Carla Meyer

Dining review: Masullo up with the best pizza -- anywhere

Many folks who love great pizza spend a good portion of their adult lives obsessing over it – searching for it, traveling near and far to eat it and, ultimately, compiling a list of their favorites.

These aficionados sift through details obvious and obscure, asking what exactly has to happen to make a great pizza.

The water? The dough? The temperature of the oven? Maybe the cheese? The passion of the chef? A touch of magic?

When and if they find their way to Masullo Pizza in Sacramento's Land Park neighborhood, their search may well have reached new heights.

To taste the pizzas that come out of the 800-degree wood-burning oven here – blistered and charred and bubbling – is to confront a mix of art and science and, surely, a touch of the unexplained.

Masullo is the work of Robert Masullo, who opened this humble but stylish pizza place four years ago, delighting customers with how good the pies were and how serious he was about his craft.

He continued to watch and test and study and tweak, until he was turning excellent pies into awe- inspiring pies.

These days Masullo's reputation is rippling beyond the boundaries of the neighborhood, the city, even the state. Recently, Chris Bianco, the Bronx-born, trash-talking pizza demigod, declared Masullo one of the very best practitioners in the high-stakes religion known as Neapolitan pizza-making.

One night a few years back, everything seemed perfect – the dough looked and felt perfect, the timing of the orders was perfect, the vibe in the room was just so – and Masullo knew he was making pizza at its highest level. He wrote on the Masullo Facebook page, "See Naples and die." Translation: It doesn't get any better than this.

That's not hype or braggadocio. We dropped by on several occasions recently to work our way through the assortment of pizzas on the menu, some with sauce, some without. We came away with a simple answer to explain this kind of greatness: Though there is certainly magic, there are no tricks.

At Masullo, it is all about time-honored techniques, old-fashioned values, quality ingredients, attention to detail, high standards and hard work.

The pizzas were so good, the flavors and textures so enthralling – from the crust to the sauce to the little cubes of premium bacon or the medallions of spicy sausage – I can recall the experience weeks later as if I had just polished off a slice moments ago.

It is impossible to pick a favorite. For unadorned simplicity, try the Margherita – tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil. For meaty and spicy, dig into the sausage with a sprinkling of red chili flakes. We almost bypassed the "American" pie with pepperoni, perhaps from memories of too many salty, dreadful pepperoni pizzas from years ago. The pies without sauce, too, were excellent, including the "Jacqueline," which features thin slices of potato and thick, meaty pieces of bacon.

OK, maybe the pepperoni was the best of the best. When I bit into it, there was a sudden, soothing quality, a silky, creamy mouthfeel I found amazing. "See Naples and die." We have eaten pizza at some of the great Neapolitan-style joints in the country, from Delfina in San Francisco to Motorino and Luzzo's in New York City. Masullo is in the big leagues.

I asked the chef about the mouthfeel of his pizza. He talked about the extra virgin olive oil, which is made in small batches by Frate Sole in Woodland. Four years ago, he would drizzle the oil onto the pizza after it came out of the oven. One day, he baked a pie with the olive oil applied beforehand. And there was magic.

Where to begin with how all this pizza supremacy is achieved?

With the wood for the oven? Each log is split with an ax out back so the size and shape are precisely what the oven needs in terms of heat and burn time. It takes longer to do it this way, but it's the right way.

With the starter (also known as sourdough starter or natural leaven)? Stored in a small wine fridge set at 62 to 64 degrees, it is mixed, or fed, each day with flour and water until it bubbles up and doubles in size. It's the life of the dough, the foundation of the next batch. This starter contains natural – not commercial – yeast and is a key component of the crust's flavor, texture and character. It takes longer to make dough this way, but it's the right way.

Then there's the flour used for the dough. It remains a work in progress, even as good as the crust already is. Right now, it's a blend of "00" flour imported from Italy and premium artisan bread flour milled in the Bay Area by a company called Giusto's.

The starter is fed in the evening. The next morning, Masullo mixes the dough, which is then stored in refrigeration for two days, at which time the flavor builds and the dough develops character. In other words, you don't just whip together a batch of dough. We tried to order pizza one night and were told they were out of dough. It's just the way it is in the old-fashioned world of artisan pizza.

The crust is crucial. Though it is largely considered, as Masullo describes it, "a neutral device to carry other flavors," the crust is what distinguishes great pizza from good pizza. Here, it is thin and soft, but with a heft or pull to it as you chew. You'll see telltale air pockets throughout. You'll notice bits of char. The crust blisters the way a good sourdough crust does. You can taste a hint of salt. You can smell the earthiness of the wheat flour.

It is well known by now that Italians eat this style of pizza with a knife and fork. Early on, some Masullo customers balked at the thinness, the softness, the sogginess, of the pies. They wondered why there was so little cheese, and just a smattering of pepperoni or sausage.

In this country, we have a certain amount of baggage when it comes to pizza, things we learned during the age of instant coffee, TV dinners and fast food. But Masullo returns us to a time when things were not so rushed, so instant, so easy.

It is an excellent place, a revelation and, in the best of ways, the end of the road for those in search of greatness.

Masullo Pizza

2711 Riverside Blvd., Sacramento

(916) 443-8929

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Friday; 5-9:30 p.m. Saturday.

Beverage license: Beer and wine

Takeout: Yes.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes.

Noise level: Moderate to high.

Overall Four Stars (excellent)

Tremendous hand-crafted Neapolitan-style pizzas made in a wood-burning oven have only gotten better after four years in business. The overall experience, from the food to the smart service, is a winner.

Food: Four Stars (excellent)

The dough for the pizza is made with a natural starter. After it is mixed and kneaded, it takes three days in refrigeration to ferment and build character. The toppings are of the highest quality. Favorite pies include the simple Margherita, the spicy sausage and the potato with bacon. The salads and desserts are also very good. The small wine and beer selections work well with the food.

Service: Four Stars (excellent)

The personable servers here have the right touch for the room – attentive but still casual, knowledgeable without seeming stuffy.

Ambience: Three Stars (good)

We admire the simple elegance of the room, the view of the wood-burning pizza oven and the communal table idea. The noise might be jarring to some. On one visit, two sets of over- indulgent parents thought we were all there to hear their kids scream.

Value: Four Stars (excellent)

Pizzas range from $11 to about $15, depending on the toppings. Each pizza is enough for one person, though some hungry couples might want to get three pies.