Oakland: Levende East

For location and reservations, go to Levende’s website.

Lunch can be very pleasant when it’s on a sturdy wooden table for two, situated under a leafy tree, on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, Levende, with people on their lunch break walking past the restored early 20th century two-floor office buildings in old Oakland. The air was cool, the passers-by looked young and fashionable, the light under the tree branches was soft all made me wonder if I had wandered on to a film set by accident. Picture perfect.

Then the food arrived. And it was good. My friend Patrice and I shared a Cuban sandwich (pulled pork, inadequately melted swiss cheese, sweet horseradish mustard, pickles and an uncredited light romesco sauce) and a small castiron skillet of luscious, bubbily macaroni & cheese made with blue cheese bechamel sauce and smoked bacon. We each finished our half of the sandwich, but only consumed half of the mac & cheese, with my shouldering most of the work.

I felt prepared for my flight to London three hours later.

Sacramento: Masullo’s Pizzeria

2711 Riverside Blvd, Sacramento, CA, (916) 443-8929. www.masullopizza.com

Up-update: 10/10/08 — That potato pizza keeps me coming back! Masullo seems intent on growth. Each time I’ve been there I see some additional sign of thoughtful improvement. Don’t be put off by the line. It moves fairly quickly.

Update: 8/28/08 — I went back. See below at the end, but read my post on the way there.

For many of my friends in Sacramento, it has long been a source of frustration that this city has practically no outstanding restaurants. Waterboy, ok, though the food is often underseasoned. Mulvaney’s, sure, but too noisy for expensive B+/A- food. Randy Selland’s little empire is too pretentious to take seriously. A little calm humility would go a long way towards making dining in his establishments worth the money. The various incarnations of Paragary’s eateries are reliable and affordable, but not exciting. There are other good restaurants, but I rarely feel the quality of what I eat is worth the cost.

Last night, I ate Robert Masullo’s pizza for the first time. A friend and I decided to try his little pizzeria that looks very unassuming from the outside. By the time we left, the meal had satisfied me in a way that few meals have in this town. Masullo’s in a work in progress and I intend to come around often to watch it grow.

To begin with, when you walk in, the decor is cleverly minimalist. A white cinderblock wall with simple wall decorations on one side of the narrow dining room, a long wooden table lined on both sides with backless benches, and four tables for two along the other wall come before the tall metal-covered serving counter. Behind it, center stage is the mouth of a wood oven with a blazing fire in view. A slim young man wearing a red cap, who turned out to be the owner-chef, Robert, slid a pizza peel in and out of the oven. I liked the feel of the place right away.

The menu is simple — another plus. You can see it here. The toppings evoked fond memories of the hundreds of pizzas I have eaten over the years with my Venetian friends in Mestre, admittedly not the epicenter of pizzaioli in Italy, but still a working-class city over the bridge form Venice where good pizza can easily be found. (Odd: I’ve never seen an Italian eat pizza with anything other than fork and knife.) Robert’s sister, Madeleine, who served us, told us he’d spent a lot of time in Italy learning how to make pizza. His time was well-spent, as the sausage pizza and the arugula and prosciutto pizza we had made clear. The dough, however, is too doughy. Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, AZ, deserves his reputation as one of the best pizzaioli in the country. If I didn’t fear giving offense, I’d recommend that Robert adapt Bianco’s dough recipe. Still, Masullo’s dough is better than most others in this town. Good pizza dough is an art. It should be crisp on the bottom and slightly chewy on top without being spongey.

The wine list also a work in progress. Not a great selection, but it’s certainly affordable. We drank a nice bottle of local wine, Boeger’s Tempranillo. At $18 a bottle and about $11-$12 a pizza, I thought it was a bargain considering the quality of the meal.

My only wishes — aside from a slightly improved dough — is that I hadn’t had to ask for a little olive oil to drizzle on the pizza (fresh, uncooked arugula on pizza is great, but needs a little oil to help it slide down the gullet), a few more slices of Fra Mani sausage on the sausage pizza (sure, it costs a fortune, but if you’re going to use, use it, or buy a good, locally made variety), and, call me a pedant, but grana padano cheese is spelled with one ‘n’ and not two and is not a town.

Masullo’s is a welcome addition to a small selection of excellent, comfortable, affordable neighborhood joints worthy of our patronage. It’s not the only place to eat in Sacramento that where the chef put his generous heart into his food. But Robert’s pizzeria could quickly win my loyalty if he continues to aspire to the Perfect Pizza.

8/28/08: Tonight I and four friends shared four excellent pizzas at Masullo’s. The dough was thin, crisp, and chewy. One of our group noticed that the tomato sauce tasted like it was made in-house from good tomatoes. How often do you notice THAT in a pizzeria? I tried a pizza I hadn’t had before: thinly sliced potatoes topped with good bacon — not pancetta, though I think I may be excused for thinking so at first, given the quality of the bacon. This was my favorite pizza. We also ordered the eggplant pizza (thinly sliced red onions, pine nuts), very good.

Robert Masullo ought to take the lead and gently prod people in a new direction in eating pizza. It’s unlikely that Americans are going to embrace using a knife and fork. But still, an investment in olive oil cruets, placed on the table with a suggestion that diners might like to drizzle it on some of the pizze, might help to heighten the appreciation of what they’re eating.

Thanks to wordpress.com’s statistics, I see that people are using their search engines to find Masullo’s.  Some of them are finding them through this site. Two of my dining companions tonight compared tonight’s pizze favorably with the pizze produced at The Village Bakery in Davis. I think Masullo’s pizze are well on

Geyserville, Ca.: Taverna Santi

Take a look at the menu before you look for the location and contact information.

A dozen and a half oysters each for lunch may be a rare treat, but by dinner time our stomachs were growling. I looked in Zagat’s guide for restaurants north of San Francisco. Taverna Santi, located only one town south of where we were renting a house, seemed promising. And I would say it fulfilled its promise.

The dining rooms of Santi occupy what must once have been three storefronts. We were led to the third and innermost room, whose mirrors on one wall tricked us into thinking there was yet another room beyond. Like most successful places in northern California wine country, the staff is well trained: unobtrusive, quick, knowledgeable, and smilingly polite. The wine list contains local and Italian wine reasonably priced.

For my first course, I had a salad of greens, warm, ripe sliced peaches with toasted almonds strewn over the top. My companions shared a hearty plate of antipasti (olives, small triangles of frittata with dabs of romesco sauce, a small dollop of fresh tuna salad, salami). Doug and I very much enjoyed our bowls of spaghettini al sugo caprese, a sauce made of beef and the meat from pork ribs, tomatos and herbs. Cathy said her linguine with cherry tomatoes and rock shrimp were excellent. I was the only one to order dessert. More peaches. The panna cotta with peach compote was too watery for my taste.

Not only would I recommend this restaurant to friends coming to the wine country, I’d certainly plan to go out of my way to return here. It was that good.

P.S. Since this is the last note from Dry Creek wine country, I have to put in a good word for the Jimtown grocery. We met up with friends of mine at Stonestreet winery. They had brought sandwiches purchased at the grocery. The flavor packed into one bite of the pulled pork sandwich one of my friends brought nearly surpassed everything I had eaten in the previous two days.