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Indian Pizza is a Bay Area staple. But is a great one really out there? – San Francisco Chronicle

When I first heard about Indian pizza from a California friend, back when I lived in New York two decades ago, I imagined crisp crusts topped with gooey mozzarella, peppers and rectangles of paneer, shocked at the last minute with an oily drizzle of garlicky, bloomy tadka. Or pies dotted with slices of okra, their edges blistered in a wood-fired oven, paired with a tomato sauce hit with garam masala and spicy chiles. Combining two versions of flatbread and sauce, just remixed a bit, is an idea so obvious that it circles back toward pure genius. And since the Bay Area is home to excellent homegrown pizzerias and Indian restaurants, this is a natural place for Indian pizza to thrive.
The modern Indian pizzeria sprang to life in 1986, when Dalvinder “Tony” Multani bought Zante Pizza in the Mission District, hoping to utilize his experience slinging pies in New York City to make a living on the West Coast. At the restaurant, North Indian cooking and straightforward New York-style pizzas were served side-by-side, divided by an invisible firewall. But like two star-crossed lovers that find themselves alone in some silent garden, the curries and pizzas quickly became entwined. And thus, local culinary history was made.
The paneer pathaka pizza at Kinara Fusion Kitchen in the Tenderloin has paneer, bell peppers. red onions, cilantro and jalapeños.
Sadly though, despite being the offspring of two all-time culinary greats, Indian pizza is more of a Chet Hanks than a Zoë Kravitz. In my search for an exemplar of the form, I’ve tried almost every iteration in the Bay Area. All too often, there’s something not quite right about those pies.
To start, I had to pay obeisance to the original. Zante’s pies ($23.09-$38.49), which have the best crusts among Indian pizzas in the Bay Area. They have properly blistered crusts that appear light, but still have the meaty chew of New York-style dough. Zante’s approach to Indian pizza is typical of the genre: Northern Indian curry house favorites, like creamy dal makhani and tandoori chicken, are spread on top of a cheese pizza base. The problem here is that the toppings have a tendency to be bland. In essence, the complex aromas they might contribute are crushed by the crust and a generous amount of commodity mozzarella, which blurs flavor like a snowfall quiets a landscape.
It’s a problem I encountered at other San Francisco pizzerias, like Brothers in the Sunset District and Himalayan Pizza & Momo in Civic Center. The toppings tasted like a mere collection of stuff, a foggy mass rather than distinctly flavorful components.
To try to hammer in the flavors, some pizzerias, like Golden Gate in the Outer Sunset and local chain Curry Pizza House, overload the pies. One of the consistent issues with Indian pizzas is that they often come piled high with chopped chicken, boiled potatoes, heavy cubes of paneer, shredded cheese, chutneys, vegetables and sauces. With promotional taglines like “We don’t skimp on the toppings” (Tandoori Pizza) and “‘That has too many toppings on it’ — said no one ever” (Curry Pizza House), these places embrace a maximalist aesthetic.
If they weren’t part of a pizza, all the toppings would be fine. But a thin crust buckles under all that weight and leaves you wondering about the point of it all. In most cases, the crust is both low-quality and unoptimized for the ingredient load.
Over the course of researching the pizza chapter of “Amrikan,” her upcoming book on Indian American cuisine, Food & Wine magazine restaurant editor Khushbu Shah noticed the same tendency at restaurants around the country. “My theory is that people don’t pay so much attention to the crust,” she said in a phone interview. “It’s very much (premade) Sysco pizza dough that they dump too much cheese and sauce on when it could all use a little bit more finesse.”
She finds this understandable from a practical perspective: “The people doing this often own Indian restaurants already and are mostly taking prep leftovers and turning it into pizza.” And while it’s delicious in its own way, she concedes, the scene needs more people who are equally devoted to the craft of pizza as they are to the craft of South Asian cuisine.
On the recommendation of a co-worker, I tried the Naughty Naan at Curry Up Now, a local chain that’s all about playing with Indian food with a clever third culture style. Instead of pizza crust, the dish ($13) uses kulcha, a white flour-based flatbread. This painter’s palette-shape bread gets slathered with tikka masala sauce and features a scant sprinkle of mozzarella cheese and sliced jalapeño, plus your choice of chicken or paneer. It’s an Indian American answer to Texas-style pre-loaded nachos, where every bite is saturated with flavor. It was the best-tasting local variation, but at the same time, there was little to differentiate the dish from something you could construct yourself from other things on the menu.
The Curry For MVP pizza, the best-seller at Kinara Fusion Kitchen in the Tenderloin, is topped with red onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and chicken.
