Psst... We're working on the next generation of Chowhound! View >
HOME > Chowhound > San Francisco Bay Area >
Jul 12, 2014 12:48 PM

Chad Robertson's influence on SF pizza scene

Interesting piece by Jonathan Kauffman positing that Pizza Hacker, Long Bridge Pizza, Del Popolo, and the pizzas at Josey Baker Bread constitute a new style of pizza inspired by Tartine's bread dough.

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
  1. Interesting comment about Neal DeNardi "cultivating a Dogpatch-native starter." Given SF's micro-climates and how they may affect different wild yeast strains, we may see pizzas with neighborhood-level terroir.

    As if we didn't have enough fodder for pizza arguments already.

    1 Reply
    1. re: soupçon

      Very possible, but it's not like beekeeping. We already have bakeries in every neighborhood. Besides, Just For You Cafe has been producing bread in the Dogpatch for years. It's a nice bread but you can't taste the micro-climate.

    2. The ignorance is astounding.

      Shame of Jonathan Kauffman.

      The Tartine influence is a given, but Chad Robertson isn't a pioneer. His wonderful product is wonderful in part because it reminds San Franciscans of the types of breads that were commonplace. Where Acme Bread's mission seemed to fail, Tartine helped inspired Outerlands, Josie Baker, Firebrand, Mission Local, and others. But in our desire to define and market the current food scene, it's disgraceful journalism to pretend this is something new, and not the rebirth of 100 year old San Francisco traditions.

      As for pizza... yeah there's some characteristics the places mentioned share, and it's sort of it's own style.... but Pizza Hacker's pizzas don't taste like Tartine, and one again, a long fermented pizza crust with different results, was pretty popular in San Francisco. Most of those places have vanished, or sold, but why is Jonathan Kauffman introducing the idea as if he doesn't know better?

      13 Replies
      1. re: sugartoof

        Robertson's extreme hydration las nothing to do with the old local French/Italian sourdough tradition, or any old local pizza I know of.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          Why do you think that?

          You've related the results of Tartine's bread to old sourdough.

          The other problem is nobody recognizes San Francisco even had an old local pizza style (now mostly extinct) to begin with.

          1. re: sugartoof

            " nobody recognizes San Francisco even had an old local pizza style (now mostly extinct) to begin with."

            You expect any historical perspective from today's journalists??

            It's like expecting them to know that people seriously compared California wines to European counterparts before the 1976 Spurrier tasting in Paris. Or the existence of specialty food shops in Berkeley's 1500-1600 Shattuck blocks before Chez Panisse -- that sort of thing.

            1. re: sugartoof

              Where is the remnant of this almost extinct putative local style?

              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                Back up - How can you deny a link between Chad Robertson's bread and 150+ years of San Francisco baking utilizing long ferments, and heavy hydration?

                1. re: sugartoof

                  Robertson uses 85-90% hydration for the country loaf made at the bakery. He learned that by way of his apprenticeship with Richard Bourdon. Some of his whole-grain porridge breads are over 100%.

                  The SF sourdough tradition uses more like 72%.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    You think Robertson was the first baker in San Francisco to use 90% hydration?

                    Did you just make that up? It's wrong.

                    1. re: sugartoof

                      When Robertson started selling his bread at the Berkeley farmers market in the 90s, I don't believe any other commercial baker in California had the technique to shape loaves out of such wet dough. Certainly there was nothing else like it on the market.

                      Focaccia and similar yeast-raised pan breads, sure, there's nothing new or radical about those doughs having very high hydration.

                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                        So Chad Robertson invented the rustic bread, and introduced it to San Francisco? Every dinner table in the city didn't have a bread comparable to the blistering dark crusted bread he aspired to make? He uses focaccia dough and invented a magic pan to give birth to a new bread? Is that the narrative?

                        Sounds like fraud to me.

