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Getting it with Pizzeria Delfina

07.11.17 Posted in Food, San Francisco by

It’s pretty remarkable that a place that has been around for years and one that has branches across the city continues to knock out some of the best pizza in the area while offering the definition of a casual dining experiencee. Credit Craig Stoll or whoever he has managing this project. They know what they’re doing and anyone running or opening a restaurant should conduct a thorough study.

The trip that prompted this impression was nothing special, a quick lunch with my parents at the Fillmore location where we were seated expeditiously on a Sunday. It’s a clean well lit place for pizza – all of their locations give you that vibe – and the entire operation hums along around you. Good music, great people watching, a kitchen moving to the beat. Cooking as entertainment as well as consumption.

But the food is the thing and Delfina figured out how to maintain focus from the get go. It starts with the crisp breadsticks – lean, simple, a great intro to the meal. They really only cook a few pizzas, salads, and classic appetizers like tripe or fried anchovies that fulfill a longing for trattoria food. There are usually specials like spaghetti and meatballs that make sense even if you wrinkle your nose at their presence. I mean, who orders pasta at a pizza place?

And that pizza is a marvel. It’s chewy and charred, strong enough to hold some rather significant toppings like cream and guanciale. The toppings hew to tradition with some Californian variations. When in doubt order the lightest thing on the menu just to taste the wonder of the gluten in this dough. We always spend a lot of time watching the pizzaioli working in the back because the dough is so elastic and yet comes out so chewy that we know we have eons to go with our home pizza oven.

Lest we forget dessert the short list has always managed to find the traditional dish that resonates while being far too easy to overlook. The Zeppole are really fried pieces of pizza dough topped or slathered with creme anglaise which represent a nice compromise between the classic idea of fluffed dough stuffed with cream, interpretation, and ideal delivery in contemporary restaurants. The cannoli in the Mission location occupy the same position – I’m not an authority but I have yet to find anything as good in the U.S.

Then there’s the wine list which is admirably edited to a page while introducing Americans to still, lamentably, unknown Southern Italian wines. There are fantastic deals, incredible diversity of tastes, oh and they know how to run a wine program. If you don’t know what you want not only will your waiter give you a taste, usually they’ll give you two or three in order to compare. Just don’t be that idiot who insists on an unknown bottle, engage with and appreciate the experience of your wait staff.


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Sustainable business

07.10.17 Posted in Espresso, Food by

Sunday

A post shared by Scott Rocher (@rochers) on

 

I’m just catching up with my podcasts after a long vacation so StartUp‘s latest titled “Building a Perfect Cup of Coffee” really caught my attention. I really like StartUp because it provides such nuanced portraits of the business world which is a topic that really doesn’t get much of this type of coverage. Most business stories feel like promotional blurbs for CEOs, product coverage, or market reports while the real life of work and business doesn’t get its due. After all, we’re all engaged in this work thing day in, day out, so it does merit the attention! But the name – StartUp – is funny one. I suppose the term “start up” was hijacked by the technology industry over the past 20 years but even before then you’d hardly call any new business a start up. The real thing that unifies most of the business stories in this podcast isn’t that they’re classic scalable start ups but that they want to be.

I always feel that inherent tension between that name and subject but this episode made it particularly vivid because it profiles Port of Mokha, a coffee import business that is trying to grow fast with venture funding while remaining rooted in the Yemeni farmers who grow its coffee. You can’t get much more slow growth, traditional business, than importing coffee. It is quite literally a slow growing plant tended by farmers who are plugged into a very physical supply chain which ends up in your cup at places like Blue Bottle. That business story wouldn’t be out of place in Amsterdam hundreds of years ago, San Francisco’s port in the last century, or pretty much anywhere trade has ever flourished.

