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Tommaso's: On "Trendy" Burrata, Owning a Legacy

Photo: Chloe Schildhause

Famous for having the West Coast’s first wood-burning oven and for serving pizzas to notable figures like Herb Caen, George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, Tommaso’s in North Beach definitely falls into the "institution" category. The current owners, the Crotti family, have operated said institution since 1973, but the place itself dates back to 1935.

Originally called Lupo’s (when it was owned by the Cantolupo family) the restaurant was sold to chef Tommy Chin in the late 60s. Naturally, he changed the name to Tommaso’s. In 1973 Chin sold Tommaso's to the man who provided him with a croissant and coffee every morning, Agostino Crotti, a server at the then 21-year-old Cafe Trieste. To this day, Agostino still makes the pizza dough, and his sister Lidia serves as executive chef, sister Carmen greets and and waits tables and his wife, Anna, makes dessert.

We recently spoke with Agostino and his sister Carmen about the movie he's got a cameo in, and what you'll never see on a Tommaso's pizza, among other things.

Tomasso’s has been around for a long time, how has the menu changed?Carmen Crotti: We tried to keep as much of the original menu as we could. Ninety percent of the menu is still the same.
Agostino Crotti: Well, a very important thing, this place is famous for one reason and one reason only: the brick oven. That was built in 1935. That oven was the first in the West Coast. That’s written in the books. When [Alice Waters at] Chez Panisse opened the upstairs in Berkeley she got the design for the oven from us and later on she gave it to Spago in Los Angeles for Wolfgang Puck. So everything started here.

So the pizza’s have definitely stayed the same.
AC: Exactly, we never change them. I mean, we add a few new pizzas over the years to accommodate the new tastes. For the past 17-years we’ve been coming up with a pizza special every month.
CC: We have more vegetarian pizza. Burrata pizza, which until last year nobody knew what it was. And a lot of people still don’t. So you try to keep the same old-school and try to implement the new stuff within reason. We don’t do truffles.

What do you think of other pizza places in San Francisco?
CC: Pizza [in San Francisco] is a fad now. It really is.
AC: Everything started here, no question about it.
CC: Sure, there’s competition but it hasn’t hurt out business per se. We’ve always felt the more the merrier. We don’t compete, there’s no jealousy involved. But yes, pizza in San Francisco has evolved. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. People are branching out, trying new things which I think is always good. But sometimes you go a little overboard.
AC: Truffles on a pizza, things like that.

What are some other ingredients you never want to see on a pizza?
CC: Oh! Honestly it’s been a rule of ours, and I know a lot of people get upset, but it’s Canadian bacon and pineapple. You will never ever see it here.
AC: But I go to Italy every year and I see French fries on a pizza. So there we go.
CC: You have no idea what they do. French fries and ketchup. On a pizza. That was last year’s fad. And believe me, they were lining up to buy it. I’m more simple. Give me a margherita pizza and I’m a happy camper.

When you’re not here, where do you like to go to eat pizzas?
CC: I don’t remember the last time I ate a pizza somewhere else. You live with it, you cook it, you serve it. We go out and eat Italian food all the time we really don’t eat pizza out.

You have a lot of notable customers.
AC: The Governor was here for his birthday in April. He came back last Tuesday with Nicholas Cage, The Coppolas have been close friends and customers forever. Francis [Coppola], when I met him at Trieste he was doing the script for The Godfather and I used to bring him the coffee and so forth. When he comes, he makes pizza. Not saying it’s a perfect pizza, but he makes pizza...I mean if you want a list of celebrities we could be here for half and hour. From Sharon Stone, to Penelope Cruz, to Mickey Rourke, Robert Duvall.
CC: Robert Duvall was in here not too long ago.
AC: Let’s not get into that with Robert Duvall, because we’ve been in the same movie together. Hemingway & Gellhorn, with director Phil Kaufman, with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman, coming out on HBO at the end of this month. I play the chef, I have two small speaking roles. [Phil Kaufman] said he was looking for a bald, short, little-bit-ugly chef and I was the candidate.
CC: You blink, you miss.

What pizzas are you most known for?
CC: The margherita. But I’ll tell you the pizzas we sell the most. Of course kids love pepperoni, but the fresh spinach and parmesan pizza is probably our best selling pizza.
AC: Followed by the sausage and mushroom. We have some unusual ones that are very good. We have a seafood. A clam and garlic that is very good. Now we have a burrata, which is the trendy thing. A taste for everybody.

How has the operation changed? Do you have the same chefs from when you opened?
CC: We do not have a turnover. A couple of the cooks in the kitchen have been here forever.
AC: Forever. And a bus boy who has been here 30-years.

So, if someone wants to get a job here it’s impossible?
CC: [laughs] It’s very hard.
AC: Unless someone quits or drops dead.

How do you continue to stand out in a sea of Italian restaurants?
CC: Some of it honestly is recognition, and also Agostino and I, one of us is here every single night. Both of us, his wife, our sisters. Our mom was here, until she passed away. You walk into restaurants, and it happens to us all the time, you really don’t know anybody. Even places you go to regularly. You might recognize one person, maybe two. Here, if you come in today, if you come in next week, if you come in next year, you’ll find the same people.
AC: In North Beach we are the oldest Italian restaurant. We’ve been here 77 years, I mean the place. Everything around us has changed. Places opening up, places closing. The neighborhood has changes so much and we are the only true anchor in this section. A little bit of the red light district ambiance as you can tell. That came, everything came after this place.
CC: We were here before, and we will be here after.
--Chloe Schildhause

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1042 Kearny Street San Francisco, CA 94133