A shot of the Stolls at Delfina from San Francisco magazine, May 1999.
Chef Craig Stoll and wife Annie Stoll opened Delfina fifteen years ago this Tuesday. The instant success of their tiny restaurant meant that—more often than not—there was a wait to get in. Thus, diners diligently hunkered outside on a sidewalk bench, as Annie Stoll ushered forth wine and crostini to help stave off the cold. But the wait was always worth it.
Today, the Stolls have formed a small empire, all based on their then groundbreaking style of Cal-Italian, including Locanda, and two—soon to be four—Pizzeria Delfinas. As a veteran food writer—not to mention the person who, at 27 years old, wrote up San Francisco magazine’s tiny review of Delfina when it first opened (the photo above was from that issue)—I feel like I've grown up with the Stolls. I called them up for a little trip down memory lane.
San Francisco: You opened your doors on Nov. 19, 1998. What were you wearing? What music was playing? What was on the menu?
Annie: There weren’t any of the awesome boutiques that there are now in the Mission. We were broke and I didn’t have any clothes. So I just ran up to a store in Noe Valley to buy something. I was super, super skinny because I was so stressed out.
Craig: Chefs whites, including baggy chef pants with yin and yang pattern. And the menu had our roast chicken for like $10. It also had our white beans and calamari and our spaghetti. They’re all still on the menu.
What did your mothers think of Delfina?
Annie: Mine was super proud to see us making money, because she was a little worried about me. My parents still love Delfina today. They freak out over it. They’ll go every night when they come to town.
Craig: My mom thought I was lucky to have met Annie so I could finally be a success.
Have your signature dishes evolved over the years?
Craig: We're always tweaking everything all the time. Spaghetti is a good example. When we first opened, we didn't have a pasta cooker. We never used to time anything. We didn't even pre-portion the pasta. We started adding torn basil at the end and hit it all with finishing oil.
If Delfina played a role in the fancification of the Mission, what do you miss most about the good ole days?
Craig: Don’t get me started on the word gentrification. I don’t miss anything about the good ole days. I don’t miss crime and squalor.
If you could go back to 1998 and give yourselves words of advice learned over the past 15 years, what would it be?
Annie: To have fun with it. And to realize that your job is to deal with issues and problems every day and go into work knowing that.
Craig: Build infrastructure sooner. Don’t be so afraid all the time.
If a soothsayer had told you that one day you'd be opening your third and fourth pizzerias in Burlingame and Palo Alto, what would you have told them?
Annie: I’d would have fired them.
Craig: I would have asked where Burlingame is. But I would have been so happy that things worked out for the future me. I would slept easier.
If you weren't restaurateurs, what would you be?
Annie: Sometimes I’d just want to be a reservationist.
Craig: I’d be a chef.
What’s the most rewarding thing about the business?
Annie: Just the connections we make. The people we meet. And working with Craig has been really rewarding. It could have gone either way [laughs].
Craig: I don’t know how to make it keep from sounding trite, but watching our staff thrive. Watching them take on other things. Just being able to contribute in a meaningful way to this community. And to have made it to the ripe old age of 48 and be an upperclassman around here.