The Story of Del Popolo, and How It Became an Essential San Francisco Pizza Destination
Del Popolo has been serving beautifully blistered wood-fired pizzas to San Franciscans for over a decade now. Initially, it started in 2012 as a truck by Jon Darsky, the opening pizzaiolo for flour+water. He eventually opened up his beautiful brick-and-mortar on Bush Street a few years later in 2015, where he was able to expand his menu to include seasonal vegetable-forward dishes along with beer and wine.
Since then, it’s established itself as not only one of the city’s best pizzerias, but one of its best restaurants, period. We sat down with Darksy to talk all things pizza, from the craft to his favorite spots to frozen pies (!) — and so much more.
Jon Darsky: I was born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York — a suburb 20 miles north of New York. In 1976. I’m 46 years old — I feel it.
I left there in 1994 for Tulane University, in hopes of playing baseball. Tried for two years, but didn’t last the four years. It was very competitive. Good enough to make it there, but not good enough to stick, you know?
What did you study?
Political science. I watched a lot of Jerry Springer if you want to know the truth. I was an incredible slouch.
From there, I got a job as professional baseball scout. I evaluated high school and college players for their potential in the MLB. I did that for give years, then I got a law degree from Brooklyn Law School from ’04 to ’07.
What brought you to California?
After I met my wife in New York, in 2007 she got a job in San Bruno and I came out with the idea of taking a law degree and trying to return to baseball.
I failed the bar in California, and didn’t pursue anything in baseball.
So when did pizza come into play?
One night I went to Pizzaiolo in Oakland, and I was intrigued by it. After growing up in New York surrounded by a lot of pizza, I had that in my DNA — it was something I was familiar with and I liked a lot. At Pizzaiolo, they had the wood-fired oven and the emphasis of local and organic produce — the Chez Panisse school of thought. I put those two things together, and immediately thought about what I could do.
I knocked on the door and proposed the idea of a job, that was my entry into the business.
I was there for about a year, and then after I went to Pizzeria Delfina. I worked there also for about a year, met David White, and they were looking for someone to run the pizza side of things, the dough management, the oven, and ended up being opening pizzaiolo at flour+water.
Was the idea always to open your own thing?
As I went from pizza to pizza, there was ambition and entrepreneurship. I was thinking, “What would I do with my own business?” I had always thought of a traditional brick and mortar, as I was coming out of flour+water, it was clear that could be expensive and daunting.
I took a trip to Austin, and saw that food truck culture, and that got me thinking if I could do something mobile instead.
And I shifted my thinking towards that, spending 2011 working with a designer to build out the truck and figure out how it would work. And then finally in April 2012 we went live with that.
What is it about pizza specifically?
I had never in my life before thought about doing something creative around pizza, but when I got to Pizzaiolo and got working there, my initial experience was eye-opening. The notion of making something with your hands. And feeling the gratification. When you give someone a beautiful pizza, it really hits you somewhere deep inside. It feels good. That feeling and experience really sparked something. Prior to that I was just a monkey pizza eater: I love pizza I love pizza.
When you give someone a beautiful pizza, it really hits you somewhere deep inside. It feels good. That feeling and experience really sparked something.— Jon Darsky, Del Popolo
I’m a total pizza monkey. On that note: what are your favorite pizzerias? Or, the first three that come to mind?
Pizzeria Bianco — I could talk at length about [Chris Bianco]. He’s a wonderful guy. His approach to food is inspirational. Of course it’s similar to Chez, and he was influenced by [Alice Waters] in the first place.
There’s a place in Caserta, Italy, called Pizzeria I Masanielli. I think the pizzamakers in Italy really cherish their ingredients, and go a great length to source their ingredients. It’s not cliché to say their ingredients are really great. They have a deep appreciation for it. They go really deep on all aspects of making pizza — and I really appreciate that.
