Carla Meyer

Dining review: Hot City Pizza scores big with whole-wheat pies and craft beers

After years of modest growth, Hot City Pizza has blown up in the past 24 months, becoming a beloved hole-in-the-wall destination for good pizza and amazing beer.

It’s a cool little spot. It’s also very quirky.

The pizza has a whole-wheat crust, which is unusual and, given the longstanding stigma, more than a little risky as the basis of a business. One of the specialty pizzas, dubbed the “Angry Pig,” is so spicy-hot that even the owner can’t handle it. Three of the pizzas include pineapple, which Neapolitan-leaning pizza snobs would call blasphemous.

The dining area is small, cramped, bare-bones and will not inspire any interior-decorating epiphanies during your visits, unless a soft drink machine as a focal point and beer cases stacked on the fridge are design choices that speak to you.

The restroom is in the back of the place and could be mistaken for a janitorial storage closet. The message on the answering machine mentions the restaurant being closed on a Tuesday – in January – which was nine months ago. The sign out front says “Garibaldi’s,” even though there’s no one on the premises by that name and the business is called Hot City Pizza.

So if you are looking to be wowed by aesthetics or bowled over by fine-dining refinement, this ain’t your pizza joint. But if you’re hankering for a hangout that’s unpretentious, if not a little unkempt, if you’re clamoring for consistently good pizza that stands out from the crowd and, most of all, if you’re thirsting to try some of the best beer in the world, your search is over.

Hot City Pizza is owned by Colby Pettenger, who in 2007 was an ambitious but inexperienced 25-year-old entrepreneur when he bought this East Sacramento pizzeria in a tiny, easy-to-miss strip mall. At the time, he didn’t even drink beer, and the business didn’t have a license to sell it.

But in many ways, the emergence of Pettenger and the arc of Hot City’s success are representative of a new, more discerning and much more interesting Sacramento. Years before, the location was a Domino’s, a publicly traded corporation with 10,000 locations in 70 countries selling pizzas known for being consistent and largely unremarkable. By contrast, Hot City is one of a kind, and its pizzas and beers are in many ways a reflection of the likes and leanings of its owner.

Over the years, Pettenger stamped his name and vision onto his fledgling pizzeria, and word spread that these whole-wheat crust pies were pretty impressive, a far cry from the bland, cardboard-y crusts for which whole wheat had largely been known.

Three years into his Hot City endeavor, Pettenger had a light-bulb moment that changed everything – he drank a really good beer. It was a Chimay Blue, a Belgian Trappist ale with a significantly higher alcohol content (9 percent ABV) and more flavor than a typical commercial beer like Budweiser or Heineken.

“It was the first beer that opened my mind,” Pettenger said recently. “I was like, ‘Oh my God. I had no idea.’ ”

That was around the same time that craft beer was beginning to boom in Sacramento, and thousands of others in town were starting to say the same thing. Beer could be exciting, diverse and complex. Beer could intrigue the palate in all kinds of ways, from bitter and bold to tart and fruity and sour. And beer, we learned, paired really well with food.

New breweries were opening locally. Beer-oriented spots like The Shack and Pangaea and then LowBrau and Capitol Beer & Taproom were drawing bigger and bigger crowds. The trend extended to Rocklin and Roseville, too.

As Pettenger tweaked his dough recipe and continued to hone the flavor profile of his sauces, he decided to get serious about beer at Hot City.

Beer geeks around town are well aware that unassuming Hot City is now a place for exciting beer choices. The 14 beers on tap change all the time. The mix usually includes a few local choices, a few sours and a wide range of American and European imports, with a noteworthy soft spot for Belgians.

Pettenger loves sour beers even though he concedes they don’t pair well with many of his pizzas.