Kinara Fusion Kitchen, a Pakistani restaurant in the Tenderloin, came closest to the Goldilocks ideal of bespoke ingredients and a good topping-to-crust ratio. Part of Kinara’s globe-trotting theme, the pizza is served alongside dishes like fries covered in tikka masala sauce and crushed Takis and ribs cooked with tandoori spices. Each pizza ($14-$15) is big enough for two people to share, and the delivery version is even bigger. The Curry For MVP, topped with red onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and chicken, is the best-seller; the toppings come on a bed of loose curry sauce with lots of mozzarella cheese and a heavy shower of chopped cilantro. I appreciated the concept, but, again, I wanted more. Something … special.
Talking to Sana Javeri Kadri, founder of Oakland spice business Diaspora Co., gave me some much-needed insight on that elusive something I was craving. I reached out to the Mumbai, India, native because she recently collaborated with Detroit-style pizzeria Square Pie Guys on a pie, so surely she would have some thoughts on pizza.
Kadri told me that in India, there’s a wholly different mindset when it comes to pizza, which is “a magical sub-genre of LARGE AMOUNTS OF CHEESE and masala.” All over the country, people are breaking off cheese-stuffed crusts and dipping them into gooey vats of cheese fondue. The flavor profile is hotter, thanks to add-ons like garlicky and herbaceous peri peri and Sichuan sauces and tandoori spices. American chains like Pizza Hut have been localizing pizzas in all kinds of ways, like baking Nepalese momo dumplings into the crusts.
You see this work out in interesting ways in other countries as well. Popular South Korean chain Mr. Pizza turns out pizzas like the “Romantic Combo,” which “captivates the heart of a woman” with its dinner-and-dessert toppings of shrimp, steak, sweet potatoes and streusel. Brazilian pizzerias like Capricciosa D.O.C. in Rio de Janeiro commonly top pies with a combination of mozzarella, gorgonzola, Parmesan and Gruyere cheeses and often include ketchup on the side for a la minute saucing.
“The way I see it — in America, we’re taking Indian food and slathering it on pizza,” Kadri wrote in an email interview. “Whilst there’s some of that in India, the main thing is using pizza as a blank slate to mold to Indian tastes.” It’s a subtle difference, but those mindsets translate into totally different pies.
Is it too much to ask for an Indian pizza that can embody the best of both worlds, with toppings that aren’t always clamoring for space on a flimsy lifeboat of a crust? And with proper consideration — fermentation and hand-stretching — for the crust itself?
In 2017, Bay Area chef Preeti Mistry tried to bring something new to the scene with Emeryville’s Navi Kitchen, an experiment in artisanal Indian pies adorned with fenugreek pesto and seasonal vegetables. Unfortunately for the food scene, the restaurant struggled to find an audience in its quiet neighborhood and shuttered after a year in business. I mourn for the pizzas that could have been.
For her part, Food & Wine’s Shah hopes to shift the Indian pizza Overton window a bit on her eventual book tour, which she hopes will include collaborations with her favorite pizzerias around the country. My eyes widened with grateful recognition when I saw an Instagram post by cookbook author Chitra Agrawal featuring a cheese pizza; but it wasn’t just any pizza. Built on a crust made from chickpea flour, it was blessed with a drizzle of tangy and piquant tomato achaar tadka and curry leaves, made with condiments from Agrawal’s condiment business, Brooklyn Delhi. That was the Indian pizza I’d imagined 20 years ago: a dish that seemed like two cuisines having a two-way conversation. (I’m hopeful that this means Agrawal is working on a pizza cookbook that’ll blow us all away.)
Kadri’s dream scenario for Indian pizza feels just right to me. “Personally, if there was an Indian pizza joint that was doing Flour + Water-style bubbly light sourdough crusts with a spicy desi tomato sauce and even spicier toppings like the popular peri peri paneer / masala pepperoni — I’d be a very, very happy human.”
The ideal Indian pizza is out there. It’s just a matter of time.
Soleil Ho is The San Francisco Chronicle’s restaurant critic. Email: soleil@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @hooleil
Since 2019, Soleil Ho has been The Chronicle’s Restaurant Critic, spearheading Bay Area restaurant recommendations through the flagship Top Restaurants series. Ho also writes features and cultural commentary, specializing in the ways that our food reflects the way we live. Their essay on pandemic fine dining domes was featured in the 2021 Best American Food Writing anthology. Ho also hosts The Chronicle’s food podcast, Extra Spicy, and has a weekly newsletter called Bite Curious. Previously, Ho worked as a freelance food and pop culture writer, as a podcast producer on the Racist Sandwich, and as a restaurant chef. Illustration courtesy of Wendy Xu.

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