What’s different about StartUp’s story on Port of Mokha is that it unites an amazing founder story with venture funding pouring out of Silicon Valley investors – it really wants to explain why that cup of coffee costs $16 but never quite gets there. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great story, but there’s a huge missed opportunity here because the bigger story behind Port of Mokha is the iceberg, white whale, your metaphor for hidden giant here. Because the existential questions inherent in Pork of Mokha’s business are whether (and how) you can build a truly sustainable supply chain. I’m not saying this would be easy to report, Yemen is a war zone right now and this season of StartUp focuses on one business per episode, but it really feels like the bigger story is still sitting out there waiting for attention.

I want more because I’ve been working the same beat in the mezcal world at Mezcalistas. The questions of sustainability and sourcing really are existential for mezcal because if you can’t grow enough agave and plan on the crop’s maturity, you don’t have mezcal to sell 6, 8, 10 years down the line. Similar questions define the coffee world: The people growing coffee and agave share similar concerns while the baristas and bartenders serving drinks and the consumers buying them at high end cafes and bars across the globe are very concerned with making a conscious choice about their products. They want products that are produced sustainably in the belief that producers should get paid fairly and treated well in order to create a more stable and ethical world. The mezcal world has even had a version of this story.

This isn’t new, nor restricted to our little corners of the universe, but it is of growing concern. The real question isn’t simply ‘Is this coffee worth $16 a cup?’ it’s ‘How do I know that this cup of coffee is worth $16 a cup?’ Because that’s the real question about anything that has a high cost. The good news is that everyone wants to hear this story, there’s so much green washing out there that we’re in danger of devaluing it. But consumers remain concerned with this topic, producers want in on it as well, and business have been building incredible management strategies to comply. So, where’s that story in this episode? You get pieces of it but the focus is still on the company’s founder and the scalability question – ie can he grow his company to the valuation that his investors expect and not ‘how can you scale while remaining sustainable’ which is the really interesting one. Here’s an argument for more focus on the big questions behind the entrepreneurs!


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Tennis v food in Palm Springs

03.17.17 Posted in Food, Sports by

The amazing thing about our annual pilgrimage to Palm Springs is that this is the only Garrone family affair that’s not about food, this one revolves around tennis, the BNP Paribas Open, and everything else we can fit in recreationally. When I say it’s about the tennis I’m serious, we’re there for a week, at least four full days at the tournament with at least an hour of practice in the evenings under the lights. But you have to eat and might as well eat well, at least in style, which represents a conundrum because, to be close to the tennis, we always stay in one of those golf course housing complexes around Indian Wells which is at least half an hour away from downtown Palm Springs, the center of culinary action in the Coachella Valley.

Croatian classics hour at Indian Wells.

Croatian classics hour at Indian Wells.

For the first few years we really beat ourselves up about this. We actually drove down to Palm Springs to dine at Melvyn’s and to try the places on everyone’s lists. After getting exhausted by all the driving we started trying the strip mall and hotel places closer afield but the quality wasn’t really there. Punctuated evolution kicked in and we simply embraced the grill and never looked back.

The evening hit.

The evening hit.

That’s not a difficult thing because we’re a family of home cooks. Still, we love to dine out so that was a tough pill to swallow. But the more time you spend in the warm desert evenings, the easier it is to embrace the al fresco dining. Plus the closer you look at local supermarkets the more you find strange cuts and organs that reflect another era of New York or LA cooking, things like veal and liver are plentiful which makes for great contrast to the normal stuff we find at our local grocery stores.

Home cooking.

Home cooking.

That still leaves the days at the tennis. Over the years the culinary scene at the appropriately named Indian Wells Tennis Garden has evolved quite a bit. At first they just had the normal food stands serving hot dogs, rice bowls, and the like. Then a few years ago Larry Ellison decided to really spruce up the tournament so he built a whole new stadium and added Nobu, Chop House, and PizzaVino to it. When they opened it was a pretty amazing fan experience. If you splash out for Nobu you can dine while perched a few stories directly above the tennis. Choose pizza or chops and embrace the al fresco patio surrounded by tennis on TVs. Those innovations are now baked into most contemporary sports stadia like Sacramento’s new Golden 1 Center which features a huge Sierra Nevada Bier Garden up in the nose bleeds and not down where the rich people sit.