During a recent visit, I had one of the most remarkable beers in memory – Tart of Darkness by The Bruery in Orange County – along with an amazing sour ale called Biere de Vie by Freigeist out of Germany. I’ve also enjoyed a crisp, piney IPA by Sacramento’s Device Brewing there, and a saison blend by Danish wunderkind Mikkeller that was so good – and the bottle so large – that we shared it with employees and customers alike.

The soft-spoken Pettenger, it turns out, is something of a renegade when it comes to his food and beer. Yes, that Angry Pig, for instance, is too hot for even him. He has to remove some of the fresh jalapeños and scrape away some of the infernolike marinara in order to eat it. I have had six Angry Pig pizzas over the past two years and found the Scoville heat measurement tends to range from hot to super hot to, if my last pie is any indication, impossible-to-eat-without-gasping-in-agony hot.

“It’s almost one of those worthwhile punishments,” Pettenger said. “We warn people we use fresh jalapeños. The andouille sausage also adds some heat. And the sauce is a marinara chili sauce. There’s a measurement for it, but sometimes it doesn’t get used.”

That’s not a very corporate answer. And that’s one of the things you may love about Hot City. Rigid formulas are wonderful if you have 10,000 locations in 70 countries. But a little artistry – and a little extra heat every now and then – is perfectly OK when your name is Hot City and your sign says Garibaldi’s.

If lip-scorching heat is not for you, a more moderate hot pizza is the Buffalo Chicken pizza with creamy garlic sauce, Buffalo sauce, blue cheese and crispy bacon. Ranch dressing comes on the side for dipping.

While Pettenger is a fan of pineapple, I am not so sure I am. The Luau pizza is so loaded with pineapple that I found it overwhelming. Had I read the small print before I ordered, I would have seen that the toppings include “a double order of pineapple.” It was too much for me, and I found the fruit to be a little on the bland side.

But there are many other pizzas at Hot City that I really liked, including several vegetarian pizzas, like the Big Green Veggie, featuring a bright pesto sauce, mozzarella, artichoke hearts, spinach, green peppers, red onions, green olives, fresh garlic and herbs.

The style of crust is medium thick, and the whole-wheat flour is blended with traditional pizza flour, presumably to avoid the stiffness that 100 percent whole wheat might have.

Hot City also has a new gluten-free crust available by request. In addition to pizza, there are reasonably good chicken fingers and wings, along with six salads in three sizes.

As my friends said during our latest visit, this place is just different. It may feel weird to some and look too dive-y for others. But it is also a wonderful, very-2014-Sacramento spot that takes chances and deserves an even wider following.

***

MORE INFORMATION

Hot City Pizza

5642 J St.

Sacramento

(916) 731-8888

www.hotcity-pizza.com

Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday-Friday; 4-9 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Beverage options: Beer and wine license, with a diverse selection of excellent craft beer.

Vegetarian friendly: Yes.

Gluten-free options: Gluten-free crust by request.

Noise level: Loud. When it’s crowded, acoustics are poor.

Ambiance: Hole-in-the-wall, casual.

Overall * * *

Good pizza with an amazing, oft-changing selection of craft beer in a casual setting. For many beer lovers, this is a dream situation.

Food * * *

While whole-wheat crusts are no longer rare, it’s still an usual choice. But this medium-thick crust is tender and tasty. The pizzas are American style, often with a “more is better” approach to toppings. Try the Angry Pig if you’re into self-torture mixed with moments of euphoria, the Buffalo Chicken pie if you want moderate heat with lots of flavor, the Luau if you want to see more pineapple per square inch than any pizza in the free world, or the Big Green Veggie for meatless pizza with ample flavor and texture.

Service * * *

It’s casual and you order at the counter, but if you want to know about the beers, you don’t get any attitude and you’re apt to hear plenty of knowledge. Two of the employees are certified beer servers by the Cicerone Certification Program. The others are just really into beer.

Value * * *

Pizzas come in three sizes and prices are competitive with other pizzerias. Beer prices are wide ranging, depending on the style and brewer. We’ve had one that cost $5. We’ve also had a bottle that cost $32.

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