Posted on November 1, 2009 – 11:34 PM | by OldManFoster
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By Sarah Singleton  Photos by Jesse Vasquez

Pizza joints may be the new sushi restaurants, at least here in Midtown Sacramento.  I doubt that sushi is going anywhere, but it seems that wood-fired ovens are multiplying rapidly, and really, who am I to complain?  Pizza is no longer only for college students, stoners ordering delivery and people looking for a quick-fix for a weeknight dinner.  Pizza has recently been elevated to gourmet status, and it deserves its due respect.

Masullo (2711 Riverside Blvd) is my pizza of choice.  It helps that it’s the closest to where I live, but the friendliness of the staff, the quality of the products and the fresh flavors really put it over the top.   Ingredients are either local or American-sourced, such as the La Quercia cured meats from Iowa, (which is, according to author, Iron Chef judge, and my “boyfriend“ as my husband calls him–Jeffrey Steingarten–“the best domestically produced or imported prosciutto I have tasted”), down to Apple Hill apples, and citrus procured from neighboring fruit trees.   Another nice touch is that when the owner Robert Masullo is there, he typically comes around and says hi before you take off.

Masullo occupies a small, spare room with the open kitchen and massive wood fire pizza oven anchoring the far end.  Tables, benches and chairs are made from recovered lumber–a massive old tree that originally lived at 10th Street and Richards Blvd.  Seating is communal–a couple of long tables with benches and small 2-tops along one wall.  Artwork and textiles are spare, so it can get a little loud inside–happy conversations and people yum-yumming bouncing off all the hard surfaces.  Music is missing, but perhaps the lack of tunes has to do with the noise problem.

Thirsty?  There’s a big list of old-school sody-pops:  Apple beer, ginger beer, Sparky’s root beer and Bubble-Up to name a few.  There are a few beers from Jack Russell brewery up near Placerville, and Trumer Pils from Berkeley.  The wine list is small, like the rest of the menu, but there are some good bottles here, and they’re surprisingly affordable.  A $27 bottle of Boeger Reserve Meritage was particularly tasty.

The menu is small–a handful of appetizers and pizzas, with a rotating selection of desserts nightly.  The menu was recently rearranged in a manner I’m not crazy about, lumping the appetizers and salads together and separating the tomato-sauced pizzas from the naked.

On a recent visit, we tried the rillettes, a traditional French preparation made with ground meat–usually pork or other mild meats mixed with fat and served in a crock.  Masullo’s version was more terrine-like and served in big triangular slices with pieces of their flatbread made in that terrific big wood-fired oven,  The taste was mild and delicate, but would’ve benefited from the bite of a strong Dijon mustard or a couple of bracing cornichons.  On another trip we sampled the antipasto platter–a varied selection of cured meats from Berkeley-based Fra’Mani, a soft bleu cheese, olives, roasted peppers and fresh fennel.  The fennel was a nice surprise, and it disappeared fast.

The salad that always draws me back to it is the plain ol’ mixed greens.  Leafy green and red lettuces, that fantastic La Quercia proscuitto, a few shavings of Grana Padano, Pecorino Romano and balsamic vinaigrette.  It’s a fine start or finish to any meal.  Another good choice is the arugula salad–always on the menu, but dressed up in different  finery according to season.  This spring, it was kumquats and Pecorino, currently its shaved Parmesan, almonds and Meyer lemon vinaigrette.  A recent standout was the Ricotta–Bellwether Farms fresh ricotta, tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, tomatillos and onion.  Unusual but refreshing.

But let’s face it; it’s the pizza you’ve come for.  Gone forever from my rotating repertoire are flabby, floppy, soggy American style pizzas.  No more.  Now, when it’s a skinny, crispy pizza I crave, I need go no further than my neighborhood joint.  First though, we’ve got to discuss the crust.  A perfect pizza has a nice crispy base for the stuff to sit on.  Whether skinny, or humongous, like Zelda’s, the crust must be crisp and not soggy.   Masullo’s crust is a good example of this requirement.  Most of the time you can hold up the slice and it won’t flop over.  Occasionally it’s not as crisp and I wonder if it’s the toppings or that they pulled it out too early.  The Margherita is always a good choice–lightly sauced with a fresh-tasting, thin tomato sauce, a few rounds of fresh mozzarella and a scattering of basil leaves.  Other than a few standards, Masullo’s pizzas are named after people Robert Masullo knows.  I’ve been lobbying for a “Sarah” pizza for a while now, but no luck.  In the meantime, I’ll always settle for the “Elisa”, with tomato sauce, mozzarella, salami, thinly shaved fennel and onion–all applied with a restrained hand.  It’s perfection.  The men in my life are partial to the “Josephine”–a tomato-less affair with potato, Fontina, Niman Ranch bacon and oregano– and the “Nellie“–mozzarella, Niman Ranch ham, and crimini mushrooms.  Another interesting pie is the “Mustapha”, a simple pizza–Grana Padano, more of that luscious La Quercia proscuitto–topped with fresh arugula when it comes out of the oven.

Interestingly enough, Chef/Owner Robert Masullo spent much of his career as a pastry chef, working in a variety of cities around the South and Midwest.  This information convinced me that desserts must be consumed at every opportunity—and let me tell you, it’s paid off handsomely in taste sensations and probably a few pounds.  One sure thing is a house made fruit tart, topped with whatever seasonal fruit he’s got and usually a scoop of ice cream or a little dollop of Chantilly cream.  The summer fruit versions were more successful than recent tarts–the pastry is a little hard and the juicy summer fruit seemed to cut it better.  On my last visit, I had a caramel-apple tart that was so sweet I didn’t finish it.  Leaving fruit tart is abnormal for this writer.  An Apple Hill crisp with vanilla ice cream was delicious and was reminiscent more of a French Tarte Tatin in flavor than an American dessert, laden with cinnamon. There’s always a variety of pudding–either a pots de crème–coffee, on my last visit–or homemade dark chocolate pudding.  They also feature ice cream from Vic’s, just down the street, ice cream sandwiches and root beer floats.

Masullo does have its faults.  It’s loud.  If you are hard of hearing, it’s going to be tough to hear anyone you’re dining with.  It’s small; you might have to wait for a table.  Once in a while your pizza might experience some floppiness.  But none of these things should prevent you from going there immediately and spending your hard-earned dollars- you’ll thank me later, and maybe I’ll even get a “Sarah” pizza out of the deal.

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