Its that time of year again. We are departing (sadly without Troya) to the 2014 Wine Blogger Conference tomorrow in Santa Barbara. CAN NOT WAIT! Be on the watch for live feeds and comments and as usual a wrap up at the end. If you are going, we will see you there.
The concept was simple, find the best pizza in San Francisco. But in a city that prides itself on both its diversity and being a foodie mecca, it proved to be quite a challenge. Depending on who you believe, San Francisco is either home of the best pizza in the nation or not even in the top 10 (a low blow to such a gastronomical city). Not that I have tried, but if you attempt to have a debate with any true San Franciscan they will immediately pull out the “but we have Tony’s” card. That would be Tony’s Pizza Napoletana in North Beach, home of Tony Gemignani who has won the Word Best Pizza Championship in Italy 11 times. How do you argue with that? So after hours of research (over 200 options) we narrowed it down to 12. We had 3 days, which meant 4 pizza’s per day. Nirvana for some, repulsive to others. How would our taste buds and waist line hold up?
Day #1: We started our trip at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana. Had to, right? Set the bar high and create a litmus test for all the others. The crust, wood fired (as it should be) was incredible, great texture with a slight char on the outside and moist and chewy on the inside (hungry yet?). The sauce was very light but flavorful and it had just the right amount of cheese. A bench mark if there ever was one. From there it was walking distance to Golden Boy Pizza. This place gets a lot of run and has a lot of believers, but for me, while physically around the corner from Tony’s, they are miles apart. The toppings were good, flavorful and fresh, but the crust reminded me of Little Caesars. From there it was off to Pizzetta 211. A very cool neighborhood spot out on 23rd. The crust had nice texture but not a lot of flavor. The toppings were very creative and simple, not piled high, but had great flavor and balance. The place is very small so either go early, be prepared to wait, or get take out. Our final stop of the day was at Little Star Pizza in the Mission. It was late when we got there and the place was still full. It’s a fun place with a lot of character. This was the only Chicago style place on the list but they also have thin crust. The toppings were the star here, on both the Chicago and thin style. I liked the flavors and the sauce/cheese mix in the Chicago style but I was not a big fan of the crust for either style, a little dry.
A side bar here, this trip would have lasted about 30 minutes without the help of google maps. I cannot tell you how nice it is to be able to drive along, listen to some music, have a nice conversation and occasionally be reminded to “turn right in 600 feet” while on your way to some place you have never been rather than screaming at each other because we just missed our turn and now are completely lost. I do wonder how many marriages have been saved by this technology.
Day #2: Woke up feeling good and hungry, surprised but happy. Our first stop was Arinell Pizza in the Mission. This is a classic, NY style pizza by the slice joint. No tables, a few benches along the wall, really meant for grabbing a slice, fold it up and eat it on the run (yup, NY style). For what it was, I liked it a lot and it tasted just like the hole in the wall pizza places you find on every corner in Gotham. From there it was a short walk to Pizzaria Delfina. This is a very cool spot in the Mission with a lot of sidewalk tables and some very creative pizza combinations. The crust here was light, not real moist or chewy but still had good texture. The toppings were very flavorful and not too heavy or greasy. After a walk around the city to build up an appetite our evening started at Una Pizza Napoletana south of Market on 11th. This place only serves pizza and salad. You get to watch your pizza being made because it’s an open kitchen and the pizza is made front and center. While the toppings are great, simple and classic yet well balanced and flavorful, the crust here is what steals the show. Also wood fired, with the oven the main fixture in the whole room, what comes out can only be described as magic. Everything you want in a crust, a light char on the outside for flavor and texture, moist and chewy on the inside with a hint of SF sour dough, was right here. To follow that up we headed over to Flour and Water. One of the “go-to’s” in the city right now you will need to either make reservations early or be ready to wait. Fortunately they have a couple of good bars close by and will text you when your table is ready. The pizza here was good, come creative combinations with interesting toppings however some combo’s seemed a bit over the top. The flavor was good and the crust had good texture but was a bit salty.
Day #3: I was ready for the home stretch but Troya had flamed out by Flour and Water and needed a pep talk to get back out on the pizza trail. With motivation restored we headed to Zero Zero on Folsom. This is a very cool place which has a great little bar and some very creative drinks on the menu. Troya was eyeing all the brunch items coming out of the kitchen, but we stuck to our guns and got the pizza. They have more traditional toppings and combinations then some of the other stops and it was a bit heavier and greasy then most of the others, but good none the less. I would like to come back here with a group of friends because it seemed to have that kind of vibe. From there we made our way south to PizzaHacker in Bernal Heights. Not wood fired but they use enough heat to get a bit of char on the crust. The crust had a lot of flavor, more so after it cooled interestingly. Flavor was the theme here and this pie had the most pop and flavor rush of any that we had. Just what you would expect with a name like Hacker. And sadly this is where our trip ended. We still had 2 on the list, Long Bridge on 3rd and Gialina Pizzaria in Glen Park, but neither was open during the day on Sunday so our list was shortened and our coronaries saved.
