By Paolo Bicchieri
Special to The Examiner
Last year, Jesse Jacobs performed a pizza pivot. His Samovar Tea cafes in the Yerba Buena Gardens and the Mission were shuttered, and he realized the locations were too good to let go.
“The pandemic forced a moment of introspection,” Jacobs said. “The retail side of things was just not effective.”
His love of chai didn’t disappear. In fact, Samovar lives on as a drop-shipping company, supplying folks with the same enhanced and flavored teas they have come to love over the nearly 20 years Jacobs’ business has been around.
The restaurateur was mulling what to do when he realized his wife’s COVID hobby offered a path. Like so many, Joanna Jacobs had plunged into sourdough baking. San Francisco bakery institutions Tartine and Josey Baker were big inspirations. She started making pizza at home, and Jacobs’ laser-focused mind latched on.
“We got into the Detroit-style thing,” explained Jacobs. “We bought some pans, played around at home and just had fun.”
In August, the former tea shops became proper pizza places.
Detroit is a lesser known style, and one that’s nothing like the broccoli pizza from Pixar’s “Inside Out.” It is not a low-carb Californian pie. Rather, Detroit pizza was forged in the winters of the Midwest. Histories get contested, but most agree that Gus Guerra invented the pie in 1946 with the help of his wife, Anna, who used her Sicillian grandmother’s sourdough crust recipe. The signature is not the quirky toppings or the size of the slice — it’s the pan. Legend has it that Guerra debuted the square pizza, caramelized edges and all, at Buddy’s Rendezvous, his Detroit bar.
The pizza at Joyride honors the tradition: It is indeed square, with a crust that loops over the top of the cheese and sauce, forming a kind of cheese tuile above. The pizza itself is decadent, with a spongy crust and ultra fresh ingredients. Beside the Brick cheese, a necessity for Detroit-style that hails from Wisconsin, most of the ingredients are from around the Bay. The mushrooms are from Mycopia in Sebastopol, the pepperoni from Zoe’s Meat in Petaluma and the flour from Central Milling, which has a Petaluma location.
Joyride, like Samovar Tea, is a family business with a joyful family business vibe. Jesse’s brother, Joshua Jacobs, is the president of Samovar and is now a cofounder of Joyride. As kids in Boston, the brothers grew up cooking pizza and pasta.
“Total family thing,” Jacobs said of their long collaboration.
The day I visited Joyful Pizza’s downtown location, sun painted the walls of Yerba Buena Gardens, house music thumped from enormous speakers. Jacobs was setting up tables, waving to passersby and exuding a wild glee uncharacteristic of restaurateurs in pandemic-era San Francisco.
Jacobs is well aware San Francisco has a strong pizza scene and names Delfina Pizza, Flour + Water, Tony’s, Square Pie Guys and Delarosa as a few he admires. Unlike upscale tea, which he felt was more competitive, Jacobs knows he’s got rivals. But he’s still differentiating: Detroit is pretty fringe.
“It’s fine dining on pizza, but accessible,” Jacobs said. “Unpretentious, delicious, fun.”
The hope is to offer delivery for those still reticent to return to indoor dining. The hope is also to open more locations. Mostly, Jacobs said, he wants to spread joy.
“In the pandemic world, everyone is afraid, full of anxiety,” Jacobs said. “What do people need more than anything? A little relaxation. Feeling good. Why not a little joy?”
That’s why his restaurant’s orange-and-gray brand is all about that effervescent stuff. Hosting Renegade Maskerade, a community organization that raises funds for causes like California fire relief and invites diners to party six feet apart, is one such offering. There are big windows and big smiles front and center at both shops.
Alicia Estrella, house manager at the Yerba Buena location, agrees with Jacobs that Joyride Pizza is not just about food.
“I helped paint the tables, I helped paint the walls, everything,” Esrella said. “I get to be myself every day. Everyone is so sweet.”
Beyond the tentpole pizza offerings, Estrella notes that Joyride offers salads, pastas, craft cocktails like the Joyride Old Fashioned with chocolate bitters, and desserts like cannolis.
For pizza, she opts for the Pestroriffic, a pie featuring Zoe’s smoked chicken and Sonoma County applewood smoked bacon. The restaurant makes its sauces in-house, which includes the pesto and ranch that lay in fat lines across the face of the pizza. When I was there, folks were taking bites of the Pestoriffic, making food music with crunches from the caramelized crust.
Find Jacob’s madcap crew at the 730 Howard St./Yerba Buena location from noon to 8 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and noon to 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and at the 411 Valencia St./Mission District location from noon to 8 p.m. Sunday to Thursday and noon to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
The pizza scene
Interested in pizza without the Midwest connection? Try these San Francisco favorites, a few that Jacobs himself upvoted.
Golden Boy Pizza
A North Beach staple, Golden Boy is cited by many as their all-time favorite pizza in The City. For over 30 years, the giant, neon, pointing finger at 542 Green St. has let tourists and locals alike know where to get a pre-gelato slice.
Late night pizza! It gets no more classic than wandering down to 3840 Geary Blvd. to collect a greasy prize after drunken karaoke. Since the 1980s, Nizario and his brothers have operated shops across The City to dole out “Nizario’s Special Slices,” a veggie and meat combo.
Himalayan Pizza & Momo
The Tenderloin has righteous pizza. At 288 Golden Gate Ave., nestled among a den of dank restaurants and in the Earle Hotel, the ever-kind Naba and his crew cook pizza you’ve never had but should try: Royal Paneer Pizza, Tandoori Pizza and the Everest Special. Want dumplings to go with your pie? No problem.
On the opposite end of offerings, the upscale and woodfire-roasted Delfina’s has two S.F. locations: 2406 California St. and 3611 18th St. Don’t get confused: this is locals’ pizza, too. The staff are thoughtful, the connection to the area shines through with their support of local nonprofits and the food is terrific. You’ll pay a bit more, but for well-sourced ingredients like in-house crafted sausage and hen of the woods mushrooms.
Golden Gate Indian Cuisine & Pizza
The Bay Area gets dumped on by pizza enthusiasts from New York to Naples, which is not fair. If you find yourself in that unfair moment, remind your adversary that Indian pizza was born in San Francisco. One shop that is dishing out this incredible feat of cultural cross-pollination is Golden Gate at 4038 Judah St., right across from Ocean Beac h. The chicken tikka masala pizza features a few cheeses and chicken in every bite.
Vegan food is still ascending. One sign of that rise is the Mission’s newest pizza spot, Above Ground, at 2170 Mission St. The City is lucky this business has weathered the pandemic, as the options it offers are literally one-of-a-kind. Miso carrot and potato pizza. Champagne-braised lobster mushroom pizza. Cinnamon-nutmeg sugar with rum-soaked blackberries. Is this pizza? I’m told that, yes, it is pizza. And it’s delicious.