“A lot of people ask me: ‘Do they have pizza like this in India?’” Tony grins. “No! That was only born here. That happens only here.”
All photos by Rob Williamson
There is a persistent rumor in San Francisco that Zante Pizza & Indian Cuisine, birthplace of the distinctly regional phenomenon known as "Indian pizza," is run by one "Mr. Zante," a dark-haired man of indeterminate age who blends the affable bravado of Bollywood's Shah Rukh Kahn and the sphinx-like calm of a young Omar Sharif. While I'm almost entirely sure I've made this up, it seems just as likely to be true as the story I'm told by the man who serves me a slice of chicken tikka masala pizza on a Friday afternoon.
According to him, the fusion—an unbelievably effective hangover remedy (trust me, I know)—was invented and is made every morning by the shop's delivery driver, Singh. He would be in at 5 PM. When I return later in the week for an interview, I'm relieved to find this is not at all true. Tony, the restaurant's owner, greets me with a laugh. "Who told you that? He doesn't know anything!"
Despite looking more like James Gandolfini than Shah Rukh Kahn, the North Indian has at least retained the look of indeterminate age that I'd imagined. He was born Dalvinder Multani, he tells me, but he's been "Tony" as long as he can remember.
"I think I went from Multani to Tony? Everyone who knows me knows me as Tony."
When Tony moved to the United States, he was pounding dough as a cook at Gloria Pizza, the near-legendary Queens slice joint recently resurrected in Forest Hills. In 1986, Tony moved to San Francisco with plans to open his own restaurant, and purchased Zante later that year. Then an Italian restaurant, it was named for a small Greek Island by its owners, who were aging out of the business.
Out of a combination of respect and keen business sense (his landlord is Greek), Tony kept the name. When it opened, Zante served good ol' New York pizza-by-the slice, like Gloria, but Tony soon found himself experimenting. "I started making pizza for the staff, doing different things," he says. "They don't make the dough like I do. They don't know. That's my secret," His tone turns conspiratorial: "You can put anything you want on a pizza."
The four pizzas on offer at Zante can usually be had by the slice, but the monster order volumes tech companies are ordering in moneyed San Francisco makes reserving a whole pie a more practical choice. "Best Indian Veggie Pizza" and "Best Indian Meat Pizza," both longtime local favorites, sit aside chicken and paneer tikka masala versions, which showed up on the menu sometime in the late 90s. Tiny chops of bright red tandoori chicken, green spring onions, eggplant, and cilantro lie with other Indian staples on a spinach curry sauce base, looking roughly like some benevolent toddler exploded a confetti cannon onto an oven-fresh Famous Ray's 18". Simple tamarind and mint sauces arrive with every pizza in tiny metal ramekins if you're wise enough to take a seat at the counter.
The bulk of Zante's business today, by a long shot, is massive deliveries to tech-rich San Francisco companies. If a huge order doesn't come through and all of his cooks show up, Tony himself only bakes one pie a week these days—every Tuesday he and the staff sit down to make sure everything is right with the world.
A 2007 Zagat review, browning in a frame on the entry wall, unsparingly makes reference to Zante's "weird ambiance," and there is definitely something out of time about the immaculately clean fake wood grain on the fans above the tiled pizza counter where I sit to try out a couple slices of paneer and spinach pizza.
For Tony, the pristine condition of Zante's dining room is a point of serious personal pride. Around the dining room, photocopies of the Health Inspection Certificate (an ultra-rare and super-based rating of 100) are prominently displayed no less than six times. The rest of the "tacky decor" of the Zagat review might warm your heart a little—if you're older than 16. It looks like what you'd expect to find in an Indian pizza parlor roughly 40 years ago: blue place settings, kitschy posters, and a collection of promotional mirrors touting Indian brews from Kingfisher to Flying Horse.
If the interior remains frozen in time, the Mission neighborhood, outside, exists in a different world than it did in 1986. "When I opened this one, the street was very tough," Tony says. "Fights, shootings… Nothing ever happened here, but the shop next door was robbed and everyone was tied up in the back. We went next door and untied them."
In another rapidly changing neighborhood now dubbed Little Santa Cruz, once simply called "way out near the beach," Sukha G., the owner of Golden Gate Indian Cuisine & Pizza is a pitch-perfect Freido Corleone to Tony's Michael. Sukha's own story is a engaging mashup of rags-to-riches immigrant tropes and a restaurateurs' spiel. Referring to himself sometimes as Sukha and sometimes as Singh—a name Sikh's often take to indicate their faith—he stops to reflect for a few moments as we talk about his divorce from his former wife ("off the record, please").
Before moving to San Francisco, Sukha worked his way up from dishwasher to cook in an Italian restaurant in Germany, where he learned to make pizza, tiramisu and other specialties. In the US and without a visa, he baked pies under-the-table on Taraval Street until he married the aforementioned woman and started working at Golden Gate Pizza. Anxious to own his own shop, he made the owner an offer.
"I work one month, then I say, 'If you want to sell, let me know,'" he recollects. Golden Gate already had its own terrifying riff on Indian Pizza—spinach sauce with undercooked eggplant dyed a glowing red—but when Sukha took over in 1996, he introduced his own recipes. Since then, him and a kitchen staff of four have been making what Golden Gate's menu modestly describes as "the most delicious pizza ever made."
When I mention Sukha's story to Tony, he laughs warmly. "Really! He worked here a year and a half."
Locally, Zante's Indian Pizza has been copied as close as Sunnyvale, CA and all the way to Seattle. As Tony tells it, Zante went global when it appeared on the Cooking Network show United Tastes of America in 2010.
"A guy from Japan came and he said, 'How did it happen? Did you have a dream?' He was Mr. Tanaka, I remember his name," he tells me.
He has other memories of fandom, too. "A lady from South Africa saw me on the TV and said she told the cabbie, 'Take me to the Zante!' when she got to San Francisco."
Tony confesses that he's been in the business too long to harbor franchise dreams. He feels like he's been running Zante all his life. Across the city, Ahmed, prep cook for 4 years at Golden Gate Pizza, is loading up a tikka-lined round of dough, inspecting the rough-looking block of Fillmore Street where Preet Palace sits, waiting for the phone to ring.
"A lot of people ask me: 'Do they have pizza like this in India?'" Tony grins. "No! That was only born here. That happens only here."
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in April, 2015.