Zero Zero's Bruce Hill, and Why Artisanal Pizza is Ubiquitous in San Francisco

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John Birdsall
Bruce Hill, going all "American Gothic" with the pizza shovel.
Yesterday, Zero Zero chef Bruce Hill took us on a Q-and-A spin around the custom wood-fired pizza oven he spent much of last week seasoning, to prepare for tomorrow's opening. In today's part two, Hill and Zero Zero chef Chris Whaley (he's spent the past five years at Hill's Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur) talk about the proper way to eat a Neapolitan ― er, Calipolitan ― pie, and why the hell Bay Area chefs won't leave off opening pizzerias.

SFoodie: So what do you say to the Chowhound who's going to be rolling his eyes about Zero Zero, saying, "God, more pizza in San Francisco. Will it never stop?"
Hill: Tell people to stop eating it. Right? If people stop eating it then we'll stop building pizzerias [laughs]. It's extremely popular. I think that if anything, San Francisco is so neighborhood oriented, that I think every neighborhood could support an artisanal pizzeria. I mean look, you can just go around and look at all the places that have already been established. We're fortunate here because no one in this particular neighborhood is doing what we're doing. But you can look at the Mission, I mean, pretty soon there's gonna be, like three pizzerias right near Delfina. Compared to some other parts of San Francisco we're actually going to be in a secluded area.

I know your neighbor LuLu has survived because of convention business, even when conventions were down. Is that what you guys are expecting?
Hill: We really want to be a local restaurant. If we have out-of-towners who come here because of our success with locals, that's fine. But we would be really, really embarrassed if we were the kind of place that only existed on out-of-towners. To be honest, we've already had inquiries from big groups for parties and I've already turned them away.

How many pizzas can you fire in your oven at the same time?
Hill: Two, three ― maybe four. At Picco we really only cook two at a time, because they cook so fast. We're really kind of wandering into a little bit of an unknown land here, because at Picco we only have 11 seats inside and 25 outside, and here we have 130 seats. So the flow out of this oven ― we're going to get our asses kicked, probably a little bit.

Although one thing that's really important to note is that we're not doing any to-go. At Picco we do to-go and we also do phone orders to-go, and we're not doing any of that at first here. The thing about pizza is that it's not really that good to go: It really needs to be eaten within the first five minutes after it's cooked.

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Whaley: That's actually part of the regulations for Neapolitan ―
Hill: Yeah, if you want to abide by the rules you must finish your damn pizza [laughs]. You can't talk, you have to eat! And we're going to serve our pizzas on this. [Hill produces a round, handled cutting board the color of cork, a plastic-wood composite.] So this is something we've sourced out that no one else is doing, this board, this is a cutting board that can go in the dishwasher. So when you get your pizza, it'll come on this, and you'll get a cutting tool, and you'll be able to cut your own pizza into as many pieces as you want. The really important thing about serving it that way is that the bottom is going stay a little bit crisper.

That's not something you do at Picco?
Hill: It's something that we might be doing in the future at Pico.

What's the idea behind giving diners the chance to cut their own pizza?
Hill: Well, firstly, we know that everybody likes them cut in different size pieces. We're tired of having pizzas come back, like, "Hey, we want it cut more."
Whaley: Also in Naples, you never see a pizza cut.
Hill: Yeah, we would prefer that someone takes this and eats it with a knife and fork right off here and not even use this thing [indicates the cutter]. But that's way advanced for Americans.

In Naples, if you're sharing a pizza, what do you do?
Whaley: Everybody gets their own pie, and just uses a knife and fork.
Hill: As soon as you cut it, the ingredients sort of go like this [indicating seepage into the sliced area], and go underneath.
Whaley: That's the funny thing about American pizza and Naples pizza. Naples pizza is something that's still kind of soggy ― you can't pick it up and put it in your mouth. This is the way it's supposed to be.
Hill: Chris and I were actually at a place in Naples, it was Il Presidente, I think ― there's this road called the Tribunale that has like 12 pizzerias on one road. Anyway we're in this pizzeria, and there's this young Italian couple, this guy and a girl and they were on a date, and we watched that guy eat his entire pizza, and he's like on a date, and he's dressed to the nines. And he ate the whole pizza with a knife and a fork: He cuts a wedge, he would roll it up towards the edge, with his fork and his knife, right? And he would spear it and eat it, and then take the next piece, roll it, and eat it. And he looked so graceful. It was completely romantic. But he was doing something that could be really kind of sloppy and unappealing.

So for the dough, you're using the zero-zero flour? Is that how you say it?
Hill: Or you could say dopio-zero. The reason for the double-zero flour, is that it actually gives you a lighter finished product.

It's the same dough you've been using at Picco?
Hill: Absolutely. We're adapting it for the city though. We're finding that fermentation times and some of the process is different because of the climate here, there's a warmer climate there. And there's different water. We haven't really seen a whole lot, but we're expecting that there might be.

And the dough is just flour and water, maybe a little olive oil, yeast?
Hill: The one thing about Neapolitan pizza is that there's no olive oil in the dough. That's another specific rule if you're going to make true Neapolitan pizza. And the reason for the oil is that that's what people put in their dough to make it brown more readily. But when you have this intense heat, you actually want to go the opposite way. Because if you put oil in your dough, it's going to brown too much.

Is there a difference in yeasts?

Hill: You know what? We use really cheap cake yeast. I mean it's literally the blocks of yeast that come from Mexico. As long as it's active and really, really fresh, it's fine. We do retard our dough a little bit. So the dough you get for your pizza today was typically made three days ago. Longer fermentation just gives you more complex flavors.

Is it slightly sour?

Hill: No, it's quite sweet. If you want to really get a sense of yeast and the crust, tear a piece of the edge off and then open it up, and get the inside of it so it's exposed, and then smell it. And you'll be able to tell how much yeast they're actually using. You can really vary the yeast a lot. It'll also tell you what kind of yeast, whether it's a sourdough or not. So if you see a guy sniffing the crust of his pizza, that's what he's doing.

Opening tomorrow for dinner:
Zero Zero: 826 Folsom (at Fourth St.). No phone listing yet.

Follow us on Twitter: @sfoodie. Contact me at John.Birdsall@SFWeekly.com

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Zero Zero

826 Folsom, San Francisco, CA

Category: Restaurant

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