Masullo’s gets pizza right
Sacramento, CA 95818
Sure, there’s a lot of pizza in this town. But is there a pizza restaurant you’d visit if you wanted a nice glass of wine and something for dessert, or where you’d go on a date? The new Masullo is that pizza place—not that it’s stuffy or anything. Quite the reverse—but its quality, conception and execution are almost uniformly excellent. Its setting is starkly stylish, and it’s already packing them in, me among them. A mid-priced neighborhood place with a local vibe and delicious food that’s kid-friendly but not at all juvenile? Sign me up, thanks.
We showed up at precisely 5 p.m. (opening time) on a Saturday night, and we barely got a table. I don’t know how everyone else is finding the place—the signage is modest and the storefront on Riverside Boulevard even more so (there’s not exactly a giant cow out front to tell you you’ve arrived). Inside, the subtlety continues: The tables are few (including some giant, communal, hewn log tables), the concrete floor and concrete-brick walls are all but bare. It could easily feel like a concrete box, but instead the vibe is spare and easy, if a touch loud.
Less easy is the ordering decision. The frequently changing, seasonal menu was short—four appetizers, three salads, 10 pizzas—but our party looked it over and basically wanted one of everything. We settled instead on sharing two of the appetizers, the Caprese and the roasted mixed-vegetable plate. The Caprese, tender little quartered balls of mozzarella tossed with chunks of tomatoes, basil and olive oil, could not have been simpler; it was lovely, if a bit small to divvy up among five. (We should have ordered two.) The vegetable plate had toasty flavored sweet corn kernels, sweet peppers, ribbon-thin zucchini and yellow squash strips woven amid it, with plenty of salt and pepper—elegantly simple and full of summer flavor. Appetizers and salads come with wedges of herbed flatbread; yeasty, char-toasted and aromatic with the herbs—a great way to whet one’s appetite for pizza.
And you’ll want to whet your appetite for it, because it’s the main event. We tried several kinds, all individually sized. I liked the spicy eggplant pizza, with pine nuts and chili flakes. The Madeline was also successful, with the same flavors as the mixed-vegetable plate: corn, roasted peppers and squash.
Given the obvious quality and freshness of everything else we tried, I was a little disappointed that the artichokes on the 4 Quarters pizza were obviously either canned or frozen, with that telltale salty and citric-acid flavor and yellowish color. Why not wait for artichoke season and sauté up the sweet, meaty thistle buds? I know they’re a pain to trim, but their caramelly flavor would lift the pizza from very good to superlative. Everything else about it was great—the salty slices of prosciutto, the porky rounds of Fra’Mani sausage, the toasty-sweet roasted peppers, the lightly applied and barely tangy smear of tomato sauce, the pools of just-melted mozzarella and above all, the crust. The crust makes the pizza and also helps define its style, and here it had it all: yeasty, glutenous chew in the slightly thicker edges, black char in bubbly spots underneath (lending the pizza depth with its faint bitterness), little blisters and tender spots.
The Jacqueline, a white pizza, puts this crust to good but very different use, topping it with a shingling of ultra thin potato slices, a scattering of poppingly salty bacon and some oven-curled oregano leaves; herbaceous and earthy. The whole thing was stuck together—and I mean that in a good way—with lightly applied, almost funky-tasting fontina cheese.
To wash all this down, there’s a short wine list of mostly local items (Boeger and R.H. Phillips, for instance), with reasonable by-the-glass prices—though the selection could be more intriguing—served in squat little tumblers. You’ll also find a few beers—again, mostly regional.
Once the pizzas are done (or their remains tucked into boxes—they make a good lunch the next day), you’ll want to consider dessert. Offerings are few and ever-changing, but we sampled a chocolate pudding that everyone at the table loved; it was dense and rich, more like a pot de crème with thick, ganachelike texture and a puff of whipped cream on top. The slice of peach galette was almost its polar opposite: a rustic tart with a flaky, buttery crust; fleshy and delectable fruit and syrupy juices enlivened by crunchy, perfumey little cardamom seeds. Opinion on these seeds was divided at our table, but I thought they made an unusual, intriguing complement to the peaches.
We left sated and looking forward to a return. Owner Robert Masullo did an eating tour of Naples, Italy, to get the feel for the pizza, and he returned with a knack for the wood-burning oven but a local sensibility that should make his small, appealing restaurant a hit with Sacramentans.