There’s another one in the north of Italy – Lake Garda — called Trattoria Marietta. They have a really brilliant dough, cooked in an electric oven so it’s a little bit crispier, with a strong emphasis on beautiful Italian products.
What made you want to open up your own business? As opposed to making pizza elsewhere?
Naïveté, in the moment, not knowing what it meant to run a business and a restaurant. And I think every next generation or each younger group of cooks comes up and wants to do it themselves. What I continue to preach is that there are certain plusses, and there’s something to be said of having an established position and sticking out in a place.
What I’ve found in owning my business is that I do very little pizza making now. As you move up and own, you lose that.
Beyond naiveté, thinking I could do that, there was just an inherent entrepreneurial spirit. Driving me to do my own thing.
Today, too, with the frozen pizza, I’m trying to drive that and make that happen. It works, there’s an opportunity, I’m compelled to keep going. Whatever spirit inside of me, I can’t really quit. I have an internal motor that pushes me forward and makes it happen.
It’s by no means unique to me. Entrepreneurialism combined with stupidity is powerful.
That pizza truck had no business being built. It was a function/result of my blissfully ignorant mentality. The whole idea was a little bit unnatural and bold — I just went for it.
Why do a brick-and-mortar, as opposed to operating a fleet of pizza trucks at every corner of the city?
I think it was a function of being a little bit stubborn and closed-minded in the belief that there was some sort of natural progression: The truck being a springboard for a restaurant. I’m proud of it and it’s done well. I couldn’t have done the restaurant without the truck. Should we have done another truck? I don’t know. Each business has its plusses and minuses.
I got it in my head that I was going to do a restaurant, and I did a restaurant.
How has the last couple years changed the way you think about your restaurant? About business? About pizza?
I think for me the defining thing is that I live in Los Angeles now — my wife’s job moved there in 2019. She has a lot of family here, so it made a lot of sense for us to live here. In 2019 September we moved here — I was commuting back and forth. That as much as the pandemic has been bigger for me.
To this day, every week I’m commuting. Tuesday and Wednesday I’m up here. Then Thursday–Monday, I’m back in L.A. That’s been the thing.
That must be difficult?
When you have your heart in a business, it becomes hard to walk into a place just two nights a week. It’s challenging in a different way.
I have solid people who are ethical people – in frozen pizza and in the restaurant. The entire idea is one of simplicity — a narrow focus rather than big and broad. We have dinner service, private events, and we make a limited number of products, so there’s not as much that could go wrong. That was always an idea as I was coming up in other business and doing the truck: I wanted to keep it simple.
As good as the pizza is, the sides and salads and desserts have always been as strong. Who is executing these dishes these days?
We have a guy named Michael Logan. He’s been around San Francisco for a while; he was at Locanda and Trick Dog. He’s the chef and is driving the menu.
This summer, he did a blistered green bean dish with sungold cherry tomato jam and finished it with garlic and shishito peppers and bottarga. Simple, seasonal, on point, pretty much exactly what we should be making.
Do you have any goals with Del Popolo? Short term? Long term?
I’m looking to grow the frozen pizza business. Be in more stores, and be an outlier in the frozen section. Something that’s thoughtfully made with organic ingredients. Here on the West Coast, there’s an opportunity to grow that and get it to more people, so we can ultimately have more people eating a better product at home, and supporting agriculture that’s better for the world.
I don’t think there are bigger goals with the restaurant at least. Just want to do a good job. Be hospitable.
What’s next for you? Another brick and mortar perhaps?
L.A. would be the only other place – it’s something I think about. To open another restaurant requires a lot of momentum, you have to be totally bought into the idea to find another location and raise the money.
It’s a double sided coin. It comes with a lot of satisfaction and lot of creativity. Let’s find a building, let’s make something with our hands and give it to people. But that has a dark side. Which is all the stuff that anyone with a small business can relate. You have to get up in the morning and go make it happen.
That’s all of it.
Omar Mamoon is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and cookie dough professional. Instagram: www.instagram.com/ommmar