There’s almond wood in the pizza oven and cherry in the smoker, but ingenuity also fuels Federalist Public House.
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Architectural designer Marvin Maldonado, who owns Federalist with his wife, Bridgette, used recycled shipping containers to build the covered beer garden specializing in local beer and artisanal pizza.
The Maldonados built the structure, the entrance to which sits in an alley near N and 20th streets, in their home’s backyard. Though a roof covers most of the space, one side opens to an outdoor bocce court and to the elements.
Der Biergarten, at 24th and K, started midtown’s of-the-moment container trend when it opened in early 2014. But it softened its raw metal look with conventional building materials after prodding from the city.
Federalist, which is not easily visible from the street, was allowed to realize its corrugated-metal ambitions more fully. The result is a space that embraces its slow-boat-from-China industrial origins yet also exhibits a degree of sophistication.
Hear “shipping container,” and thoughts of rust and the odd barnacle spring to mind. Federalist wipes such images clean with an interior that’s mostly white, from its ceiling to its constantly whirring ceiling fans and hanging light fixtures. The heavy use of white reflects Federal-style influences from the Maldonados’ 1907 home (part of which serves as a private dining space). Shipping-container corrugated ridges mimic the house’s wainscoting.
12 Number of local beers Federalist has on tap, including offerings from Track 7, Ruhstaller and Berryessa
As health spas and bathrobe makers know, white calms. The air seems to lighten once you enter Federalist, though it’s the same air as in the alley a few feet away. As the communal wood tables fill up, rising noise levels challenge this sense of peace. But it never leaves entirely.
When you get down to the dining experience, Federalist shows more flaws, some of them common to all 6-month-old restaurants, others specific to a place made from shipping containers. A few can be overlooked with enough sips from the local beers in which Federalist specializes.
Lacking a traditional kitchen, Federalist uses its wood-fired oven and a smoker for its menu of pizza (former Masullo sous chef Shannon McElroy is lead here), salads and sandwiches (dubbed “sandos”).
McElroy shows command of the pie’s most vital element, its crust, which is thin and well-seasoned and chewy without being tough. But toppings often taste like works in progress.
The “Chavez” (the pizzas carry names of key people and places in California and U.S. history) holds a potent combination of tomatillo sauce, carnitas and crème fraiche and overpowers instead of empowers. The “Schwarzenegger” comes on too strong as well, with overly smoky chicken and a too-salty overall taste.
The pancetta and tomato sauce on the “Capitol,” by contrast, were not salty enough, resulting in a $13 pizza whose flavor lay mostly in its crust.
But the $19 “Ben Franklin Deluxe,” from the weekend brunch menu, tastes like 100 bucks. The Benedict-style pizza holds smoked tasso ham, two cooked eggs and tangy hollandaise sauce and easily can feed three people. The eggs lend the crust heft without weighing it down. A folded slice of this pie can compete with any breakfast sandwich in town.
The pesto sauce on the “Marshall” is so striking we’ll assume the name comes from Gold Rush pioneer James W. and not Supreme Court justices John or Thurgood. The pie’s salami rosa is tasty, but the bright-flavored sauce is the star.
Federalist offers a “custom pie” option, with red (tomato), white (bechamel) or green (pesto) sauces. Go green.
Sandwiches and salads are worth noting for the tag team of arugula prickle and goat-cheese salve on the prosciutto sandwich and the careful integration of dried cranberries and red onion into the couscous salad – a surprisingly delicate dish for a shipping-container beer garden.
One cannot go wrong by sticking with beer – Federalist has 12 on tap, including offerings from Track 7, Ruhstaller and Berryessa – and the “cannonballs” appetizer and ice-cream sandwich dessert.
Light in consistency despite the name, the cannonballs are meatballs made from ground pork and beef and smoked-meat odds and ends. It takes one bite to believe it’s the more the merrier, meat-wise.
The ice cream sandwich, with Vic’s vanilla bean edged by slivers of pistachio, housed in two oatmeal cookies and dipped in chocolate, is substantial enough to perform alcohol soak-up duties on its own.
It’s best to order dessert separately, post-entrees, because dishes ordered together can arrive in an unconventional fashion, with salads and appetizers following pizza. On our first visit to Federalist, for lunch, a tri-tip sandwich never arrived at all.
The trouble started before we ordered. The staff still seemed to be in preparation mode, though the place had been open for 20 minutes. The wall menu had not yet reached the wall, and little effort was expended to usher us, newcomers to the place, through the over-the-counter ordering process.
But the counter person later refunded our money for the sandwich and gave us a coupon for a free pizza, starting a streak of good service, from friendly counter people and solicitous food runners, that lasted throughout subsequent visits.
Staff hospitality, however, could not shield us from noise, heat and sun. On a noise scale of 1 to Zocalo, Federalist scores 8.5 at half capacity and goes to 11 when full.
People who sit closer to the counter – to the left as you enter – might have it better than others. Marvin Maldonado designed the space so sound projects toward the bocce court, away from a private residence next door.
Though it has a roof, Federalist is essentially an outdoor space. If it’s warm outside, it’s warm in the beer garden. But the metal roof is not the heat conductor one might assume it to be, Maldonado said, because layers of foam and soil (used in a rooftop garden) separate sun from metal.
No barrier exists between tables near the bocce court and the harsh afternoon/evening light. When the sun hits your eye near a big pizza pie, it’s annoying. Maldonado said he’s working on a screening system.
To best enjoy Federalist, apply the “custom pie” approach. Go when it’s less likely to be loud or hot – say, early lunch on a Wednesday or after nightfall on a Monday. Or say to heck with it and hit Friday happy hour on a 100-degree day, embracing the heat as sultry and the noise as lively.
Because Federalist, despite its imperfections, is too interesting a place not to go at all.
2009 Matsui Alley, Sacramento (between N and Capitol and 20th and 21st)
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday; 11:30 a.m.-midnight Thursday through Saturday.
Beverage options: 12 beers on tap, many local, plus bottled beers. A modest selection of California wines.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes
Gluten-free options: Yes
Noise level: Loud
Ambiance: Much of this covered beer garden/pizzeria’s appeal lies in architectural designer and co-owner Marvin Maldonado’s inventive use of shipping containers to construct it. Though made from raw material, Federalist looks finished and sophisticated. But when it’s warm outside, Federalist is warm, too, and when it’s crowded, it gets loud.
Overall ☆☆ 1/2
The place is worth a visit just to experience the structure and good selection of local beers. The food could use some work, but a few menu items dazzle.
Food ☆☆ 1/2
The pizza crust is spot on, but the toppings uneven in flavor and combination. The “Marshall” pizza benefits from a bright pesto sauce, but other pizzas are too salty or not salty enough. Can’t-miss items: “cannonballs” appetizer and ice-cream sandwich.
Service ☆☆ 1/2
There were several hiccups on our first visit, but things smoothed out after that.
Value ☆☆ 1/2
The pizza prices are on par with, and sometimes higher than, other top pizza places around town. But those places offer table service and air-conditioning.