                        Chad Robertson came along at a time when local bakeries were cutting corners, or cutting availability, or giving up their heritage recipes. It wasn't long ago this discussion would have been about Steve Sullivan and Acme Bread as a supposed bastion of old world baking. Sadly he wimped out at 60% hydration (a lot for a commercial bakery at the time, but not home recipes) and for some sad reason people pretended his rustic country breads were dead on. It's also during these types of discussions where about how someone like an Acme revitalized old baking techniques to accurate results where people lose all credibility, claiming ridiculous things, like how Boudin hasn't changed in 50 years. Now it's how Tartine invented the rustic Bay Area bread. I find it offensive.

                        What Tartine has done is given a rebirth to the baking scene, and reminded (or educated) people what these breads are meant to taste like. Tartine's Country Bread is the closest we have to an old Sourdough bread, usually sans the heavy sourness. That belief is one most of us agree on at this point. Embracing grains is a hallmark, and there's some innovation there. He's branching out into new territory with his latest breads, but not so much in his Country Bread. That bread follows a tradition, and it's a San Francisco one. Please stop trying to rewrite or slight Bay Area food history because it fits a trend piece, marketing slant of the moment...and please stop carrying water for those who do.

                        1. re: sugartoof

                          Chad Robertson was the first commercial baker in this area to use such wet dough to shape loaves for hearth bread. He was trying to create bread of a style he had eaten in France, and specifically did not want the pronounced sourness of old-school SF sourdough, which anyway was virtually extinct by the time he started his apprenticeships in New York and France.

                          Steve Sullivan grew up in the Bay Area and went to UCB, so he had surely eaten a lot of SF sourdough, but his primary inspiration was pain Poilâne, which he first tasted in Paris in 1978. Acme levain's hydration is about 72%, which is similar to that of pain Poilâne. That's just as traditional as Tartine's high hydration.

                          1. re: sugartoof

                            No where in the Kauffman article or Robert's posts does anyone say Chad Robertson invented rustic bread or sourdough bread which is the impression you seem to have.

                            According to Robert, Chad is the first person he knows of in the Bay Area to make bread using the particular techniques in the Tartine recipe.

                            Since you are so quick to shoot down those claims, please name some specific examples of people or places making bread using those techniques in the Bay Area before Robertson came on the scene.

                            And just because places made bread that look similiar or tasted similar to Tartine bread doesn't necessarily mean they were using the same techniques.

                        2. re: sugartoof

                          "You think Robertson was the first baker in San Francisco to use 90% hydration?

                          Did you just make that up? It's wrong."

                          Please provide a specific counter-example about who was doing this before Robertson to back up your claim. Since I know nothing about this subject, I certainly would appreciate the education.

                          Or perhaps it is just you that is making stuff up?

              2. Interesting, of the pizza places mentioned in the article I've only tried Del Popolo, and there definitely is a bit of that Tartine bread texture in the crust. Difficult to describe but it's kind of a moist sponginess. Has a bit of a sourdough tang as well.

                1. I enjoyed PizzaHacker, especially the Rocket Man pizza, and I thought the crust was a good pairing for pizzas with eggs.

                  The crust was a bit doughy, and reminded me a bit of Souplantation focaccia.

                  17 Replies
                  1. re: ipsedixit

                    Pizzahacker needs to learn the difference between charred and outright burnt.

                    The dough certainly has plenty of elasticity, but they remind me of the kind of thing people would throw out on their way to perfect a certain style pizza.

                    1. re: sugartoof

                      I've only been once. My crust was not burnt.

                      There are better places - for me - when I'm in SF. PizzaHacker is good when I'm in the area. Otherwise, it's not really an option.

                      1. re: ipsedixit

                        I have a higher than average tolerance for burnt.

                        The pizzas are okay, but every bite has the same taste, and lacks depth.

                        1. re: sugartoof

                          I also kind of think their pizzas are a bit pricey, perhaps even overpriced.

                          1. re: sugartoof

                            I've been three times and never had a burnt pie. I do find that their pies tend to taste the same regardless of the toppings, compared to say Gialina where the different topping combinations really stand out.

                            1. re: sunnyside

                              Agree about Gialina.

                              To clarify, I don't mean the toppings or cheese are burnt, simply the char on the crust, which I normally love, was taken to far, to the point where it tastes like nothing but burnt.

