La Crosta pizza chef shares his tips on making gourmet pizza
With an oven custom covered in $140 worth of gleaming new pennies and a menu deep in pie options, La Crosta Pizza Bar is all in on its pizza theme. Owners Sara Arbabian and Steve Tatterson, who also own Midtown’s cheese and wine standby The Rind, have built an alluring, pretty dining room to match, just on the other side of the I Street Bridge in developing West Sacramento.
It’s a lovely spot, with a swooping cursive sign covered in 2018 pennies to match the oven, which is named Penelope. (The sign only took $25 worth of pennies.) The entrees are great, the wine list is sophisticated but modestly priced, and it’s casual enough to drop in with the family or for snacks and drinks at the bar but stylish enough for a date night. My major reservations about La Crosta are about its namesake, chosen not just for allusion to pizza but also for its parallelism with The Rind.
Oddly, the crust on which the restaurant has hung its identity was consistently disappointing. The pizza crust was soft enough that slices collapsed, cheese and other toppings sliding off into a heap and leaving behind a soggy triangular crumple. The soft chew at the edges of the pie was pleasant, but the crusts all had spots of bitter char and were doughy and underbaked inside. Some blistering is great, but bitterness shouldn’t overwhelm.
I wanted to love these pizzas, and in all I tried five. All had the same crust issues, to my sorrow. La Crosta’s crust can’t hold up (literally) against local competition like Masullo, Hot Italian or One Speed.
Manager Greg Walters, who developed the dough recipe, said he spent about 100 hours finessing the recipe. He did an environmental check that took ambient humidity into account; he tested yeast growth rates and different flours (La Crosta settled on Caputo, a classic); and he adjusted the oven heat. The oven normally runs between 700 and 750 degrees, and the owners selected a gas oven for environmental reasons. In other words, they’ve attended carefully to all of the technical aspects of pizza making, yet somehow the elements aren’t adding up to great pie.
Even so-so pizza is pretty likeable — it’s bread, gooey cheese and tomatoes, what’s not to like? — but such technical flaws may prove serious issues for pizza aficionados.
Toppings were better than the crust with one exception. I found the seafood pizza, a distinctive item that has received some attention, very strange. Topped with rock shrimp, scallops, clams, and a piquillo remoulade — plus capers, undetectable tarragon and mozzarella — it should have had some zip and spice. Instead, it was watery and devoid of much flavor besides a lurking fishiness, with most of the seafood indistinguishable swaddled in its cheese blanket.
A much better choice was The Sonny, with fennel sausage and the bright note of pickled onions, showing off the kitchen’s skill at balancing acidic flavors. I would have liked this one better without the drizzle of reduced balsamic, which veered into sweet.
The favorite was the Margarit-ish, where oregano added a spicy, dusky note to the classic and a light load of toppings kept the crust the most intact of any of the pies. The Three Cheeses was a pleasant enough basic (and the choice of my kids). I’d love to see the kitchen here get a little more inventive with cheese on the pizza offerings, drawing on the owners’ experience at The Rind.
The crust also features, somewhat more successfully, in the piadini — thin flatbread sandwiches. The heirloom and pesto, served with a fresh side salad, fell apart when picked up, thanks to a juicy helping of tomatoes, pesto and lots of greens. The Banh Mi, with pulled pork and zippy pickles and jalapeno, had good (though not especially Vietnamese) pork flavor, but lost the textural contrast of the original with thin flatbread instead of a plush baguette.
Appetizers and salads offered a different direction, as did some stellar entrees. Greek chop salad was misnamed (nothing about it was “chopped”), but it was very good, understated leafy green salad with oranges, olives and briny feta. The appetizer of curried meatballs put a fresh spin on a standard with tender meatballs and a flavorful hit of curry in tomato sauce. A side of Brussels sprouts needed a bit more cooking on a few sprouts but was rich with crunchy bacon.
Entrees, available only at dinner, were the best menu items. The hanger steak with a light-as-air “zabaione” sauce (like a fluffy hollandaise) and crisp fried shallot rings, was cooked to medium-rare perfection.
One night the kitchen was out of a listed entrée, but offered salmon as an alternative. The fish proved perfectly seared and was served with a velvety celery-root puree. It was surrounded by roasted butternut squash and topped with a bright, precise jicama-apple brunoise that lifted the whole dish. With its balanced flavors and textures, this dish would have passed muster at any fine-dining place in town — impressive for a fill-in entrée at a more casual spot. On my next visit, it had moved to the main menu, and deservedly so.
Pappardelle alla Bolognese was warm and comforting, the pasta well cooked if oversauced, but a smoky flavor oddly dominated.
Desserts, like the mains, were mixed. An apple caramel piadina enclosed excellent dusky-sweet apples in a slightly tough flatbread with cheddar cheese. It’s a fun twist on the old-fashioned mode of serving apple pie with cheddar. A four-layer creamsicle panna cotta had a fragrant orange layer, but the vanilla layer was tasteless and the buttery shortbread base underbaked and a tad sludgy.
Service throughout our visits was friendly and eager to please, though not always incredibly professional, especially at the slower lunch service, when the restaurant was nearly empty. Servers were knowledgeable and able to recommend wines from the intriguing, strong list. I expressed hesitation about one recommendation of the Juggernaut cabernet sauvignon: I often find the varietal too heavy and the name “juggernaut” didn’t exactly allay that concern. The server brought me tastes of two different wines to compare. I went with her recommendation, which was excellent, and I observed staff offering tastes to many guests. On another night, the much lighter Dom Cristia Grenache was an ideal food wine, and the list of whites is similarly versatile.
The service, the space, and the entrees at La Crosta are all humming along nicely. The flavors are mostly great, wines are appealing and prices are reasonable. There’s also a weekend brunch, a good thing to keep in mind for those tired of long Midtown brunch waits. La Crosta has tons of potential to be a friendly, reliable neighborhood spot. As it stands, I question whether their literal and figurative base — the crust — is sturdy enough to support them.
La Crosta Pizza Bar
330 3rd Street, West Sacramento. 916-389-0372
Hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday
Beverage options: Carefully selected and successful, though not overlong, wine and beer list.
Vegetarian friendly: Salads and pizzas, as well as sandwiches, offer good options for vegetarian eaters, though vegans will have a tougher time.
Gluten-free options: The menu is marked with options for gluten-sensitive diners, including a gluten-sensitive pizza crust, though the kitchen does not guarantee items as completely gluten free.
Noise levels: Reasonable on our visits, with measures like velvet chairs and draped fabric on the ceiling beams to absorb noise.
Ambiance: Stylish and attractive, with a welcoming central bar and an airy feeling. Tables are well spaced, booths and chairs are comfortable, and the gleaming pennies on the oven and swooping sign add a bright touch.
This upscale but relaxed spot in West Sac is pleasing in just about every way except, regrettably, for the matter of its pizza crust, which tends toward the limp. Entrees, however, are a delight, and the restaurant, just opposite the I Street Bridge, feels like a pleasant respite in West Sac’s developing restaurant scene.
The restaurant has staked its claim as a pizza bar, but the entrees are really where it’s at, with beautifully balanced dishes like hanger steak and salmon. Sausage pizza with pickled onions, the untraditional Margarita-ish and the piadini (flatbread sandwiches) can be uneven but are worth a try.
Friendly and knowledgeable, with a good grounding in the strong but compact wine list and an eagerness to please. Service can lag a bit, however, when business is slow.
Appetizers, salads and very hearty sandwiches run no more than $12, which large pizzas hover around $14, making this a very reasonable lunch spot. Dinner entrees top out at $27, but are mostly closer to $20.