The real honest pizza

When my husband and I were looking for a house last year, our Realtor took us to River Park, an enclave of a neighborhood opposite California State University, Sacramento. It seemed pleasant enough, but two things gave me pause. First of all, the house we looked at was an eerily exact replica of my mother’s house. And, second, there was practically no food within walking distance. No markets, only one little Chinese restaurant and just one road in and out. Where would we eat? What would we eat? Could we take advantage of the neighborhood’s proximity to the American River by fishing and foraging?

In short, we fled for gastronomically higher ground. Last week, however, we ventured back to River Park, lured by a new restaurant that’s providing a much-needed service to the neighborhood. Mamma Susanna’s, which opened last year, is a small pizzeria with big plans, a friendly attitude and a pleasantly straightforward approach that’s a happy blend of the Italian and the American.

On entering, we got a hearty “Ciao. Buona sera” from the cook and heard the catchy strains of “Mambo Italiano” coming from the speakers. The basic storefront space has a couple of TVs (one was tuned to the bizarre Euro-antics of a variety show on the Italian-language RAI network), a pizza oven, a counter and the register at the front. The tables are in the back, so the patrons aren’t sitting in front of the big windows looking out at the parking lot.

It’s definitely a casual family place, with a chatty, chummy air and a smattering of regulars. We overheard our server talking to one of them about plans to expand the kitchen and serve a wider range of entrees, including pastas. For now, the menu includes a selection of pizzas and calzones, plus panini, sandwich rolls and salads.

In a nod to common practice in Italy, wines are an absolute steal, at just under $3 for a nice big glass. There’s a range of varietals from Salmon Creek as well as a few Italian choices, including the expected Chianti and the distinctly unusual Moscato d’Asti and Lambrusco—lightly sweet, fizzy wines—white and red respectively—that lend a festive air to a simple pizza dinner. Good beers are available on tap, too.

The staff is eager to please, and they’re happy to make pizzas split among various combinations and to accommodate special requests. We started off with the Mamma Susanna salad. It was a big mound of crisp, chopped romaine topped with strips of provolone, mortadella, ham and salami, plus crumbled Gorgonzola cheese. Although the menu lists a choice of dressings, our server noted that the restaurant makes this salad with a house-made creamy Italian dressing. It was a nice, mildly tangy choice that lightly coated the crunchy lettuce.

We had a harder time choosing our pizza from among the several tasty combinations. The offerings ranged from basic American standards, such as pepperoni, to more intriguing Italian ones, like the Genovese with pesto or the spicy arrabiata, with garlic, red peppers, onions and olives. In the end, we ordered our pizza half rustica (listed on the daily-specials menu), which combined artichoke hearts; mushrooms; pieces of bacon; and sweet, tart sun-dried tomatoes. For the other half, we chose caprese, with fresh mozzarella, herbs and slices of fresh tomato.

Even with pink, dead-of-winter tomatoes, the caprese was a winner. The milky flavor of fresh mozzarella complemented the yeasty, slightly smoky crust. Although the crust could have been crisper on the bottom and was a touch doughy on both halves of the pizza where it met the toppings, it had a nice homemade flavor. We also liked the rustica, though the bacon got a little lost amid the vegetables.

There were just two dessert choices, both made in-house, so we sampled them both. My husband’s ultra-simple tiramisu was a welcome change from the boozy, gussied-up versions one often sees. It was just a thick wedge of fresh, whipped mascarpone cream layered with coffee-soaked ladyfingers and dusted lightly with cocoa powder. It was too big to finish, but it was yummy nonetheless.

I had the cannoli, which differed from the classic recipe in that the tube-shaped pastry shell was coated thickly with chocolate before being filled with the barely sweet ricotta filling, which had a hint of cinnamon. I loved the flavor, but the hard chocolate made it a challenge to eat. It rolled around the plate as our server carried it to the table, and it was hard to break up with a fork.

Mamma Susanna’s isn’t fancy or upscale, but I was taken with its honest approach to cooking. In an era in which even small restaurants increasingly get their food delivered by a big food-service truck, a little place that’s making its own desserts, weighing out fresh-made pizza dough on a scale at the front and baking bread for sandwiches is a pleasant find. (It delivers to nearby areas, too, including CSUS.) I’m not saying we’re going to sell our house and move to River Park, but we just might stop by the neighborhood a little more often.