Once PizzaVino opened at Indian Wells it was a god send; suddenly you could get a pizza, salad, glass of wine and get back to the main event without breaking much of a stride. Given what we’d come to expect of restaurants from these trips, PizzaVino is yet another exception. In my daily life I rarely dine at the same place more than a few times a year. At Indian Wells I dine there daily. But given the alternatives at the tournament, there’s really only one sure bet. It’s not overachieving cuisine but as they say at the Zeitgest: Fast, Friendly, Service – Choose One. Adapted to this context PizzaVino is fast, friendly, have service, and decent food so it’s better than hitting the trifecta, especially given the culinary context. They’ve succeeded enough that, for good or bad, my daughter is now known there well enough that the staff recognize her after a year’s absence.

Then we got this year’s BNP Paribas Open announcement which prominently features new restaurants, namely LA’s epochal Spago but also Cassell’s Hamburgers, and B.S. Taqueria. Spago has been around longer than most of the competitors in the tournament so it should be long in the tooth but it did make significant contributions to Californian cuisine so it has to be worth something. And the other fast casual alternatives are right on target. I got excited because, you know, variety is the spice of life. So for the first time in years we ventured out of the PizzaVino bubble and caught out Spago.

Day one was a fiasco because they weren’t even open yet. Day two the same. Day three, finally they were open but in our own person Keystone Cops movie we managed to walk every level of Stadium One before finding Spago way up at the upper lip of the stadium. The view of the tennis is stunning: It’s perched at the upper lip of the main stadium so the view is straight down onto the court. Anyone suffering from vertigo should just skip it.

With vistas like this, why brave the 100 degree weather? With prices like that the answer is pretty obvious. It’s incredible to be up there, watching the line cook away, enjoy a nice glass of wine, plus you get to try something that’s not pizza. Hell, the man himself was there, Wolfgang resplendent in two day stubble, wandering the line with a smile but really devoting  quality time to working the room where everyone, including us, was taking selfies.

Wolfgang's shtick

Wolfgang’s shtick

It’s a strange scene, given the exceptionalism of the entire desert experience. It’s even more exceptional in that you need a separate ticket to access Stadium One during the tournament so you’re already paying a premium to be there, then you pay the premium for Spago’s food. And it’s not bad. It definitely hits all the right note for a high end chain like this. But it’s not perfect, nor inventive, nor really fun. It’s what you’d expect from Spago which is really why most people dine there. That’s the sad fact of the higher end corporate restaurant chains. It’s just what you’d expect. And you pay for it.

So, it’s back to pizza and wine for me where my daughter gets pampered and we don’t spend too much. After all we are there for the tennis. A fact my father never ceases to remind me of because he doesn’t even break for lunch, he just snacks in the stands watching the wild variety of playing styles. Still, I gotta eat.

Nothing like the desert.

Nothing like the desert.


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If you trust Europe with the standards, you’d have to trust America with your coffee

07.10.16 Posted in Espresso, Food, Italy by

We just returned from a luxurious trip through Italy, Southern France, and a lightning strike into London which revealed many things about the cultural stereotypes embedded in that old joke about how in an ideal world the Germans are the engineers, French the chefs, Italians the lovers.

Lesson 1 – You can still trust Italians with an espresso.

Paraphrasing James Freeman here but Italy really does have the highest median level of coffee preparation. You can walk into any bar across the country and get a decent espresso and a better than decent macchiato. But they’re still just decent. The national style is to over roast and make that cup of espresso incredibly hot. So, you’ll be ready to go in the morning but will just have to accept a degree of mediocrity.

But god forbid you depart the world of Italian coffee culture and head into France where the an espresso is just another name for watered down and burn coffee. The minister in charge of such things obviously has a great enforcement operation because compliance is near 100%.

Never fear, London has excellent coffee and little operations are starting to appear in Italy and France.

Lesson 2 – What you lose in espresso, you gain in bread

As soon as you cross the border into France the quality of bread rises vertiginously. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same thing about the average croissant.