So, after 3 days and 10 Pizza stops, the winner is………….(drum roll)……………….
#1- Una Pizza Napoletana- hard to believe some place could unseat Tony’s, but the crust, the crust, what more can I say.
#2-Tony’s Pizza Napolentana- still tried and true and where I would go if I want to be transported back to Italy and our pizza roots.
#3- PizzaHacker- this was the most difficult choice but they edged out the others with their flavor bomb of a pizza.
Of the runner ups here are some categories for the others; Romanic date night spot- Pizzetta 211 and Pizzaria Delfina. I want to impress my date spot- Flour and Water, food will be good and if the date is going bad its great people watching place with lots of living stereo types. Place to gather and feast with friends- Little Star and Zero Zero.
Mixology is the big buzz word these days, so much so that it’s the name of a prime time TV series. But what is mixology, or a mixologist, and how is it any different than a bartender? For me it’s like the difference between a cook and a chef. A cook will make a great meal by following a recipe, a chef will create a great meal blending ingredients into something unique and often extraordinary. So to with a mixologist.
So it was with part excitement and part curiosity that we wondered into Hock Farm Craft & Provisions while on an overnight stay in Sacramento. The restaurant is getting a bit of press for its title, a bit of homage to John Sutter, and its “Farm to Table” methods, another popular buzz word or phrase, but it was the drink menu that pulled us in. With its Barrel-Aged Hanky Panky and Improved Lavender Sidecar, most of the specialty drinks are classic old school libations with a modern mixologist’s twist. They even have a Gin & Tonic with house made tonic. My go-to drink that I usually have with two limes, I chose to go without with this one so as not to mask the unique flavors. Brad, mastermind behind many of the recipes and aging process’s, was more than happy to explain the concepts and flavors that went into his creations. Stephen was also behind the bar making sure no glass remained empty for too long. The highlight was when I asked Brad to go off the menu and mix up something unique. I will not give away the details, but I expect it will be on the regular menu in the near future. Needless to say, when we are back in Sacramento you will know where to find us.
I usually shy away from Cabs when choosing a dinner wine, unless we were pulling a steak off the grill that is. I am not sure why, if it’s a bias I have because of its reputation or if I am concerned it would over power whatever I just spent hours creating or I did not feel the meal warrants a wine that is usually one of the pricier in the collection. I do not shy away from it when out tasting, and we often purchase a few as well, but then they just sit there waiting for the “perfect meal”. Recently, however, we were out with friends and purchased a bottle to drink with our meal. It happened rather quickly and I was not able to give my input and before I knew it we had a bottle of Cab at our table and I had just ordered Mahi-mahi. Great, I thought, now I am not going to be able to enjoy my meal because the wine will totally dominate the fish, and I probably will not even like it that much. Much to my surprise they paired wonderfully. Since then I have paired Cabs with several other non-traditional Cab dishes. I have been intrigued that these big wines can become chameleons and pair with many dishes with very subtle flavors without losing any of their own appeal. They are not the bully I thought they were. I guess I have a little bit of a cab crush now. Try it out for yourself and I think you will be surprised how a Cab can stand up to just about any big flavor yet not overpower some of the more subtle flavors. Let me know what you come up with.
Hold summer in your hand, pour summer in a glass, a tiny glass of course, the smallest tingling sip for children; change the season in your veins by raising glass to lip and tilting summer in”
― Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine
While the rest of the country has been under a barrage of storms this winter, so much so that it effecting the national economy, we here in California have had one of the best summers this winter that many of us can remember. It was on one of these memorable weekends, mid 70’s, light wind, clear skies-in MARCH, that we found ourselves back in Carmel. True to our form, our first day was spent catching up with some of our favorite wineries in the square, Wrath Wines and Scheid Vineyards. Paired with some of the incredible cheese’s found right next to Wrath at the Carmel Cheese Shop and the weekend was getting kicked off in the best way possible. With over 10 tasting room’s right in the heart of Carmel by the Sea we decided to try a few new ones as well. While looking for Galante Vineyards we stumbled upon Dawn’s Dream Winery. Newly located in town after moving from the valley we soon found out that it was started by Dawn, the wife of Jack Galante. Focusing on mostly Pinot Noir, in contrast to her husband, and naming most of the wines after her daughters, our pour guild took us though the tasting list that included an ’11 “Rachael” from the Santa Lucia Highlands, an ’11 “Nicole” from Monterey and an ’09 Carneros Pinot. All of these wines had a soft pleasant aroma, were light at first and then built in flavor on the back end. They all had a nice balance of fruit and mineral, but with the exception of the ’09 Carneros were a little rough. They do have all the right characteristics and my guess is that in a year or two they will soften a bit. Unfortunately they were out of the ’11 “Alyssa” Santa Lucia, which we were told was the most popular. All Dawn’s wines are $30 which after another year or so I think will be a fair price point.
