The Best Neopolitan Pizza I Ever Ate

When you go to Naples, you usually go for a few reasons: to see the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, visit the island of Capri, and to eat pizza—supposedly the best in Italy, if not the world. I spent a week in Naples and did all three of those things. Sometimes you get lucky and find yourself in bed with a long-legged, voluptuous woman straight you meet on OKCupid, but you can’t usually count on that sort of thing happening.
But this story is not about my brief tryst with a gorgeous Italian straight out of a Raphael painting, nor is it about the Roman ruins (check out someone else’s blog if you’re that interested in Pompeii), or Capri, or even about Neopolitan pizza as you would assume. This is about the best pizza I have ever eaten in my life. It was Neopolitan—cooked in a wood-burning oven built in Naples—but made far, far away, in San Francisco.
Yes: the best pizza I have ever eaten, hand to God, all due respect to the people of Naples—not to mention the rest of Italy—New York, and anywhere else, was baked and consumed at a restaurant called Cupola in a shopping mall—no, I shit you not— in San Francisco, California. If your jaw is dropping in protest, I can understand your disbelief. It wasn’t for lack of trying that I wasn’t blown away by the pizza I tried in Naples—the places I went to were packed with locals and came highly recommended, the menus were written in Italian, but the something was missing.
It was just after New Year’s 2012 and despite the time that has gone by I can still remember everything we ate at that meal. My dad, my brother Eli, my stepbrother Ben and I had just arrived in San Francisco after a lukewarm skiing holiday in Lake Tahoe. It was a freak winter and what little snow had fallen was turned to slush by bizarrely warm temperatures, so conditions sucked. Ben and I decided to go around to the south side of the lake for a rave instead of waste time on the pathetically-groomed slopes; other than that, Tahoe was underwhelming.
So when I saw a review in the San Francisco Chronicle for ten up-and-coming restaurants, after a somewhat squandered ski trip I felt like doing something truly meaningful with our time up in the Bay Area. What better way than to celebrate the New Year than with a memorable dinner?
I didn’t have anything in particular in mind, but the BART dropped us off beneath the shopping mall and one of the 10 restaurants in that review happened to be a few floors above us. Even after heartily endorsing the food, the reviewer was incredulous as to the setting—could a mall actually produce gourmet fare?—but it seemed like fate was calling us to Cupola, so we went.
There was a huge line to get in and we waited an hour for a table to open up. When we finally sat down, we were starving. The butternut squash ravioli caught my eye, and we ordered a plate to share as an antipasto. Four plump ravioli came dressed in a brown sugar, butter and sage sauce that complemented the nuttiness of the squash.
As for the pizzas, what started as a conservative decision to order half a pizza each quickly turned into a free-for-all. Margherita. Funghi. Arrabiata. Zucca. The crust was to pizza what the Immaculate Conception was to the act of childbirth: Divine yet somehow of this earth. The bottom of each pizza was pockmarked with a smattering of charred dough, and huge pockets of air ballooned at random intervals at the edges of the crust. It was chewy but at the same crispy; airy yet somehow doughy and thick.
The toppings were simple yet perfect; not overcooked, not too few, neither too many. The Margherita featured beautifully melted fior di latte. The funghi were rich and nutty, balanced out with perfectly crisp and stringy leeks. The pancetta and the spicy pepperoncini of the Arrabiata left a salubrious burn in the mouth. The Zucca featured delicate zucchini blossoms wilted on top of a creamy layer of mascarpone, with sprigs of mint cutting through the fattiness of the cheese, yet not overwhelming the zucchini.
Like a lover’s kiss, a truly satisfying meal lingers on the lips long after the moment has passed. In an unprecedented move, my dad and Ben fist-bumped, such was their enthusiasm for this meal. Not that my dad and stepbrother have ever had problems getting along, but I think nothing could better capture our delight than the two of them brushing knuckles like long-lost bros. As I munched on oven-fresh pizza Naples, it was the memory of a meal almost three years ago on the other side of the world that brought a smile to my face.

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