In 1985, if you wanted a fresh, hot slice of San Francisco-style pizza, there was only one place you could get it: Clear Lake, Iowa. Clear Lake is a small town of about 7,500 people – both now and in the 1980s. It’s a popular stop off Interstate 35, and it’s best known for being the last place Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and The Big Bopper played before their tragic plane crash on February 3, 1959 (better known as “The Day from which the music died “).
In January 1985, a new restaurant called Third St. Station opened in Clear Lake. It closed sometime around 1989, but while it was open they served sandwiches, soups, salads, and pizzas. The last of these items appears to have been their premiere offering. Newspaper ads from this period highlighted their “San Francisco Style Pizza” in bold, italic letters.
An ad for “San Francisco Style Pizza” ran in 1985 on the Des Moines Register. The pizza place was in Clear Lake, Iowa.
The Des Moines Register
As curious as it may seem, these ads in the Des Moines Register appear to be the very first mention of “San Francisco-style pizza” except in print. No previous reference appears to exist in all of the 644 million pages of newspapers on Newspapers.com and the 40 million books on Google Books. But while the question “Why Iowa?” Probably first that springs to mind, the bigger puzzle is what the restaurant meant by “San Francisco Style Pizza”. After all, “San Francisco-style pizza” is an ambiguous phrase to this day that has different meanings for different people and has no discernible consensus on this matter.
While there are some other random pizzas that people refer to as “San Francisco Style”, there are mainly two different types of pizza that have received this nickname. The first of these is a sourdough crust pizza and the second is basically a California style pizza that has some of its roots in the Bay Area.
The fact that sourdough pizza is the “rightful” San Francisco style has more to do with bread than pizza. San Francisco and sourdough are synonymous and have been so since the gold rush. Since sourdough is made with a fermented culture that grows on its own, no commercial yeast is required, making it more sustainable on the rough new frontier. Since then, the city and bread have become so intertwined that many people believe it was invented in San Francisco and that it can only be made here (neither is true).
So, because San Francisco is sourdough, San Francisco pizza has to be sourdough pizza. It’s a simple, logical equation that is mostly wrong. While there are some sourdough pizzerias in San Francisco, this is certainly not the norm and it is unlikely to ever be the case. Neal DeNardi, co-owner of San Francisco’s Long Bridge Pizza, explains, “Sourdough pizza is not for everyone. Here at Long Bridge we make some kind of New York-style artisanal pizza, but we offer it with a sourdough crust so it has the sour taste you find in sourdough. Lots of people love it, but I’ve been told it tastes bad because it’s just not what they’re used to. “
Zeene Ni, a local who featured on the San Francisco pizza scene on her YouTube channel, tells me, “Some people think of the San Francisco style as something with a sourdough crust, and while there are some great places that serve sourdough , like Arizmendi locals wouldn’t consider sourdough to be “San Francisco style”. Generally speaking, I would say that only overseas people would consider sourdough crust to be San Francisco style, but I don’t think anyone in the US knows San Francisco for sourdough pizza. “For Zeene, in 2019 none other than Pizza Hut offered a pizza that was touted as a“ handcrafted San Francisco-style sourdough base ”with a“ light, crispy base with great taste ”.
But they only sold this pizza overseas in places like New Zealand and the United Arab Emirates.
Most likely, the sourdough pizza wasn’t from San Francisco either. While the earliest reference to sourdough pizza was four hours south in Santa Maria in 1962, sourdough pizza really could have come from anywhere. Professor Carol Helstosky, author of Pizza: A Global History, tells me: “Sometime after World War II, as in the 1950s, pizza was made from all kinds of bread in the United States. There was French bread pizza, pizza bagels, English muffin pizzas and the like. So it is possible that someone has tried sourdough bread as well. “
What came at least partially from San Francisco, however, was California-style pizza. As early as 1980, two restaurants – Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Prego in San Francisco – started making something new with pizza at the same time. Both made traditional crusts but experimented with seasonal and locally grown toppings.
