The idea that San Franciscans were clamoring for a new pizzeria, considering they already had options like Flour + Water, A16, Gialina and Pizzeria Delfina, came as a bit of a surprise. However, that turned out to be the case on my most recent trip to the city, when my father, stepmother and I encountered an hour-and-a-half wait at Zero Zero, a restaurant that seats almost 150 people. Chef Bruce Hill (Pizzeria Picco, Bix) had clearly hit on something in SoMa, so we returned the next night.
Hill’s contemporary two-story Italian restaurant features a glass front, a mezzanine overlooking the action below, and a bar on each level. Upstairs, a mural depicts Pinocchio and core pizza ingredients, including Zero Zero flour, which is evidently favored by pizzaiolos in Naples.
Zero Zero divides their cocktails into two categories: “HOUSE” and “EXHUMED.” It sounds morbid, but Exhumed cocktails are just classics, which are readily available in Los Angeles. Given that, I opted for a house original – The High Smolder ($10) – a sweet but fairly well balanced cocktail combining Tres Agaves anejo tequila, pineapple gum syrup, lime juice and nectarine jalapeno marmalade. My big concern was that the marmalade would render the cocktail too sweet and chunky, but Zero Zero’s bartender double strain, which certainly helped matters.
We ordered food from every menu category. Our first starter involved Onaga Snapper Crudo ($9.75) a fairly clever play on Italy’s raw fish preparation that involved alternating layers of silky fish and sweet plum, with pickled watermelon rind and micro-basil accents.
Expectations were highest for Zero Zero’s pizza, but the highlight of the meal was undoubtedly their Crispy Fried Chicken Thighs ($11.95), juicy, boneless dark meat with crispy coats, a spicy chile bed and a small ramekin of tangy caraway yogurt, which added another layer of complexity when spooned onto the delectable yardbird.
Pressed Watermelon Salad ($8.95) was pretty to look at, but the melon cubes could have used help from more Feta, shaved onion and nepitella, an Italian herb. Basically, the salad was unbalanced in terms of flavor and texture.
Spaghetti ($13.95) was pretty good, featuring sweet Gulf prawns, broccoli raab, Calabrian chilies, mint and breadcrumbs. The dish would have worked better if the chef dialed back the breadcrumbs, which overwhelmed the tomato sauce.
The tomato sauce came through better in the Pappardelle ($14.95), though the pasta sheets clumped together, and not in a good way. Still, it was hard to argue too much with the shreds of braised pork shoulder, cubes of grilled summer squash and green olive pesto.
Hill refers to his pizza as “Calipolitan,” Neapolitan pizza topped with farm-driven California ingredients. His wood-burning oven feeds on almond wood, just like at Picco. Flames were certainly kicking in the mouth of the oven, but either the pizzaiolos didn’t fire our pies long enough, or more likely, Hill prefers slightly undercooked pizzas, since that’s what we received.
Our Market ($13.50) pizza was an inventive white pizza topped with crisped, house-made mortadella, thin-shaved Padron peppers, molten mozzarella, roasted garlic and oregano. The toppings were interesting and excellent, like they are at most serious San Francisco pizzerias, and though the crust was blistered at points, it was too chewy and, to my mind, undercooked.
We had to get at least one pizza with tomato sauce, so we ordered the Castro ($13.50), named for another iconic SF street. The sauce was good, and so were the discs of pepperoni-like sopressata and crumbles of house made sausage. Hill’s team went easy on the mozzarella and basil, which allowed the other toppings to star. Our second crust clearly enjoyed a longer stay in the oven, but it was still too chewy.
For dessert, Zero Zero features deluxe Straus Family Creamery soft serve ice cream drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt, just like at Pizzeria Picco, but we had to meet a friend at Bar Agricole, so we had to skip it.
Overall, Zero Zero’s pizza was solid, driven by the strength of the toppings, but Flour + Water and A16 are more likely to get my return pizza business. Still, the restaurant did have some other high points, particularly the fried chicken thighs, which warrant a special trip.