The Colorful Life: Zante’s Indian Pizza
San Francisco, California
“It’s a good country. Full of beautiful womans. Everything here is beautiful.”
Vnee grins mischievously at me across the bar, where I’m perched with a steaming mug of chai and a notebook. I want to know more about his experiences cooking in America, but I could do without the helping of shameless flattery. He is a chef at Zante’s, a fixture in San Francisco’s Mission District that serves unusual pizzas in addition to a more traditional selection of Indian dishes. He promises to shower me with curries if I return at a later date, but for now I remain fixated on the pizza.
Behind him, another cook hacks away at a pile of broccoli, prepping vegetables and stirring huge pots in anticipation of the Saturday night rush. For the past twenty-odd years, Zante’s has served up samosas and vindaloo to a diverse crowd while also gaining the loyalty of fans who can’t get enough of their unique recipe for Indian pizza. Back in 1993, the San Francisco Bay Guardian bestowed this mouthful of an award upon the restaurant: “Best place to order food from if one of your friends wants Indian food and another wants pizza.” Fair enough.
Irish, a soft-spoken 22-year-old who waits tables, mans the phones and makes the pizzas, invites me behind the counter to watch him work.
“I’m an all-arounder,” he says, slapping the dough lightly and effortlessly shaping it atop a worn wooden paddle. “I make everything.” He’s been at Zante’s for five years, more than enough time to get really sick of eating Indian pizza, but insists that he still likes the work. He ladles spinach sauce over the doughy round, then plucks toppings from an assortment of plastic containers at his side. I ask him where his name came from.
“When I was born, my aunt was reading a book about Ireland.” He sprinkles chunks of rosy-red tandoori chicken, garlic, mozzarella and coarsely chopped cilantro on top of his creation, and slides it deftly into the oven. A variety of other toppings are available for mixing and matching, including eggplant, lamb, prawns and cauliflower. They even make a vegan version.
The phone continues to ring with takeout orders every few minutes, even though it’s well past the lunch hour. Zante’s also handles a steady stream of walk-in traffic, mainly people who want to munch on a slice as they wander around the neighborhood.
The finished pies are riotously colorful, emerging from the oven in sizzling shades of red, orange and green. Irish slips one into a box and begins cutting.
“Listen to that.” As he guides the slicer around, the crust makes a soft crackling noise. “That’s how I know it’s done.” Zante’s crust is something special. It’s tender and chewy, but the outer layer retains a satisfying crispiness and crunch. The slices are generously portioned, so just one or two will make a meal depending on the strength of your appetite.
When asked what he thinks of life in the U.S., Irish responds, “Everybody dreams about America in our country.” He likes the fact that there are people from all over the world here. But he admits to missing the big family gatherings and parties in India, part of what he calls “the colorful life” there. Luckily enough for San Franciscans, Zante’s pizza gives us a taste of this colorful life in every bite.
3489 Mission St
San Francisco, CA 94110