So that’s what made me want to go to Il Casaro, a pizza and mozzarella joint in the former Steps of Rome premises in North Beach. But it turned out that there are other, far better, reasons to visit it.
The restaurant is owned by Francesco Covucci, who also owns Vicoletto in North Beach. It smells like an Italian grandmother’s kitchen, of cheese and olive oil, and shines with white marble and its fire-engine-red, wood-fired oven in the corner.
Il Casaro serves three kinds of mozzarella, two of them housemade. The third is an imported burrata, gigantic and purse-shaped.
I went straight for the housemade bufala. Though beautifully served with hot, crisp flatbread dressed in fresh oregano and a mild, fruity olive oil, the cheese itself was grainy, overworked into too tight a ball and served cold. Nicely flavored as it was, it was no luscious, creamy mass.
Still, that same cheese melted into a pillow of milky, savory foam on the pizza diavola. The wood-fired thing of beauty boasted spicy salami, sliced extra thin and on the lean side, yet crisp with spicy fat mingling with housemade chili-infused oil. A nutty quality, from a drizzle of olive oil into the San Marzano tomato sauce, gave the pizza another layer of complexity. It was nicely crisped — not soggy at all, even at its center — and the crust had a nice texture, though its flavor lacked depth.
All together, it was a spicier, perkier, lighter and more delicious take on a pepperoni pizza. The pizza made that particular meal, though the mozzarella di bufala never made it to room temp.
The fresh ball of fior di latte was better, milkier and more tender. It goes in the panuozzo, an Italian sandwich that features a roll of dough lightly blistered in the wood oven, slashed open, and filled with prosciutto, mozzarella, arugula and handfuls of good, sweet cherry tomatoes. The greens were still crisp and cold, while the bread was hot, soft and steaming — it was silence-inducing. While most sandwiches hold little romance for me, this one did.
Il Casaro is still new enough that it hasn’t quite hit the Zagat guide or the tourist hit list just yet, but already there’s a good neighborhood following for the well-blistered, well-tended pizzas, and the place feels vibrant. Sit at the bar, before the oven, to watch the coals pulse with heat, and the pizzaiolo working with a natural grace, and not a little experience, with the fire and the dough.
The service is friendly: a little green, a little lacking in knowledge at times, but generally just fine. Il Casaro is a great neighborhood spot, with more than a little humanity and personality, and it should do well, fresh mozz or no.
Location: 348 Columbus Ave. (between Vallejo Street and Grant Avenue), S.F.
Hours: Noon to 11 p.m. Sundays-Thursdays, noon to midnight Fridays-Saturdays
Contact: (415) 677-9455, http://ilcasarosf.com
Recommended dishes: Panuozzo ($8.50), pizza diavola ($14.75), fior di latte mozzarella ($7)
Price Range: $7 to $16
Reservations: Not accepted
Credit cards: Accepted