It is tempting to assume the worst: When a restaurant is big and busy, when it offers a good bit of pizazz to go with its many styles of pizza, and when its very existence holds so much hope for a once-dire part of downtown, surely the overall quality is going to suffer.
It will be watered down, hokey, derivative, lame.
Assume all or any of this about Pizza Rock at your peril.
The family-friendly pizzeria, which sells up to 3,000 pizzas a week, has been an instant hit with an eclectic crowd at dinner and lunch alike. People flock here, and for good reason.
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Sure, we can quibble about the concept, how the focal point of the room is a monster truck affixed to a side wall, and how it feels just a little too Hard Rock for some tastes.
But the service, the food, the experience – they're all rock-solid. It even passes the pizza-snob test.
Recently, I invited three serious foodies for a no-holds-barred meal. They included a physician who volunteers occasionally in the kitchen of one of the area's best restaurants; the polyglot founder of the Sacramento Epicureans dining group, who grew up in Europe; and an Italian American who was raised on the best pies and calzones in pizza-rich Brooklyn. Me? I'm a run-of-the-mill pizza obsessive who makes dough from scratch using a sourdough starter and who pines for a home oven that can reach 800 degrees.
My invitation was simple: Bring your appetite, your skepticism, your sense of tradition, your fussy palate. How could Pizza Rock possibly hold up to this kind of scrutiny?
We ordered from all areas of the menu. We got all styles of pies and with all kinds of toppings. We went light and subtle. We went heavy on the meat. We tried a variety of cheeses – mozzarella, burrata, gorgonzola, asiago.
We selected crusts thick, thin and in-between. The pizzas came out of different ovens at different temperatures and cooking times. The doughs sported differing recipes with various flours.
Our server that day looked at us funny. She even warned us when we ordered – this was way too much food. But unbeknown to her, we were on a mission.
And by the time we made it halfway through the meal, we marveled at how good the pizzas were – how consistent, how balanced, how accurately they represented the various styles, and how they adhered to the traditions and craftsmanship of pizza made the right way.
At Pizza Rock, they don't cut corners, skimp on ingredients, dumb-down the combinations or source products on the cheap.
Let's start with the centerpiece of Neapolitan pizza – the Margherita pie, which is basically a thin crust made of dough that has been proofed over many hours to develop flavor and texture, and then baked at very high temperatures very quickly. It is little more than tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil, all applied rather sparingly.
These days, this is the style of choice for pizza fanatics and, even better, pizza snobs. It has a thin crust that is tender, chewy, charred on the edges, has plenty of overall character, but is not, alas, crispy.
Sacramento has become, all of the sudden, a city that does this style rather well, most notably at Masullo in Land Park. Hot Italian, OneSpeed and Spataro also do very good versions.
Three out of four of us loved this pie – I was the holdout. I liked it, but I found the heavy-handed application of basil off-putting. My three pals disagreed. But to me, the basil overwhelmed the palate in what really should be a display of subtlety – the aroma, texture and flavor of the crust, the sweet and bitter interplay of the San Marzano tomatoes, the tang of the cheese and that overall mouth feel bringing it all together.
On the opposite end of the spectrum was the Sicilian style – a pie that is thick but not dense like, say, the wonderful Chicago-style pizzas at Zelda's, the beloved midtown deep-dish joint responsible for more than its share of food comas through the years. The Sicilian crust at Pizza Rock is pillowy soft and light. Our pie, the $28 Burratina di Margherita, ate surprisingly well – i.e. we wolfed it down. The abundant sauce was delicious and the pizza came topped with ample cherry tomatoes and plenty of burrata, that cousin of mozzarella that is creamy and milky and has a ricotta-like texture. This pizza is baked in a gas brick oven, according to a note on the menu. It's a fun, filling, not-so-serious but seriously good pizza.