Walk into any bakery in France and you’re going to find better than decent bread. Meanwhile across the border in Italy bakeries can definitely make decent bread, the foccacia is superior and there are definitely plenty of bakeries up to snuff. But the cultural norm is to make rather indifferent white loaves. Much of it is so insipid that I started to wonder whether the Wonder Bread conspiracy to eliminate flavor from all baked goods was actually hatched by a mad Italian.

But head west and suddenly all bread has a crust while bubbles take over on the interior of loaves and flavor multiplies. Of course the standard French baugette is mostly about texture but if you dig around in your local boulangerie you’ll find all sorts of entertaining loaves. Ditto in the bread basket at many restaurants.

But sadly the same can’t be said about France’s much deified croissant. The average level is fairly low wherever you go unless you really seek out a practitioner of the arts. By and large their soft and doughy, not many layers in side, that is, they’re the insipid counterpart to the baugette. They should have great crisp shells that shatter a bit to the touch.

Lesson 3 – Wine cultures create economies of scale

The cost of a decent wine in countries that have a long history producing it and including it in their national culinary cultures is nothing short of a revelation for citizens of countries without those production levels or traditions. To get a decent bottle in an American restaurant $30 would strain the imagination, $50 is more realistic. In France or Italy a very decent, even very good, bottle will run under $20 in many establishments. Even better, a liter of house wine will almost always put most of what we find in the US to shame.

 


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The Anderson Collection Remixed – De Kooning

05.19.16 Posted in Art by


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The Anderson Collection Remixed

05.18.16 Posted in Art by


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Blue Bottle Sansome

10.27.15 Posted in Espresso by

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Technically known as SansomeBlue Bottle Coffee’s latest cafe is an example of what a local business should be: It’s profoundly local in most of what it does, especially in where its cafes are placed and how they’re designed. Blue Bottle has made a business out of recovering classic spaces or carving something entirely new out of Bay Area corners, establishing them as destinations within the new urban fabric all while maintaining and absurdly high level of quality in everything it does. Remember when the flagship at Mint Plaza opened in 2008? That was no man’s land and now it’s an international destination and anchor to an entire urban district. Today Blue Bottle is an international company with locations in New York and Tokyo. But it’s carrying brand San Francisco forward with ever greater confidence. April’s trifecta of mergers with Los Angeles’ Handsome Coffee Roasters and Tonx, then later in the month with Tartine only expands its conceptual identity; globalization as San Francisan byproduct?

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The latest addition to the fold expands on the company’s design identity with the slightest variations. Situated on the corner of Bush and Sutter in the midst of old San Francisco the caffe looks out onto the Crown Zellerbach Building’s high internationalism of floating glass and steel as it intersects with the Deco of the Shell building all the weighty brick and stone clad iterations of the earlier city. The cafe itself is within the lobby of a building from an earlier era defined by decorative corinthian columns and lots of marble which the caffe picks up on in its own white marble and spare wood interior. Fortunately they preserved the square tiles on the floor in all their slightly disjointed alignments which make for great staring off into space moments. But let your gaze drift further out the windows to take in all the surrounding buildings, you can grasp two hundred years of neighborhood history without straining your peripheral vision. When you get bored of that the passing human parade is just as entertaining.

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Like most Blue Bottles it’s all about the light and the space. Incredible amounts of both which make you appreciate just how much of a design identity is embodied in the place. Sure, it’s a mini-chain but one that came from a human hand. The little tweaks to the Financial District location highlight that this is a very human endeavor – it’s so spacious and organically part of the building that the cafe simultaneously embraces the building’s identity and expands on it. Like most, all?, Blue Bottle cafes the speakers are incredibly distinctive, the models here are wood cased and horizontal ad they pump out the melodic pop of our era. The counter tops are getting sparer, less on them, less to interfere with interactions, less to fill up the space and detract from the space. St. Frank really pioneered this concept, it’s great to see everyone else jumping on board.

