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Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza
Pizza My Heart: Willow Street takes the "yuppie pizza" concept a step beyond.

America is not a melting pot; at Willow Street, it's a pizza

By Steve Bjerklie

The chronicles do not show that Marco Polo came home from the mysterious East and spread a mound of pad Thai on his pizza. So when Thai chicken and peanut sauce start showing up on crusts up and down the coast, it's time to ask some basic questions.

Artichoke and pesto, spinach and chicken, goat cheese and sun-dried tomatoes--I mean, what is with all this stuff? For centuries pizza came in two types, pepperoni and sausage, and the world was good. Whatever else was on pizza was there at the discretion of the chef. Twenty years ago, when I was bicycling up the northern shank of the Italian boot and subsisted to a great extent on pizza and chianti, I was shocked to discover that at a lot of trattorias and stand-up tavola caldas they served pizza with nothing on it. This, I did not learn until I was back in California--where language is so refined and we pride ourselves on knowing the precise word for everything--is focaccia. But in Italy it was called plain pizza. Trust me.

I suppose it's worth pointing out that at about the same time I was in Italy chewing on thick, unadorned crust, the wacky trend that eventually led to the national food of Thailand covering a hubcap-sized example of the national food of Naples began in, of course, Marin County. A place in Sausalito called Dario's, founded in 1972 at the very dawn of the modern era, had the audacity on opening day to put slices of pineapple on pizza. Then came bell peppers, then snow peas. Up north they baked on bud. Someone put Chinese mushrooms on a pizza; someone else used pesto sauce instead of marinara. Whole national cuisines began colliding like Bloods and Crips on flattened dough. America has ceased to be a melting pot; we are a pesto-chorizo-ham-and-extra-cheese pizza.

The roots of this mess are probably much older than 25 years, if the truth be told. It's easy, after all, to blame Marin for hare-brained schemes when the finger should more accurately be pointed at Chicago, where pizza cooks, ever-suffering from New York envy, baked four-inch-thick meat-cheese-and-dough cakes and called them pizzas. Someone from Chicago once told me that Chicago-style pizza originated decades ago as a way to add more ingredients beyond the traditional sausage, cheese and tomato sauce, "which is all they do in New York, you know." This sounds logical enough, since Chicago markets are full of potential pizza toppings like fresh sweet corn and alfalfa, but the truth is that the restaurants just wanted to sell more beer. Order a pizza in a pizzeria in Chicago, and be prepared to wait an hour because the damn thing takes so long to bake. What do you do for that hour? Drink alcohol, of course, as any American would.

Which more or less brings us to Willow Street Wood-Fired Pizza down at 150 Fourth St., just across from the Moscone Center. We ended up at Willow St. after an evening at a nearby restaurant was called on account of fog, and the lights and warmth of the blond-wood interior beckoned us. You don't have to wait an hour because their pizzas aren't as thick as a volume of the Encyclopedia Britannia. They are, in fact, relatively New York in thickness, but there the resemblance to anything available in Little Italy comes to an end. Willow Street's pizza menu begins with the meatless "Classic Cheese" and ends with "Chicken with Pesto and Spinach." These are not foods Michael Corleone ever ordered, we can all be assured.

But look at what happened to him: keeling over dead from malnutrition or something in the middle of the town square. He'd still be alive and manipulating today if he'd tried Willow Street's pies, because they're pretty darned good. A pair of friends and I ate our way through Willow Street's chicken brie pizza and then the Thai chicken pizza with satisfying results. On the whole we liked the Thai chicken a little better because brie is just too mild a crust for pizza and because the perky Thai spices worked well on the dough crust.

I have no idea if these pizzas being "wood-fired" made a difference, but they did arrive at the table in short order, before we had even finished one beer from the extensive list of local ales, lagers and stouts (including Willow Street's own house-made beers.) We kind of wish we'd ordered the chicken-pesto-spinach affair, which came with an enthusiastic recommendation from our waitperson until she realized, "No, that's too much chicken for you."

We began the proceedings in the restaurant's bright, blonde-woody surroundings with an order of onion rings, which was excellent ("I really liked that they used purple sweet onions," commented a companion), and another appetizer of fingers of Cajun-spiced calamari, which zinged our taste buds but had the distinct disadvantage of being, well, how does one say it? Okay--flaccid. On the other hand, an order of ginger prawns and penne was anything but limp--the pasta was perfectly al dente, and the shrimp exhibited an appealing firmness.

Specialties on the menu include "Rotisserie Chicken Pizza Wrap," which after reading the description ("Rotisserie chicken, roasted garlic cream, mozzarella, peas, red peppers & onion, broccoli, and side of rosemary gravy wrapped in our homemade pizza dough") sounds like a bagel dog after a trip to the farmers' market; Philly cheesesteak pizza wrap; rotisserie lamb sandwich, veggie lasagna calzone (but wait a minute, aren't lasagna and calzone two different foods?); regular ol' oak-fired rotisserie chicken; and the "classic half-pound burger."

But don't veer too far from the pizza at this growing little chain, which now boasts four other shopfronts besides the Moscone location (including one in Marin; I suppose the Thai chicken pizza is already passé up there). Some of the flavor combinations read on the page like highway-crash experiments--bacon and roasted garlic, for example--but they work remarkably well. Vegetarians have a wide range to choose from, which is not often the case in a pizzeria. And yes, they do offer a pepperoni pizza--it's on the kids' menu.

A couple of appetizers, the bowl of penne, two pizzas, several pints of draught beer and a chocolate dessert recommended by our waitperson, who then offered to take our confession after we ate it, totaled $86 and change, a fair deal for three.

150 Fourth St. (across from Moscone Center), lunch 11:30-4pm daily, dinner until 10pm Mon.-Fri., 11pm weekends; 415/538-8400. $$, All major cards.

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From the August 1997 issue of the Metropolitan.

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