Carla Meyer

Dining review: Small foothills restaurant excels in making Neapolitan pizza

Colfax, this tiny town in the Sierra foothills with the quaint main street and rich Gold Rush history, may be one of the last places you would expect to find pizza made in the tradition of Naples, Italy.

But it was here, an hour from Sacramento, that we encountered a pizzeria – complete with a wood-burning oven – producing pies with a thin crust that’s perfectly blistered and charred, and with toppings employed sparingly, all intended to express the simplicity and elegance of the Neapolitan style.

These pizzas are cooked at high heat in all of 90 seconds, meaning that by the time we placed our order at the counter, took our seats and started chatting about the various large-format scenic photos of Italy on the walls, the server had placed the first of our three pizzas onto the table.

Yes, it was rapid-fire and very Neapolitan.

Il Pizzaiolo is the work of Pete Lostritto, who was born in Brooklyn, moved to California 30 years ago and, as he built a career in marketing, never stopped dreaming of the day he would have his own pizzeria.

The only unorthodox thing is where he decided to put it – in a town with a single exit off I-80 and a population of 2,000 where “artisan Neapolitan pizza” was not exactly a foodie catchphrase.

But Lostritto loves the intimacy of small towns and he wanted to know his clientele on a personal level. So he settled on Colfax, thinking it had a good mix of locals and tourists, and he rolled out his concept about 18 months ago.

Initially, it took some explaining. Some complained that the crust looked burnt or the toppings weren’t as generous as they were used to. Lostritto told them he was trying to adhere to the Naples style and, he says, most of his detractors learned to appreciate it.

Lostritto mastered the pizza-making process by traveling to Italy, asking lots of questions and gaining skill through trial and error. Ten years ago, he built a wood-fired oven in his backyard and a year later hired a consultant to help him hone the process.

Yes, he’s been obsessing about this for ages.

When he opened Il Pizzaiolo, Lostritto had a secret weapon – one that would appeal to village dwellers and city slickers alike.

His prices. Low prices tend to open minds of customers to a style they might not yet appreciate.

All of his regular pies are $8, and the special seasonal pizza, which changes monthly, is $8.50. In the big cities, comparable 12-inch pies that feed one or two people are $12 to $16.

“Pizza in Italy is peasant food. It was never a rich man’s food,” Lostritto said later via phone. “I wanted to have that feel of a peasant food.”

Then there is the speed. Maybe small-town folks aren’t so frantic, so rushed, but travelers heading to or from the ski resorts or Lake Tahoe might not want to spend too long on a sit-down meal. If time is of the essence, you can order, pay, eat, wipe the tasty red sauce from the corners of your mouth and be on your way within 15 minutes.

So he had the oven, the dream and the price point dialed in. But would it all come together in a successful eating experience?

During our visits, we tried nearly everything on the simple menu, which includes four pies with tomato sauce and four without; two salads, limoncello chicken wings, and house-made gelato. Beyond the food, we were impressed with the good-natured, thoughtful and devoted employees, who anticipated our needs, answered our questions and, when it was time to leave, made us feel appreciated.

What’s the best way to approach Neapolitan pizza? By embracing what it’s all about – simplicity with a touch of panache. This style of pizza is all about the crust. If it’s no good, there’s no saving the pie with sauce and cheese and mounds of toppings.

So, start with the margherita – tomato sauce, mozzarella, a few leaves of basil, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and that’s it.

This is a pie that lets the crust be the focal point, and there’s no masking any shortcomings.

To create that quality telltale crust of Naples, Lostritto’s dough is fermented for three days. That means he mixes the dough, lets it sit at room temperature for a day as it rises and bubbles and develops structure with minimal amounts of yeast. Then it’s refrigerated for two more days, a process that is intended to build flavor and character.

The oven’s high heat – about 800 degrees Fahrenheit – allows the crust to get that char and firmness (not crispy, however) on the outside but remain pliable on the inside. If you’re familiar with crusts that have all the charm of a cardboard box, this may seem daunting.

Our margherita was a delight. The smell and taste of the crust were satisfying, and the texture was soft, even pillowy inside. This was, however, a surprise. Many of the best Neapolitan pizzas I’ve enjoyed had more of a chew, an elasticity, that gave the crust more structure. Pizzaiolo’s crust is significantly lighter.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s simply a different interpretation of the style. Lostritto, who plans to open second and third Il Pizzaiolo locations in Loomis and Rocklin in the coming weeks, intends it to be that way.

After the margherita came the “Cinque Terre” with five ingredients, highlighted by thin strips of tender anchovies and tart, salty capers. This is more assertively flavored pie, though the fishy quality may be jarring to some. (The other three ingredients are tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and extra virgin olive oil.)

The “Salsiccia” is the spiciest pizza on the menu, with fennel sausage and red pepper flakes dominating the palate. It’s a lively pie done right.

The white pies give an entirely different eating experience, thanks to the absence of sauce. Our favorite was the “Campania,” with the apple and bacon toppings giving plenty of flavor and textural variety.

Our Caesar salad, a bargain at $4.50, was fresh and pleasant, though we found the romaine overwhelmed by the dressing. The limoncello chicken wings topped with Romano cheese were tasty and tender, and we appreciated the infusion of lemon flavor as something out of the ordinary.

For dessert, the small cups of house-made gelatos had a lighter, icier texture than we were expecting, and the flavors we tried, including salted caramel, stracciatella and pistachio, were all too tame in flavor and left us wanting something with more personality.

The room is pleasantly arranged, medium in size and, during our visits, had a balance of eat-in and take-out. The music included songs by Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra.

But the real story here in this quaint foothills town is how delighted you may be to encounter Neapolitan-style pizza made with such respect for tradition, an emphasis on quality and, more than anything, at such a terrific price.