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And then there’s the coffee, while most of the new roasters in town and across the country really focus on bringing high acidity and fruit to their espressos Blue Bottle consistently focuses on a balance of sweet and round flavors while keeping those sharp and fruity notes to cupped coffees. They managed the evolution of Italian espresso like Vivace in Seattle but enhancing the sensation without really altering it.


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Separated at birth: Pop/Tennis Version

10.13.15 Posted in Photos by

The Roger Mr. Taylor


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Put a little Thistle in your Meats

09.01.15 Posted in Food by

The recent profusion of bespoke butchers is only bringing good things to light. The formula is pretty clear, small front of the store featuring house cured salumi, select cuts of locally sourced animals along with local foodstuffs that round out a picnic or appetizer plate like cheeses, butters, and pickles. Fatted Calf was one the style’s pioneers and has now refined it to a model in their Napa store up to the relief casts of bones running along the ceiling. We’re just so fortunate to have all this action and that’s despite all the complaints about the preciousness and expense because the quality is just off the charts. 

My latest encounter with this species came over the weekend in Petaluma where Thistle Meats’ tiny store front on the main drag of Petaluma Boulevard checks all the boxes: A trio of cold cases up front with a work area stretching into the back. On Saturday the main butcher table was a study in Nigel Slater minimalism, just a few shanks rested there ready for a photo shoot or braise.

But the real action is all in those cold cases. The cacciatore salume is perfectly fatted, at room temperature it almost melts in your mouth. Their Milano is a reminder of just how negligent we’ve been with simple salumi, Thistle’s version is so fresh and light that it’s a siren call for a glass of rose.

Once you dig further into the meat case the picture only improves. The house made Bologna is a budget steal. It’s all beef and not the fully emulsified meat mixture you might expect. It’s a bit chunky and you can actually taste the beef. Oscar Meyer, eat your heart out.

I could go on, the full range of charcuterie is well represented and the diversity in sausages includes seldom seen European classics like the Bavarian Weisswurst and a Toulouse. Not to say that the meat case is polluted by Eurocentrism, the wave of innovative American sausages are all there like the rosemary scented rabbit which is an instant classic. Then the cuts of meat are just so vividly colored testaments to their freshness. Oh and they carry Andante, one of the prides of Sonoma cheese making. The one weakness is a lack of bread. Fortunately Della Fatoria is right across the street.


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I have seen the future of food, it’s in Sonoma

08.18.15 Posted in Food by

Not the town, mind you, but off the same exit to Rohnert Park that hosts the Graton Rancheria Casino. And it’s a fast food place named Amy’s Drive Thru. Yes, that Amy’s. The menu embraces just about every trend in fast and casual dining; burgers, pizzas, burritos, and salads. But they’re all vegetarian and some are even vegan. It’s more than reasonably priced, it’s downright cheap, a family of four can dine comfortably for under $20. And when you consider it’s all organic, healthy enough to encourage sin, and literally encased in the trapping of contemporary sustainability – a living roof – you really have to wonder, did you just hop off a dark desert highway? But no, you didn’t. Neither did everyone else at Amy’s because the place is packed.

That’s quite a contrast to all the beef burger mini-chains popping up and IPOing all over the landscape. Combined with the upcoming Roy Choi/Daniel Patterson healthy fast food creation about to open any day now in the Tenderloin, we may have a trendlet here. Maybe it’s even a sign of salvation just as long as everyone getting there drives an electric and applies the same sensibility at home then we’d really be getting somewhere.

Lest you think this is a one off, Amy’s Drive Thru looks ready to expand and they’re savvy about marketing too. Their preview video gets all those hipster associations right. I’m just a tad concerned that someone might assume they’d get to the coast with a warm burger.

After you finish your burger, chili-fries, etc drive under the freeway and head to one of Sonoma county’s great brewing institutions. Beercraft’s taproom features constantly rotating taps in the back and a retail store up front just in case you need to pick up and go.

Tomorrow: The past of food is still alive and well in Sonoma.