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October 18, 2021

Capo’s Chicago Cracker Thin: Second City’s 1st Choice

by Joe Bonadio

It’s been almost nine years since Tony Gemignani debuted Capo’s, his tribute to Chicago Style pizza, on North Beach’s then-quiet Vallejo Street. Already well ensconced in the neighborhood, in June of last year the restaurant underwent a major transformation. Driven by an explosion in the popularity of Detroit Style pizza, Capo’s morphed into a destination for both Detroit and Chicago pies—a paean to pan pizza, if you will.

More than a year after the shift, the clever new pairing is apparently working wonders. The restaurant’s menu has been streamlined to accommodate all of the new Detroit pies—and that translates to a faster, more nimble kitchen. And with their nifty new parklet, they’re also taking full advantage of San Francisco’s new al fresco vibe, hosting a live band out front every Thursday night.

Chicago Deep Dish pizza

For lighter appetites, Capo’s also offers up its Chicago Deep Dish pizza in an 8-inch version. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

If that weren’t enough, 3-time World Pizza Champ Laura Meyer is running things in the kitchen these days. There’s a lot to love about Capo’s, and after deciding I was overdue for a visit, last week I made the pilgrimage.

So many things about this spot appeal to me, and the look of the place is one of them: with its brick walls, red leather banquettes and stamped tin ceilings, the place positively channels Prohibition-era Chicago. I also love the bar, which is exactly where we sat to enjoy our meal. All brass and dark wood, it feels cozy without being overly casual, and the cocktail program more than measures up to the old-world ambience.

Much has been written about Capo’s Chicago Deep Dish pizza and its slightly lesser-known sibling, the formidable Cast Iron Pan Pizza. Being a friend to all kinds of crust, naturally I love both of them, as I do the Stuffed version. But this time around, I’m here to sing the praises of Chicago’s real favorite: the Cracker Thin.

The Deville Chicago Cracker Thin Pizza

The Deville Chicago Cracker Thin at Capo’s–according to my date, possibly the best pizza she’s ever had. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

It’s true: ask any Chicagoan, and they’ll tell you. Italian-American Deep Dish originated in Chicago, and the Windy City does boast many of the heavyweights of that particular style. But the most popular variety of pizza in Chicago, according to the locals, is very nearly the opposite of deep dish: Chicago Cracker Thin.

When it comes to Chicago pizza styles, there may be no better authority than Tony Troiano, owner/operator of Morse Avenue’s J.B. Alberto’s, which has been slinging pies for happy Chicagoans for over a half-century. When we spoke this week, the pizza maker confirmed the locals’ predilections. “Absolutely, cracker thin is where it’s at in Chicago,” Troaino told me. “A lot of people say deep dish is for the tourists. But 9 times out of 10, a Chicagoan is eating cracker thin.”

When you’re lucky enough to find it, Chicago Cracker Thin (also called Tavern Style) is a circular pie, crunchy, crispy and cracker-thin—and it’s typically cut into little squares. And unlike New York Style, its crispy crust isn’t easily folded. Capo’s version is as faithful as you would expect from this team, with a dusting of cornmeal and ceresota flour on the bottom providing maximum crunch. It comes in fully sixteen different versions, from the simplest to the most decked out.

Emily keeps the cocktails flowing

Isabel keeps the cocktails flowing at Capo’s in San Francisco’s North Beach. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

This would be my date’s inaugural experience with Chicago Thin Crust, and for her first time we went with the DeVille: a diabolical combination of hot red pepper oil, soppressata picante, ‘nduja (a spicy, spreadable Calabrian salume), local honey, arugula, mozzarella and parmigiano.

As tasty as all of that might look on paper, trust me, it’s an entirely different thing on the plate. This pie has it all, singing with heat from the Calabrian chili oil and spicy salume, but mercifully balanced by the honey, arugula and cheese. It’s also a textural marvel—and for that reason I’d recommend you order this pie in house, where you can enjoy it fresh from the oven, in all its crunchy glory.

I’ll leave the other pizza choices to you intrepid diners out there, but I have to mention a few standouts elsewhere on the menu: the squash blossoms, lightly battered and stuffed with ricotta cheese, are fantastic, as is the house-made calabrese sausage with honey. Ditto the generous antipasti platter, and of course the never-less-than-perfect meatballs. And whether you choose the meat sauce, the pesto or the alla vodka, the mostaccioli (a Chicago favorite similar to ziti) is always a crowd-pleaser.

I also have to mention the lasagne, which might be the single best version I’ve ever enjoyed in a restaurant. A toothsome combination of ricotta, Italian sausage, mozzarella and parmigiano, one bite of this dish sends me back in time to my grandmother’s kitchen.

Patio at Capo's for Italian Heritage Parade

The patio at Capo’s could be the single best place to watch North Beach’s Italian Heritage Parade. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

In case there’s still room for dessert, there are plenty of good things to be had. Along with their stellar house-made cannoli and tiramisu, Capo’s is now serving something they call S’mores Panna Cotta: a chocolate panna cotta with graham cracker crumbs, salted caramel and house-made marshmallow. ‘Nuff said.

Capo’s is open Wednesday through Sunday from 4:30-9:30 PM, and until 11:00 PM on Friday and Saturday nights.

Capo’s
641 Vallejo Street
San Francisco, CA 94133
(415) 986-8998
capossf.com