From Truck to Storefront: San Francisco’s Del Popolo

Winter squash pizza at the new Del Popolo restaurant.

Winter squash pizza at the new Del Popolo restaurant.

 

After three years of rumbling around San Francisco, the hulking Del Popolo pizza truck — with its 5,000-pound oven hauled around in a deconstructed shipping container — has finally added a real brick-and-mortar venue.

Opened just about a month ago on Bush Street in Nob Hill in a 1,700 square foot space once used by a theater company, the new pizza joint is as full of character as its justly famous pies.

The centerpiece, of course, is the imported Italian wood-fired brick oven easily viewed from anywhere in the small dining room.

The dark gray walls enclose the space with a sense of coziness. The plethora of “Soviet-style” oil paintings hanging all over the walls add whimsy. Owner Jon Darksy apparently purchased them all online and put them on display in a nod to Del Popolo’s name, which translates to “of the people.” General Manager Essam Kardosh says the staff has so taken to them that they’ve made up back stories for each of them.

The blazing wood-fired oven.

The blazing wood-fired oven.

The fun, eccentric decor.

The fun, eccentric decor.

When I was invited in as a guest of the restaurant recently, the place was already humming and packed when I arrived at 6 p.m.

You may come here for the pizza. But don’t neglect the rest of the menu, which is overseen by Chef de Cuisine Jeffrey Hayden, who has worked at wd50 in New York; Blackbird and Alinea, both in Chicago; and Boot and Shoe Service in Oakland.

Normally, I don’t get too excited by hush puppies ($10). But these were outstanding, made with Anson Mills artisan cornmeal, which gave it an intense sweet corn flavor. Beautifully golden and crisp on the outside, they had a polenta cake-like texture on the inside. They came with soft, honey butter and a fiery house-made hot sauce, where a little definitely goes a long way.

Hush puppies you won't forget.

Hush puppies you won’t forget.

A dish that will give you newfound respect for squid.

A dish that will give you newfound respect for squid.

If you typically only enjoy squid when battered and fried, do yourself a favor and order the Monterey Bay squid ($13) with celery root, pine nuts and currants. Supremely tender, and not rubbery in the least, the squid get kissed with smoke from being cooked in a flash in the wood-fired oven.

Six pizzas are offered here, double the number offered on the truck. But the crust is the same. Darsky, a former professional baseball scout who went to law school, developed it after working at Pizzaiolo in Oakland and Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco, before helping to open Flour & Water in San Francisco.

His dough is fermented by naturally occurring bacteria in the wheat and in the air. The result is a crust with flavor to spare.

The pizzas are Neapolitan-style, so don’t go expecting cracker-crisp crust. Instead, this crust is soft, pliable, pillowy. It’s foldable. So much so that if you pick it up with your hands to eat, that’s the easiest way to handle it.

Sausage-studded pizza.

Sausage-studded pizza.

My husband chose the house-made sausage pizza ($18). It came smeared with a sweet, crushed tomato sauce, nicely seasoned sausage that tasted of fennel and thyme, black olives, milky mozzarella, and slivers of red onions.

I opted for the Winter Squash ($18) with a foundation of mascarpone underneath the slices of sweet, tender orange squash. Bits of crisp bacon added saltiness. And rosemary needles lifted it all with a burst of resiny brightness.

For dessert, there are only two choices: ice cream from San Francisco’s Mr. and Mrs. Miscellaneous or a TCHO chocolate pot de creme ($8).

Chocolate to end with.

Chocolate to end with.

We opted to share the latter. It is like a gourmet version of your favorite chocolate pudding — thick, dense, creamy and made with great, rich, dark chocolate. A touch of sea salt over the top was a nice finishing touch to bring the chocolate taste even more front-forward.

The Del Popolo truck still makes its rounds around town. But it’s also nice that there’s now a stationary location you don’t have to chase down in order to get your pizza fix.

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