When Thomas McNaughton and Ryan Pollnow first became pasta-making pals at San Francisco’s celebrated Flour + Water concept—founded by McNaughton and David Steele—they quickly learned they had something in common. “We both entered the restaurant world kind of seeking out the fine-dining side of things—the small, tortured-chef, tiny-dining-room, focused cuisine,” Pollnow said.

But, really, who says the dining room has to be all that tiny? “With Flour & Water, we learned that you can have those elevated techniques and focused food but in an environment that’s more welcoming,” Pollnow added.

And what’s more welcoming than a pizzeria? The two chefs, perhaps feeling a little less “tortured,” went on to launch the full-service Flour + Water Pizzeria and carryout/quick-service concept Flour + Water Pizza Shop, located in the same space, in the summer of 2023. And when it opened—across the street from the famous Tony Gemignani brand, Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, no less—the crowds started pouring in on day one, while the San Francisco Standard hailed it as the city’s “must-try pizza place.”

Related: Meet the self-styled dough nerds of Flour + Water Pizzeria

Adding to the buzz: In November 2023, TimeOut listed Flour + Water Pizzeria at No. 4 in its ranking of “America’s best pizza joints,” edged out only by dough-slinging institutions like Di Fara Pizza in New York (No. 1), Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana in New Haven (No. 2), and Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix (No. 3).

Guided by their own Golden Gate muse and hyperfocused on locally sourced ingredients, McNaughton and Pollnow let their naturally leavened dough, made from organic wheat, ferment for a full three days before hand-stretching it and baking up their pies in a huge 600-degree oven. Their watchword is “craveable,” which, granted, is just barely even a word. But by all accounts, it’s the best word for the pies at Flour + Water Pizzeria.

So how do they do it? McNaughton and Pollnow provided a little more detail in this Q&A with PMQ:

PMQ: I know pasta, for both of you, has been a big part of your culinary background. Can you tell me how your love for pasta has impacted your pizza menu?

McNaughton: Ryan and I were on the same page as far as the importance of understanding the history and culture behind particular foods. But it’s also incredibly important to then be able to put your own stamp on it. For the pasta program at Flour + Water, we’re about understanding the history and culture and region behind a particular pasta, but what’s our own little take on that? For example, say one of our farmers has a ton of lemon verbena right now. Can we incorporate a little lemon verbena in a dish? Does it enhance that dish while still honoring the tradition of where it came from? It’s the exact same way with pizza, with so many different styles of pizza making. How can we honor and understand all of those but still have our own unique take on it? That’s what brought us to the product that we’re serving today.

But it’s difficult because people want to label things—they want an easy label. So they’re like, “Oh, is this Neapolitan?” We’re, like, “No, it’s not Neapolitan. We’re not doing anything like a Neapolitan pizza. It may have similar characteristics, but it’s not Neapolitan.” And they’re like, “Oh, is it neo-Neapolitan?” No, it’s definitely not, and that’s such a BS term. It’s unique deck-oven pizza that we find highly craveable, and, at the end of the day, that’s what pizza should be. It’s not this fancy thing. We do have fancy pizza. We do a bone marrow pizza with fresh grated horseradish, for instance. That’s kind of fancy. But it sits next to a traditional pepperoni pizza on the menu. At the core of it, it has to be craveable, it has to be, like, dammit, that’s so delicious. That’s kind of at the core of our philosophy on pizza.

PMQ: So what are some of your most craveable pizzas, and what makes them so craveable?

McNaughton: Well, at the core, it’s like, the pepperoni pizza. I mean, Ezzo pepperoni is just so damn craveable on its own. Pepperoni will always be a crazy high seller. I’m also obsessed with our Burrata pizza. Our tomato sauce is kind of based on the Neapolitan style, which means it’s just raw milled tomatoes—it’s not a cooked sauce. But, for our burrata pizza, we have our raw milled sauce, and we top it with little juliennes of sundried tomatoes and a ton of basil and chilis, and when the pizza comes out of the oven, we top it with fresh burrata. To me, that’s crazy craveable. We have that fresh burrata on top that’s melting, with the umami bomb of the sundried tomatoes. And we have The Conrad, which is our funky-cheese, taleggio-meets-mushrooms pizza, which, to me, is super-craveable.

PMQ: What’s your take on that, Ryan?

