750 W Fir Street, San Diego CA 92101 (map); lovemonello.com Pizza Style: Neapolitan-inspired The Skinny: Thin crust pies made from dough that takes 2-3 days to perfect Price: $10 to $16 for a 12" pizza
San Diego's Little Italy pizza scene got a few nudges towards more creative territory with the opening of Napizza this summer, but Monello, the "naughty little brother restaurant" to Bencotto, has seriously upped the neighborhood's pizza game. I haven't been this excited about pizza in San Diego since trying the Neapolitan pies at Pizzeria Bruno in North Park.
What sets Monello's pies apart from most starts with the dough, which is made with beer yeast and flour imported from Italy. The dough goes through a 2-3 day maturation process, so the yeast is fully developed before it hits the oven. It was painstakingly perfected over several weeks, a process that added 6 lbs to GM & co-owner Guido Nistri's waistline—which, with his slender frame, was probably enough to show.
There are seven solid options for pizza, including two pies named after the brother and sister restaurants: the Monello pizza ($16), with roasted peppers, spinach, sausage, and raspadura cheese; and the Bencotto pizza ($14), with milky mozzarella, ricotta, and the same pink pancetta pasta sauce that's ladled over fresh pasta next door.
The Bencotto pie is like the perfect half-way point between a Margherita (minus the basil), and a white pie. The sweet, creamy dairy dominates, while the pancetta in the sauce brings a faint hint of pork. You can add mushrooms, chicken, or sausage for an extra charge, but I like it as-is.
Toppings are so generously applied on the Monello pizza that it's like eating two different dishes, simultaneously. The light, springy crust is topped with bright and tangy tomato sauce, a blanket of mozzarella, spinach and peppers grilled to the ideal texture: slightly softened, but still al dente. It's debatable which ingredient is the star. The sweet and smoky pork sausage is a strong contender, but that nest of raspadura cheese—shaved off a giant wheel just outside the kitchen—is a close second. It's on the dry side, so it complements the juicy toppings, and is shaved so thin that it melts in your mouth.
Pies are cooked on an extra-thick pizza stone in a super-hot brick-lined gas oven. It gets good and charred, bringing a touch of bitterness to the crust. Better yet, the pies are so light that even if you polish off an entire one by yourself, you'll still have room for an Isola Galleggiante.