Power to Del Popolo
By: Joseph Schell, Designed by Diana Martinez
This story is brought to you by the great people over at the Bold Italic. The Bold Italic is an online magazine, shop, and events hub in San Francisco. We celebrate the free-wheeling spirit of the city.
I had heard tales of a beast of a Food Truck called Del Popolo around the foodie scene. Supposedly it was made of steel and stone, weighed some 30,000 pounds, and brought the wood-fired taste of Italian pizza to the streets of San Francisco. I picked up a steady track on Twitter and followed it to several locations around our urban jungle, with spottings at Mint Plaza, Sydney Walton Square, SOMA StrEat Food Park, and Outside Lands. It's easy to figure out when you're getting close to Del Popolo – there's usually a long line stretching around the bend and the scent of hand-made pizza wafts in the air.
I did a double take the first time I set eyes on the vehicle. It seemed to fill the entire patio of Mint Plaza and a sizeable crowd gathered around it. I introduced myself to Del Popolo owner Jon Darsky through the window. He glanced down for a moment before getting back to his cooking. For the rest of our conversation he spoke into the oven, shuffling pies around as we talked.
Jon and a small staff of three to four others make lunch and sometimes dinner for the masses in his state-of-the-art truck. Del Popolo’s offerings are simple, thin-crust Neapolitan-inspired pizzas in three varieties. The meat option consists of mozzarella, braised rapini (broccoli raab), spicy salami, and red onion finished off with a splash of chili oil. The second option is a margherita-style pizza with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, extra virgin olive oil, and sea salt, and the third option is a white sauce pie with fresh mozzarella, ricotta cheese, a crumbly Grana Padano, basil, and fresh garlic.
Jon, a baseball scout turned chef, told me he decided to step out on his own several years ago. While searching for the perfect space for a restaurant in SF, he was inspired by the vibrancy of the mobile food scene in Austin. He decided to forgo the brick-and-mortar route and piece together a traveling kitchen – one that involved a repurposed transatlantic shipping container, a several-ton truck, and an Italian made wood-fired oven.
After two years of pulling various resources (and $180,000) together, Jon has one beautiful mobile pizza outfit. The vehicle is a small engineering feat. The setup includes a Freightliner truck with a 350-HP Caterpillar C7 diesel engine, a 20-foot-long metal shipping container kitchen, two sinks, water tanks, a refrigerator, and a 5,000-lb. 6 x 5-foot wood-fired stone oven.
When Del Popolo is open, one whole side of that shipping container is open too, with sets of windows for watching all of the action taking place. Customers can see the pizzas go down the assembly line, moving in and out of the oven before they’re served.
I visited Jon several times around the city; he's a quick-witted guy, wiry and not afraid to razz me a bit. I also notice he isn't interested in cutting corners. He not only owns and manages the truck, but he's there at every step of the way, kneading the dough, stoking the oven's fire, working through the lunch hour rush, and driving the truck home.
On one of my visits, while the truck is parked in front of the Contemporary Jewish Museum, Jon decides to put me to work ripping apart basil for the upcoming lunch rush. He’s running behind and my hands are free. "Are your hands clean?" he asks. As I look down, he barks, "Wash them." I follow his orders and then grab a big pile of basil and start ripping the leaves from the stems.
The inside of Del Popolo’s kitchen (aka the fishbowl) is boiling. Even with the door and windows open, sweat runs down my back.
As the countdown for lunch draws nearer, customers start hanging outside the window. Four minutes before Del Popolo opens, Jon finds out there's a blown fuse. He remains calm, even as hungry pizza lovers start inquiring about orders. He gets down on his belly and with the flip of a couple switches, the power is back on, two minutes before his 11:30 a.m. opening time.
After that, the production process is quick and intense; flour covers everything like a dusting of snow. Pizzas are moved off the counter and into the oven. Each pie is cooked for 60 seconds, with Jon watching it closely and turning it often before pulling it out, edges darkened, and putting it onto the cooling rack. He brings the steaming, chewy, thin-crusted pizza out to the next customer in a line that now stretches down the block. (It’s no wonder Jon named the business Del Popolo – which means “of the people” in Italian.) The formula repeats until the truck has served 150 people over the course of a three-hour lunch.
After the rush finishes, I order a margherita pizza for myself. The sauce is sweet yet tangy, simple and delicious. I was planning on saving half but then ended up eating all of it in one sitting.
On my last trip over to Del Popolo, I poke my head inside after seeing the beast parked for the second day in a row among the Outside Lands throngs. Per usual, Jon is chugging away with a bit of sweat on his brow and a smile on his face. "Do you ever take a day off?" I yell over the clamor, already knowing the answer – and that he’s trying to serve a massive 3,000 pizzas over the weekend. He just laughs and turns back to the oven, throwing another pie into the fiery belly of his beast.
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