                            2. re: sugartoof

                              I disagree. I think it's some of the best pizza in the city.

                            3. re: ipsedixit

                              Ipse, what are your favorite SF pizzas? Any of these?

                                1. re: ipsedixit

                                  thats what i like to hear, Ipsedxit...those are 2 of the fotos!

                                  1. re: lapizzamaven


                                    Pic 1 is the cherry pizza at Una and Pic 3 is the Margherita at Tony's. Sì?

                                    1. re: ipsedixit

                                      Good pizza "eye" Ipsedixit!!!!!!!!! margherita w/ sausage at Tony's...i luv them both! can you tell me where the other 2 pies are from?

                                      1. re: lapizzamaven

                                        Hmm, not sure.

                                        But Pic 4 looks like the Widowmaker at A16

                                        1. re: ipsedixit

                                          Damn, youre good, Ipse! the last one is Pizzeria Picco...north Bay...

                                            1. re: ipsedixit

                                              Very good...its in Larkspur...Bruce Hill also owns Zero Zero in SF, i believe....havent been there!

                                              1. re: lapizzamaven

                                                Zero Zero is solid. To me their pies are similar to those at Delfina, Cotogna, Flour + Water, and Beretta and it's easier to get a table.

                        2. This comment kind of got lost in the fray above, " nobody recognizes San Francisco even had an old local pizza style (now mostly extinct) to begin with."

                          Is/was there a local style and was it any good compared to what's available now?

                          36 Replies
                          1. re: hyperbowler

                            Most of the pizzas I had around town in the 70s were relatively thick, soft, yeasty, and light bake (what people in the pizza trade call "West Coast bake"), which were similar to pizza I had elsewhere in Northern California.

                            Victor's Pizza on Polk is one example, it hadn't changed the last time I got a slice there maybe five years ago.

                            The Sausage Factory on Castro was another. I don't know if they've changed in the 30+ years since I last ate there.

                            1. re: Robert Lauriston

                              Agre completely with Robert Lauriston on SFs pizza history, at least back to the 70s...way too soft and thick!

                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                See, you answered your own question.

                                Victor's, North Beach Pizza, Haystack, Pirro's, Pasquele's... the style was more common than not.

                                I disagree about the light bake. In their prime, the crusts were brown, blistering, and bulbous with some char, and a springy bubbly crumb.

                                Heavy rich sauces were common, and the specials were heavy toppings. I wouldn't call the pizzas soft, but they're were cracker crusts either. You could pick a slice up with a mountain of toppings, no problem...but yes, they were doughy for some people that missed their own regional pizzas, or the 50's style.

                                These places had pretty similar menus, always featuring an antipasta salad.

                                1. re: sugartoof

                                  That style isn't local to San Francisco, it's just generic West Coast pizza. The dough's the same as on the East Coast except that the crust is thicker and they don''t bake it as dark. You can still find places making that style all over the area.

                                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                    The New Haven pizzas were close, but not as crusty and not full of so many toppings... so not close at all.

                                    It wasn't a generic West Coast pizza... it's not what was served in LA or San Diego, or even generically in the suburbs of the Bay Area.....but you could find it across Northern California. It wasn't generic it was just the popular style of the area. In the same breath you call it generic, you detailed some of the elements that made it unique.

                                    "You can still find places making that style all over the area."

                                    No you can't.

                                    1. re: sugartoof

                                      New Haven pizzas, Ive eaten at Pepes and Sally's, are nothing like the too doughy, overly topped pies common to most of cali....New Haven is much thinner, crisper cooked in brick ovens...whole different suggest you take a look at the Slice web site and search New Haven for a good sampling and description!

                                      1. re: lapizzamaven

                                        They weren't common to "most of California".

                                        I was trying to give Robert an inch with his ludicrous comment that these were pizzas found on the East Coast. New Haven would be the closest.

                                    2. re: Robert Lauriston

                                      I think I can see why this is being phased out.

