Back on the grid.

San Francisco’s Del Popolo pizza moves from the streets to the seats.

Moving from the streets to the seats.

Photos: Eric Wolfinger, Matthew Millman and Joseph Schell

The trucks arrived in a convoy bearing food from around the world. Window boards clapped open. Scents of Mexican, Middle Eastern and Italian cuisine drifted across the lot. A band struck up, a crowd gathered, and by the end of a long and luminous day, San Francisco’s mobile food movement was born.

Thus began the culinary Woodstock known as Off the Grid.

Today, more than 200 food trucks drive the evolving Off the Grid phenomenon, but none so conspicuously as the Del Popolo truck. Fashioned from a freight line chassis and a repurposed shipping container, the rolling megalith is outfitted with a glass-enclosed exhibition kitchen and a handmade, 5,000-pound wood-burning pizza oven. The truck alone is a source of astonishment. But the food—classic Neapolitan pizzas made from naturally leavened dough—takes it one step further.

The ultimate test kitchen

From its decidedly humble roots, San Francisco’s food truck industry has become a major player on the restaurant scene. The low startup costs proved a powerful stimulus, of course. But the trucks also offer an extraordinary venue for testing new restaurant concepts. They are, in effect, rolling test kitchens, ideal for sampling new ingredients, new dishes and new marketing messages. The food trucks enjoy another major advantage—real-time feedback from well-fed customers.

Del Popolo truck owner Jon Darsky has taken full advantage of the opportunity. In just three years, Darsky has tested and refined his concept so thoroughly that his unique artisanal pizzas have become a regional staple. The Del Popolo concept has proven such a success that Darsky recently opened his first full-fledged restaurant in Nob Hill, which, like the truck, features a centrally located wood-burning stove and a distinctly exhibitionist flair. Like the truck, it also commands an avid base of loyal patrons, all thoroughly familiar with the handcrafted cuisine, and all hungry for more.

Rolling together

San Francisco’s food truck industry represents a delicate balance between upstarts and The Establishment. But mobile food craft actually offers huge opportunities to both groups. Entrepreneurs and restaurateurs both seem to benefit when the food trucks roll in. In fact, these sort of events are seen as a draw, bringing in even more foot traffic for neighborhoods, resulting in increased business. So while the two may compete, everyone gains in the end. And Del Popolo continues to stand tall—a counter-cultural icon gone gloriously mainstream.

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