With some land mark tips from our pour guild at Dawn’s we did find our way to Galante Vineyards, tucked in behind a small park on Dolores street. Contrary to Dawn’s, the new kid on the block, Galante has been making wine since the mid ‘90’s and claims to be the first tasting room in Carmel. Also in contrast with Dawn’s is the varietals, likely by design and harmonic matrimony. While she focuses on the Burgundy styles, his is primarily on the Bordeaux style. These wines were all very big, as you would imagine, with my favorites being the ’10 Rancho Galante and the ’07 Blackjack Pasture. Both of these are your classic big Cabs with a lot of dark fruit and some tannins but overall very smooth. At $25 the Rancho is a very good deal but you double that with the Blackjack which is not twice the wine. Our final stop of the day was another new find Silvestri Vineyards. Representing what we all hope to do, make millions doing something we love and then start a winery and do something else we love, owner Alan Silvestri is very well known for his film music and his list of contributions is very long and accomplished. I am not sure what it was exactly, but with the exception of the ’12 Estate Pinot Noir, which I liked a lot, all of these wines seemed to have a very similar flavor characteristic to them that I could not help but think was some additive.
Unfortunately we were late trying to make dinner reservations to one of our favorite restaurants in Carmel, Demetra Café, but were told a new restaurant, Yafa, was owned and run by the same family. They were very friendly and welcoming, even giving us all a glass of wine while we waited for our table to be ready. While the food was good, the salmon ravioli especially standing out, it did not stand up to Demetra and I am not sure we will return given all the options in the area.
Day two started at Taste Morgan. While very well-known and having been in the area for a while, it’s a little bit off the usual “wine path” and we had not been before. Greeting us with a cheery “hello”, our pour guild here was very funny and energetic, as great way to start the day. They have quite a few wines on their list and while we did not taste them all, our pour guild was happy to let us taste several that were not on the list for the day. All of these wines were very clean and consistent, what you would expect for a larger but not huge production winery. I found them all very pleasant to drink but nothing really put me over the top. Then it was into Carmel Valley and on to the usual wine trail. After a quick stop at the new tasting room of Talbot (very cool with basically a motorcycle museum around the tasting area) we walked over to Cowgirl Winery. A stark contrast to the ritzy glamor of Talbot, the tasting room has a quaint, barn-ish feel to it. They have 4 wines here with the Rosѐ being my favorite. Light and refreshing and not too sweet. Everything about this place, including the wine, is light and fun and it does not seem like they take themselves too seriously. A walk across the street found us at the Twisted Roots tasting room, located in the Lyons Head Art Gallery which used to be the home of the Joyce Vineyard tasting room. This winery is actually located in Lodi and just opened this tasting room in Carmel Valley, I am guessing for the increased exposure. Here again I got a taste of some kind of additive from all the wines except the ’09 Petite Sirah which drank very nicely, not like a typical Petite but more like a blend, softer then you would expect. Our last stop, and as usual an almost missed stop due to time, was at Boёtё’s tasting room. Located in a very non-descript shopping center closer to highway 1, it’s easy to miss but one that should become a regular stop. On a small 7 acre vineyard they grow mostly Cab and Cab Franc and their grapes are considered by some to be some of the best in California. As you would expect, these wines are all very big, but not overpowering or rough, they have a very nice balance of fruit, mineral and tannins, and are all smooth on the tongue. Some are a bit more complex, which I like, and some are your typical CA style fruit bombs. Basically, if you enjoy Cabs, you will find one here to your liking.
For dinner that night we had made reservations to one of our favorite restaurants in the area, Passionfish in Pacific Grove. We had not been there in a while but it was remembered for its great selection of fresh fish and creative dishes, as well as an impressive wine cellar, and it did not disappoint. Carmel does have many very good restaurants all within walking distance, but nothing like Passionfish, and it’s worth the short drive.
Find of the weekend, Boёté. They have definitely made on to the list of must stops when we are in the area. Disappointment of the weekend, interestingly, was Talbot. Their Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs are usually consistently good. However they were a bit weak, almost watered down this time, and did not have their usual complexity.