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Robert Masullo is Italian, which helps when you’re the proprietor of a pizza joint known for serving Neapolitan-style pizza. But don’t go around calling it authentic, says the 41-year-old Masullo, who grew up in the same Land Park neighborhood where his hip pizzeria now stands. “If you’re not in Naples,” he argues, “you’re not really a Neapolitan pizzeria. But we do make it as close to authentic as we can.”
The Culinary Institute of America grad is apparently doing something right. Masullo Pizza opened in 2008 and is still standing, despite the Great Recession and the competition drummed up by the local pizza boom that spawned Hot Italian, OneSpeed and other competitors. It even won national acclaim recently when it made the list of Chris Bianco’s 11 favorite pizza places on the food website Eater.com. It’s high praise coming from Bianco, himself a legend in the pizza world. “I was so thrilled to have that sort of peer recognition from someone who speaks to what you’re trying to do—someone who understands it,” says Masullo.
Here are a few more morsels about Masullo and his pizza.
HE’LL NEVER FORGET THE FIRST TIME HE TASTED THE REAL THING. It was during a summer vacation in Pompei that Masullo had his first bite of real Italian pizza. He was a high schooler at the time. “As an American, you think, ‘I thought I knew this food,’” he recalls. “It sort of blows you away when you try pizza in Italy. It’s so much better than what Robert Masullo is a hands-on pizza maker you’d try at home.” He remembers distinctly the pizza he ate “right out of the box” during his second visit to Italy a few years later. “It was better than anything I’d ever eaten,” he says. “These memories really stuck in my mind as I went to open this business.”
TRICKS OF THE TRADE. Masullo could talk at length—and does—about the techniques of his craft. But here are three basics: hot oven, light toppings, hand-worked dough. The wood oven at Masullo is cranked up to 800 or 900 degrees, so the pizza cooks up very quickly—two minutes tops. And in keeping with Neapolitan tradition, toppings are lighter than Americanized pizza. As for the dough? “I like physically working with dough, the feel of it,” says Masullo. “It’s not a 100 percent controlled environment. The dough is alive, and throughout the night the dough is changing.” To wit: The pizza that pops out of the oven at 8:30 at night tends to be “a little puffier” than pizza cooked earlier in the day, he says.
HE’S STRIVING FOR WORK/LIFE BALANCE. IT ISN’T EASY. When he isn’t putting in 12-hour days, Masullo is usually spending time with family. His parents live just a few doors down from the restaurant. His father, ex-Bee reporter Bob Masullo, pops in on Fridays to wait tables. “When I first opened the restaurant, I was practically sleeping here,” says Robert Masullo. “But lately I’ve been taking Mondays off and also Tuesday nights, because I’ve got three boys and a life. I’d like to have more time for my family.”
HE’S GOT NOTHING BUT NICE THINGS TO SAY. “I’m not going to put down what anyone else does,” says Masullo. “I like Hot Italian, OneSpeed, even some of the more traditional ones like Roma’s. I have a soft spot for all that stuff, even though we’re not doing exactly the same thing.” But given his crazy schedule, he doesn’t get out much. When he does have free time, he’s usually—you guessed it—with the family. But one of these days, he says, he’s hoping to get over to Pizza Rock.