                                    3. re: sugartoof

                                      I'm missing something. Robert's description, which he identified as common throughout Northern California, doesn't differ much from doughy pizza I've eaten throughout the US and Northern California. Is it really any different than what you get in the US at places without a "regional style" or Papa John's for that matter?

                                      1. re: hyperbowler

                                        I've had similar pizzas in various places around the US. It's clearly still popular here, given the continuing expansion of the local Mary's Pizza Shack chain. I could go for a big, doughy slice myself right now.

                                        sugartoof's the only person I've ever seen describe that as a distinctive regional style, but in my experience those pies did not have the characteristics sugartoof describes.

                                        1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                          Nothing like Mary's Pizza Shack.

                                          You clearly didn't experience these places or eat at a good one in their prime.

                                        2. re: hyperbowler

                                          Nothing like Papa John's.
                                          They weren't doughey or mushy.

                                          The crusts being thicker would have some crunch on the edges, and inside me warm light airy bready. The pizza would have the slightest layer of still tender dough under the toppings that outsiders might have fixated on and called doughey. These were very well done pies. If you're reading these descriptions and thinking Papa John's or generic pizzas, you are getting the wrong idea.

                                        3. re: sugartoof

                                          North Beach Pizza is still around ,isnt it? yeah, i wouldnt describe these pizzerias as producing anything i would like...i did eat at several when i lived in SF in the 80s but mostly because of lack of options...nothing memorable, def too doughy.

                                          1. re: lapizzamaven

                                            North Beach Pizza is the only place I describe as having pizza so bad I still crave decent pizza after I eat it. Pasqale's is very tasty, though.

                                            1. re: MissEnPlace

                                              I’m also I fan of Pasquales (the Sloat location) for a basic, cheap take-out pie. I like the sausage and onion, generous amount of fennely sausage. Doesn’t get any of the love or attention on this board as some of the less deserving places (I’m looking at you Pizza Shop on 24th St. with your skimpy toppings)

                                            2. re: lapizzamaven

                                              North Beach Pizza was amazing pizza in the 80's. It got write ups, and had lines out the door with a second location on the same block.

                                              Nothing close to what they've been serving over the last 20 years. Anyone claiming it tastes the same today, or basing their opinion on the garbage chain its become can't be trusted.

                                              1. re: sugartoof

                                                I ate at North Beach Pizza not long after they opened. At the beginning they served crunchy, greasy focaccia heavy with toppings. It was certainly different from other places', personally I thought it was dreadful and not really pizza. Years later when someplace I was working got pies from the Berkeley branch I was surprised that they had switched to standard round, bready pies.

                                                1. re: sugartoof

                                                  When I moved here from NYC in late 1996, my experience was that aside from a few places like Tomassos, Gaspare and Villa Romano, the pizza was pretty dreadful and generic. This is based on North Beach Pizza, Buffalo De Mozzerella and others I’m trying not to recall. I always wondered if there were other better places around then that I just didn’t know about. I would gorge on pizza during return trips to NY. Now when I go back to NY I don’t really go out of my way to eat pizza, as SF is in the middle of such a pizza renaissance that I can’t even keep up with all the new places opening.

                                                  1. re: sunnyside

                                                    Right, and I agree - by 1996.

                                                    We're not talking about 1996.

                                                    We're talking about 1974, when the Bay Area was going through a craft boom similar to today, of small community farming, and rustic homebaking. That's the setting for Jeremiah Tower creating his personal inventive pizzas for Alice Waters, in reaction to the hearty family style pizzas all over the Bay Area. They were also inspired by Tomasso's, who were already serving shrimp on their pizzas, which is nothing you would see at the new generation of family style red and white checkered table cloth joints. Prego's then followed, and we know that story. Zachary's emerged in 1983, again, amongst a very healthy pizza community. Later there was LaCocco's which is closer to what Robert imagined North Beach Pizza tasted like, with it's focaccia and olive oil soaked crust. Unfortunately that pizza renaissance was dead by 1996 when a corn meal crust was noteworthy. The places I'm talking about were pretty bad by the mid 90's.

                                                    Also, these were all pretty different style pizzas from what you got in NY.

