Counter Culture: Giovanni’s pizza is the real deal

07/02/2014 5:00 PM

07/01/2014 5:10 PM

Let’s celebrate this most American of holidays – the Fourth of July – with a classic American dish – pizza.

What? Well, taste some context: The concept of flatbread topped with cheese, olive oil, tomato, garlic, anchovies and similar simple ingredients is mostly rooted in Naples, Italy, where it was a cheap meal for the ancient city-state’s many “lazzaroni” (working poor).

Pizza in a few versions arrived here in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when Italian immigrants flooded East Coast cities to take jobs in factories. The dish spread throughout the U.S. with the post-WWII boom and became hugely popular, as it was considered more a novelty than an ethnic staple.

Toppings went from traditional to “anything goes” as pizza parlors and pizza chains popped up, and as frozen pizzas began crowding supermarket frozen-food cases (and still do, with greater variety than ever).

Pizza is as subjective a dish among diners as barbecue and burgers, in that everyone has a favorite. In Sacramento’s early pizza days, choices were limited. The go-to’s included Luigi’s Pizzeria (since 1953 and stronger than ever), the original Shakey’s (from 1954 to the mid-1990s), Roma Pizzeria II (since 1971 and always jammed), and Zelda’s (since 1978, and still guarding its proprietary crust recipe).

The relatively recent “new school” pizzerias serve a slimmer, thinner-crust style of pie with eclectic toppings in more modern surroundings that, in a few cases, some customers perceive as “hip.” Among the usual suspects are Hot Italian, Pizza Rock, Masullo, One Speed, Old Town Pizza and Chicago Fire.

But hold on a minute. ... Before the new-wave pizza shops opened here, Brookyn-born John Ruffaine pioneered thin-crust New York-style pizza in 2001, when he opened Giovanni’s Old World New York Pizzeria (“The Sixth Borough”) in South Land Park. He still makes the dough and all the sauces by hand, from scratch, every day.

“It’s been a challenge, I’m not gonna kid ya,” Ruffaine said Monday. “When we opened, everybody ordered pepperoni or a meat combo, and that was it. I tried to do vegetable-topped pizzas, but that was unheard of back then and (customers) looked at me like I was nuts. The Food Network is what made it all change, and why people became willing to try (nontraditional toppings). For the first time, they started saying that broccoli rabe and truffle oil were great on pizza.

“I’ve made pumpkin pizzas since 2001, with Sicilian pumpkin sauce, mozzarella, pistachios, mushrooms and bacon,” Ruffaine said. “We sell them between Halloween and Thanksgiving, and people call weeks ahead to reserve them.”

Giovanni’s, which is open today from 11 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., has a menu dominated by 15 kinds of pizza, along with specialty pies: broccoli rabe-chili peppers, garbanzo bean-garlic-basil, eggplant-basil, Calabrese salami-pepperoncini, zucchini-ricotta, wild mushroom-truffle oil, and Mediterranean (mushrooms, oregano, mint, lemon juice).

Also of note: 11 kinds of stromboli (crisped-dough “roulade” filled with meats and cheeses), roasted Sicilian-style chicken and “the real Margherita pizza with buffalo milk mozzarella from Italy, San Marzano-style tomatoes, fresh basil and extra-virgin olive oil.” Coming by summer’s end will be Sicilian-style pizza. “I couldn’t get the pans I wanted from New York, so I made my own,” said Ruffaine the pizza purist. “They need to be seasoned before I can cook in them.”

I introduced a new lunch pal to Giovanni’s original Land Park site, which is cavernous enough to host the World Cup or land a 747. We tasted five hefty slices – plain cheese, garlic-chicken, sausage-red peppers, pepperoni, and one covered in pesto sauce, sliced tomato and pine nuts ($3 a slice). Lunch was a medley of delicious flavors and alternating textures.

“The crust is not so thin that it’s flopping apart or the toppings are seeping through, and it’s not so thick that all you can taste is the crust,” said the lunch pal, a recent college grad. “The veggies are really fresh,” she added, finishing a slice.

For my original 2002 review, my lunch pal was the skeptical New York Bob, who grew up in the Bronx. This excerpt still says it:

“Our pizza arrived at the table, a plain cheese with a sprinkling of oregano. Was it a real New York pie? New York Bob took a bite and smiled. ‘The crust is thin and crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.’ He took another bite. ‘This is much better than I had anticipated. Thanks for introducing me to a pizza that I can eat and still maintain my self-respect.’ He killed the slice and declared, ‘This is the best pizza I’ve had in California.’ ”

Pizza, more in Loomis

One of the tastiest and least-heralded pizzas is found at the 41/2-acre High Hand Nursery, partly occupied by a four-star restaurant inside a glass-walled conservatory. On the adjacent shaded patio is a barlike counter fronting two pizza ovens, where five kinds of hand-crafted pizzas bubble and crisp in the blazing heat of oakwood coals ($17).

“Locavorism” is the theme of the seasonally changing menu, with most dishes made from scratch, on site. Start with a melon salad and end with blackberry-Meyer lemon cobbler. Walk it off with a stroll around the grounds and take a look inside the 125-year-old former fruit-packing shed.

High Hand Cafe, 3790 Taylor Road, Loomis. Lunch is 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; brunch is 9 a.m.-3 p.m. weekends; (916) 652-2064, www.highhand.com.

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