Pollnow: We also took a cue from a favorite pasta of ours, which is cacio e pepe—one of the Roman classics—and plugged that into a white-pie format here. So it has a pecorino crema, tons of fresh cracked Tellicherry black peppercorns and a couple other cheeses [fresh mozzarella and fontina] to make it feel more appropriate for pizza. And that’s one of our top-selling white pies. 

And, honestly, the Margherita is something I’m quite proud of because it illustrates what we’re trying to do. It has that dry aged mozzarella on the base…and after the sauce, it gets topped with fior di latte that’s produced up in Petaluma only 40 minutes north of us. It kind of ties all these things we mentioned together—the historical reference-point research that we do for all things food-related before putting our take on it—while also supporting local purveyors, with Double 8 Dairy for the fior di latte and Bianca di Napoli for the milled tomatoes and the sauce. So it feels silly to call out a Margherita, but I’m quite proud of what we landed on here because it feels very much like our style of pizza. And we all know pizza lovers use the Margherita as that benchmark to go out and experience and see what someone’s doing with pizza.

PMQ: Exactly. So can you give me an idea of what percentage of your ingredients are derived from local or regional growers?

Pollnow: There are a few ingredients in the pizza world that we have not successfully found a local version of, or a hyperlocal version that really competes. Ezzo pepperoni from Columbus, Ohio, is the perfect example. It’s the best. We try to be super-local with all of our sourcing in the [Flour & Water Hospitality Group], but for a small, small percentage of the ingredients that enter this building, we haven’t found the local version that competes. But as for the overwhelming majority, I would estimate 85% or 90% of the ingredients that are used here are Northern Californian or imported from Italy.

PMQ: When you’re working with local or regional growers for so many of your ingredients, how does that affect your food cost? Are you paying a little more for some ingredients, less, about the same?

McNaughton: So we blend two different flours together, and both are organic, from Central Milling based out of Petaluma. They’re Midwest wheats, but the company’s based out of Petaluma. So it’s a much higher food cost to have that organic flour. It’s more than double what we’d otherwise be paying. But it’s always a balance, and it’s our job as chefs to bring that forth. We want our food to be as accessible as possible while we’re still purchasing ingredients for the right price. So it’s always a balance. So I’d say yes and no. Some things we’ll pay a much higher price for. But, in the summer, when we’re buying, like, our peppers from local farms, we’re probably paying less because we have an established relationship with them. So it’s a balance of both worlds. 

Pollnow: I think that pretty much hits the nail on the head. Another way of saying it is, by eliminating a third-party distribution company for a lot of our ingredients—especially our produce or even Double 8 Dairy, the creamery that delivers direct twice a week to us—it’s putting 100% of that money directly in the hands of the farmer or the producer. And there’s no markup, therefore, from the third-party distributor. So it’s like this win-win. We’re getting the best-quality local product, and the farmers are getting 100% of the bill on that produce or cheese or whatever it may be. And that’s thanks to 15 years of relationship-building between Flour + Water and the small producers that surround us here. Knowing our producers is really important to us.

PMQ: In addition to the craveability these locally grown ingredients lend to your pizza, I would think that, in a city like San Francisco and even the entire state of California, letting it be known that you work with so many local growers is a good marketing advantage, too, right?

Pollnow: It’s almost assumed now, especially in San Francisco, the Bay Area and California as a state, that you’re cooking within the micro seasons and you’re supporting local organic farmers. We practice what we preach with that. And furthermore, we doubled down on that investment by contributing 1% of sales in our restaurant group to a nonprofit called Zero Food Print, which is actively helping convert small farms and not-so-small farms to regenerative practices that help sequester carbon in the soil, therefore reducing the effects of climate change. We’re really trying to be better stewards to the earth through supporting small farms and also contributing to Zero Food Print.

McNaughton: If you look at our dishes, though, the menu doesn’t list any of the farms we buy from. Because if we’re calling out farms, you have no idea what the damn dish is, because each little dish would have, like, a farm next to it. And one of Ryan’s huge pet peeves is when you look at some menus and it says at the bottom, “We source organic ingredients when possible.” It’s such BS. It’s just basically saying, “Yeah, we buy some good stuff, and then we buy some stuff that, well, we might not want to tell you about.”

PMQ: Yeah, that kind of thing makes you wonder, um, what does that really mean?

McNaughton (laughing): Yeah, it means BS.

Food & Ingredients