At Prego, chef Ed LaDou, later known as “The Prince of Pizza,” started putting things like truffles and goat cheese on pizza. Regarding Chez Panisse, the history and science behind the world’s best pizzas, writer Jeffrey Merrihue explains, “Alice Waters – the famous chef who owns Chez Panisse – has started using local ingredients for her pizzas. One of her most notable pizzas was nettles, and she kept changing things and switching what vegetables were on her pizzas. “
Give Wolfgang Puck, who was served one of LaDou’s unique pizzas at Prego and decided to run with it. In 1982 Puck hired LaDou for Spago, the restaurant that would make him famous. Together they developed a menu with over 250 unique pizzas. Then, a few years later, in 1985, La Dou helped carry his pizza style from elite dining to mainstream when he helped found California Pizza Kitchen, which offered many of the same types of non-traditional pizzas at far lower prices (most notably the Barbecue Chicken Pizza).
With Prego in San Francisco and Chez Panisse in Berkeley, it would make a lot of sense to refer to this new type of pizza as the San Francisco style. The only problem was that both Spago and the first California Pizza Kitchen opened in Beverly Hills. As Merrihue explains, “It was born in San Francisco but flourished in Los Angeles.” Since most of the people at California Pizza Kitchen have heard of this style and the restaurant is called California, what might be called San Francisco pizza became known as the California style instead.
While the San Francisco pizza scene doesn’t have a single, dominant style of pizza, the California style is hugely popular in the city. According to George Matelich, a New York transplant who runs the pizza-oriented Instagram account Slice of SF, he says, “The toppings for pizza here vary with the season, so you can get ramps or asparagus in the spring and root vegetables in the fall. Often there is also no sauce. It’s just cheese, the best vegetables you can find, and some meat that works well, although many have no meat at all. The pizza in San Francisco feels seasonal – it feels like it It’s like using the very best ingredients and you know where they come from and you care where they come from – this type of pizza can be found in places like Pizzeria Delfina , Gialina and Pizzetta 211. That is exactly the style of San Francisco me. “
On this point, Merrihue says, “If you were to go with a primary definition and a secondary definition of San Francisco style pizza, I’d say the California style is the primary and the sourdough is the secondary because the sourdough isn’t a large one has influence. You can’t go to a pizzeria and get a sourdough pizza while the Californian style has spread all over the world with all kinds of gourmet pizzas. Really, ‘San Francisco style’ is not a thing, and if you were to tell someone that, a lot of people wouldn’t really know what you meant. “
While the California style is hugely popular in San Francisco, what remains to them is the fact that their pizza has been usurped across the state with no official pizza of their own. Instead of trying to reclaim California style – which would be impossible thanks to California Pizza Kitchen – perhaps San Franciscans should combine their inventive toppings with their sourdough roots.
Some pizzerias, probably the most famous of which is probably The Cheese Board Collective, a cooperative that offers one type of sourdough pizza per day with really creative toppings, have already combined sourdough-crusted California-style toppings. Ridwan Schleicher, one of the pizza bakers there, tells me: “We use good products that are in season and we use a lot of good cheeses because we have the cheese stop next door. For example, yesterday we had asparagus with spring onions with rocket and lemon vinaigrette, then we put parmigiano on top. We started doing this in 1985 and took our inspiration from Chez Panisse which is across the street. However, we chose sourdough to differentiate it and give the dough a little more character. “
While sourdough pizza may be a bit of an acquired taste, its history with the city is undeniable and San Francisco – along with Berkeley – started the California pizza movement. So why not combine both? After all, San Francisco is a city that is defined by its bridges. When San Franciscans combine these two styles, they’ll finally get a pizza that can’t be taken away by the likes of Los Angeles, Beverly Hills, or even Clear Lake. Iowa.
Brian VanHooker is a New York-based writer who specializes in pop culture, food, and elaborate oral lore. His work has been published on MEL, Maxim, Men’s Health, and others. He is co-creator of the comic strip “Barnum & Elwood” and co-creator of the pilot “The Tramp” with John O’Hurley. He also hosts a podcast on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and was once called a “good guy” by Mr. T.
Other food origins in the Bay Area