But the garlicky tomato dipping sauce was a hit. The table was also partisan about the clams and the mussels -- it came down to a matter of preferrence between the saltier broth with sauteed onions and tomatoes on the mussels and the more delicate white wine butter sauce on the clams, although everyone agreed the best part was sopping their bread in the sauces.
Since Stella bakery of sacripatina fame closes at 6 p.m. on Sunday, Rochelle had stopped there ahead of time and had both the cake and chocolate chip cannoli waiting in the kitchen for us (special recognition for the friendly staff at Tommaso's for storing and serving outside desserts for us without a plate charge). The cake was light and delicious, although a little over-chilled, which could have been remedied if we'd been a little less greedy about digging in [g].
Limster provided the finale to the meal: truffles he'd made himself in orange, raspberry, almond and cardamom flavors. They were excellent! If the whole Boston thing doesn't work out, he can always come back here and go into the truffle business.
But of course you can't get the flavor of North Beach in just one restaurant, so we strolled down Columbus to Mara's Bakery, where we shared a variety of goodies. My favorites were the chewy pine-nut topped almond macaroons; we also tried another version of cannoli (good filling but shell deemed not as good as Stella), a mini-croquembuche filled with rum cream (some felt the rum was a little overpowering), florentines (good, but not as good as the ones at TJ's or Costco), and sfogiliatelle -- a puff-pastry-like dough folded around lemon cream (most of us thought the pastry was a bit dry, but Limster said it was lighter, more like French pastry than a version he recently had in Boston).
Finally, we toddled back down Columbus (pausing at Caffe Greco, to chuckle over the wanted poster for Michael Bauer in the window) to Spec's for a nightcap.
Shep said I should do a paragraph on the ladies room -- if it was anything like the men's room. I can't speak for the men's room, but the quality of the graffiti in the ladies was better than I've seen in a while. Spec's is definitely proud of its divey atmosphere with walls covered with a combination of historical pictures and articles and good old fashioned dive bar kitsch. Highly recommended as a place to go a pretend you're '50s beats.
Thanks again to Rochelle for organizing the quintessential North Beach crawl, and to all the other hounds for meeting the high chowhound standards for good table companionship.