We also went with American-style pizza, ordering a pie dubbed "Sacramento" for $17. The medium-thick crust ate much like what we all grew up with – something like a Domino's or Round Table, plump and light and a little chewy and plenty filling. The star of the Sacramento is not the crust but the extraordinary toppings – spicy-hot pepperoni, salami, mushrooms, bell peppers, red onions, mushrooms, black olives and ground sausage scattered about. This is a pizza, with so much pinging off the palate, that would be great with a cold beer – or three.
We also went with "classic Italian" style, whatever that means. Turns out, the crust is on the thin side but with more crispnesss than a Neapolitan. We ordered the $16 Cal Italia, which the menu notes won the gold medal in the Food Network Pizza Champions Challenge, a contest no one has actually heard of. Still, this pizza was good, bordering on incredible, fig preserves and balsamic vinegar drizzled here and there, four kinds of cheese, tissue-thin prosciutto. It was sweet. It was bitter. It was salty. It was pretty much an eating experience.
The foodies went home happy, but my work was not done. On other visits, I had lasagna ($14) and was impressed with how tender and in-sync the various components were – and how monstrous the piece was. This dish could easily serve two.
I also enjoyed a calzone and a stromboli. I tried several other pizzas over several visits. My favorite just might be the Picante, which was an amazingly hot and lively pizza that included three kinds of peppers, chorizo, linguisa, pepperoni and enough Cholula hot sauce to make me gasp with pleasure. The big $10 burger topped with burrata was decent and accurately cooked to order. The tiramisu was above average.
In fact, I was hard-pressed to find much wrong with Pizza Rock since those very early days in early 2011 when they brought me the wrong pizza three times. They've ironed out all the wrinkles.
I even got delivery one night. It's free within the grid and they showed up on an electric-powered bike – 10 minutes before they said they would.
Maybe it's not the hippest place going, but this is a great restaurant for families looking for something fun and lively and, assumptions aside, it's a good, solid bet for serious pizza snobs, too.
1020 K St., Sacramento
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11 a.m. to midnight Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 3 a.m. Friday; 10:30 a.m. to 3 a.m. Saturday; 10:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Beverage options: Full bar.
Vegetarian friendly: Yes.
Noise level: Tends to be loud.
Overall: 3 stars (good)
Can you be all things to all people and still have quality food? Apparently, you can. With a variety of pizzas – and pizza ovens – rarely seen in one place, Pizza Rock puts forth quality and authentic pies with impressive consistency in a lively, fun environment that is infusing new optimism to K Street. Impressive hours, too.
Food: 3 stars (good)
This is one-stop shopping for pizza lovers of all kinds – thick crust or thin, minimal toppings or fully loaded. We tried close to a dozen pizzas over several visits and were never disappointed. Favorites include the hot and spicy American-style Picante, the Cal Italia for its sophisticated flavors and the great big Sicilian-style pie with a light and tender crust called Burratina di Margherita. The lasagna is huge and surprisingly good. We also recommend the Manhattan calzone filled with meatballs.
Service: 3 stars (good)
The early days when they brought us the wrong pizza three times seem so long ago. The servers are generally well-trained, friendly and energetic. The host went the extra mile during one visit for takeout.
Ambience: 3 stars (good)
It's a big room with lots of energy, plenty of urban- industrial style and, even with a truck as a focal point, it all comes together to create a look and feel that work for the room. Good music and sound system, too. If you don't like noise, the front patio is an option.
Value: 3 stars (good)
Pizzas range in size and price, from about $14 for pies that feed two or more, to $30 for a fully loaded Sicilian pizza big enough to feed an entire family. The massive lasagna is $14. Free delivery by electric-powered bikes within the grid.
Noteworthy: Owner-partner Tony Gemignani won a category of the 2007 World Pizza Cup for his Neapolitan-style Margherita pizza, which is available in limited quantities daily at Pizza Rock. In 2009, Gemignani and five teammates won a silver medal in the artistic bread category for a Statue of Liberty made entirely of bread. Thankfully, it's not available in any quantities at Pizza Rock.