Pi Bar serves ‘kids that were actually in their mama’s bellies the first time they came in’
At Pi Bar on Valencia near 25th Street, husband and wife Richard Rosen and Jennifer Garris are running the show without any help. “I answer the phone and Richie makes the pizza,” says Jennifer.
The dimly lit pizza joint is not for those looking for fancy slices of pizza with arugula or pineapple. It is a classic pizza joint that has been mistaken for a bar with fantastic NY Style Pizza. Rosen is a New Yorker with a “somewhat fascistic definition of pizza.”
Pi Bar never closed because of the pandemic; it just changed its hours. Rosen and Garris have been running a takeout operation since shelter-in-place began, but nowadays it’s just the two of them, and their staff of seven remain unemployed, save one cook who comes in once a week. They tried to bring back their employees, but the business is not there.
Since opening in October, 2009, they have depended on locals to keep them going, and now is no different. “They’ve been very supportive,” said Garris. “They come in and order pizzas to bring home to their family.”
Brian B., who is from New Jersey but has lived in San Francisco for over 20 years, is a Pi Bar regular. “There ain’t no good pizza on lower Haight, so I come here,” he says. “There are only a few few good pizzerias on the west coast, but Pi Bar is No. 1. This is no artisanal thing. It’s classic and delicious. Very foldable. And as someone from N.J., it’s got to be foldable.”
In many ways, that is just the kind of place the common-law married couple envisioned when they opened and Rosen told Mission Local on opening night, that he wanted a neighborhood hangout similar to those from his Queens childhood, where “everybody went to the pizza place two or three times a week.”
“Most of the people who come in, I know on a first-name basis. When it was open for indoor dining, I knew everyone’s names at the bar, and the names of the families at the tables,” said Garris.
Adds Rosen, “We serve kids that were actually in their mama’s bellies the first time they came in.”
Before the pandemic, the communal table in the front of Pi Bar would be packed with regulars hanging out and enjoying a slice of pizza and one of the many craft beers on tap. But the past few months have tested Pi Bar’s perseverance.
They are “hopeful, but [we] also see friends and regulars moving away. The state is on fire and covid has made things very difficult,” said Rosen.
Already, they’ve said goodbye to at least 10 families who have fled the Bay Area because of the pandemic. They all came and got their last pies and said goodbye,” said Richard.
As to their own state of mind, Rosen and Garris live a few blocks away on 27th Street and spend what little free time they have — while working 50 hours a week — supporting other local restaurants and going on hikes. Garris even brought her stationary bike inside the restaurant since it is closed indoors, to stay in shape.
But their slightly somber tone says it all. “Bleakness has been thrust upon us,” Rosen said.
“Occasionally, we pay ourselves. We have a drawer at home with checks we can’t cash because we don’t have enough money,” he adds. “I’d like to say that business is good, but I’d be lying.”
October 1 marks Pi Bar’s 11th anniversary, but they aren’t planning to do much more than sell pizza. “We had a big blowout for our 10-year anniversary last year. But this year we will probably have a small gathering of regulars who will stop by,” Garris says. “We will be open. That’s about the best thing we can say.”
“I don’t know if the restaurant industry will recover from this,” he added.
For those who remain, the menu has been pared down to two-thirds of the original size, leaving pastas and appetizers off. Individual slices are not available; the smallest size pizza will cost you around $20. The menu on the Pi Bar website has not been updated to reflect the changes since the pandemic and they do not offer delivery services, as they say it is not economically profitable to do so.
But Rosen’s Pizza’s are still there — pizzas made with cheese from Berkeley, and a dough that slowly ferments for a few days before Rosen rolls it into a thin crust. The pizza crust is deliciously crispy, the hand roasted portobello mushrooms are fragrant and the cheese perfectly delicious.
You can order pizzas with toppings like house-made sausage and meatballs, and hand peeled Gilroy garlic. On Thursdays, they serve a fan-favorite special: meat and veggie lasagna. “The lasagna is twice the size of your fist, and the big portions are great for leftovers.” The owners usually share one portion between the two of them. The bar has Russian River brews, black lagers and ciders on tap.
What happens over the next couple of months is unclear. “The only reason we are still open is because we can run it ourselves and we don’t have to pay ourselves. We are living on tips,” says Garris. “On a good day, we take in enough to pay bills and we live off the rest.”
In this climate, Garris advises, “The places you want to see open after the pandemic, you have to support them now.”
Brooke Minters, who wrote and edited the video on Pi Bar’s opening, is now the executive producer of video for Politico, where she reports on elections, campaigns and inequality.
Pi Bar is open from 4 to 8 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday, and it offers pizza, salads and beer and wine to go.
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