                                                    1. re: sugartoof

                                                      Ahh, before my time. Well then I'm just glad the pendulum has swung back around.

                                                      1. re: sunnyside

                                                        Me too. It's exciting to see a new renaissance.

                                                        (I'd just like it to be a well informed one)

                                                      2. re: sugartoof

                                                        Chez Panisse, Tomasso's, North Beach, Zachary's... yes there was a flowering of sort of "craft" pizza. I'd argue that Pauline's, Cheeseboard, and Viccolo's should be on the list. But I don't see how it adds up to a coherent style. And I really don't see where it has anything to do with sour ferments, with the possible exception of Cheeseboard (which I never ate until the '00s).

                                                        So, yeah, there have been other creative chefs reshaping the pizza market in the Bay Area. In that sense the current innovators come out of a tradition. But I don't see where that makes the current genre any less innovative or distinct.

                                                        1. re: sugartoof

                                                          According to a friend who was working there at the time, Tower made pizzette because he couldn't get a socca / panisse recipe to work correctly.

                                                          The inspiration for the cafe was a pizza that Alice Waters ate in Torino in November 1978. Tower, who left the next month, had nothing to do with it, as made clear by extensive quotes from both parties in the McNamee book.

                                                      3. re: sugartoof

                                                        undoubtedly, SF pizza until the last decade or so, shall i put this...lousy! i lived there for the 80s and have regularly visited since...i agree with sunnyside and i think Robert Lauriston ,especially his description of NB pizza..ugh...a friend always suggested it and i went along because, other than Tomasso's, i could think of no decent alternative...SF has come a long way, as far as pizza goes...sadly, so much else about the City has changed for the worse!

                                                      4. re: sugartoof

                                                        MMmmm... Clam and garlic from North Beach... Those were the days... ^_-

                                                        1. re: slew

                                                          I forgot all about that clam and garlic pizza!
                                                          You brought back memories. Thank you.

                                                2. re: hyperbowler

                                                  Yeah, thats my ?...what decent pizza was there in SF in the past? i lived there through the 80s and visited in the late 70s and dont remember a decent pizza...virtually everything was too thick and doughy...whats the name of the old italian restaurant on Kearney next to the porno stores? that had decent pizza... anybody?

                                                    1. re: FoodTrippin

                                                      Thanks, FoodTrippin, i used to go there so often...not a good sign that I forgot that name!

                                                    2. re: lapizzamaven

                                                      Tomasso's (formerly Lupo's) is the oldest pizza parlor on the West Coast, been operating continuously in that location since 1935. The crust is thicker than NY style but they have a wood oven and cook it crisper anybody else in town used to.

                                                      1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                        thanks for confirming my positive memories, Robert Lauriston...have you been lately? i know for years whenever i visit SF, North Beach has become so overrun with tourists its tough to handle...

                                                        1. re: lapizzamaven

                                                          I went most recently maybe five years ago? The food seemed unchanged. I always order cold marinated vegetables and a sausage pie. Somebody insisted on ordering a pasta which was as bad an idea as ever.

                                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                            thats good to hear....thanks for the update, i will try to get over there on my next visit.

                                                          2. re: lapizzamaven

                                                            Bauer visited recently (I know, I know, but a data point at least) as part of his series on old-school places. The article doesn't say a lot about the pizza.


                                                            1. re: Prabhakar Ragde

                                                              No, it doesnt say much but the chatter is creating a nostalgic craving!

                                                        2. re: lapizzamaven

                                                          "i lived there through the 80s and visited in the late 70s "

                                                          Which would suggest you grew up with different ideals of pizza. While I'm sure you can find a Native San Franciscan that would share your opinion (after all, it's pizza) I'm describing a long lost but very beloved style of pizza, during an era when San Francisco really became a pizza town. These places thrived with lines of families out the door.

                                                          We could be having the exact same discussion about burritos, by the way. Taste and preference are all valid, and I love pizzas and burritos of all eras, but I'd also like it if we recognized traditions, and regional styles existed before negligent food journalists who don't care or don't know better, rewrite history.