By Frank Sabatini Jr.
Two big surprises await at Surf Rider Pizza Co. in La Mesa Village.
For starters, the location doubles as an industrious bakery that cranks out daily cupcakes, layer cakes, fruit bars, cookies and other confections meant to grab you by the sweet tooth the moment you walk in — not something customers expect from a place with “pizza” in its name.
Secondly, if you assume this is yet another California-style pizzeria capable of infuriating Northeast transplants with their insipid crusts and lackluster sauces, you’re dead wrong. Despite catchy photographs of West Coast beach scenes dominating the walls, Surf Rider’s founder, Hilary Rossi, is a native Philadelphian who vigilantly ensures customers experience an accurate taste of her hometown.
Of course if you roll in for cheesesteaks, a whole set of uncompromising standards apply to those as well, including the architecturally wondrous rolls shipped in from Philadelphia’s legendary Amoroso’s Baking Company.
Rossi moved to San Diego in the late ’90s and initially cooked at Deborah Scott’s former Kemo Sabe in San Diego’s Hillcrest neighborhood. She simultaneously worked in food and beverage for Hornblower Cruises.
Then in 2010, she teamed up with pastry chef and former Bay Area resident Rachael Musico to open Surf Rider in Ocean Beach. The community immediately loved it. Three other locations of various sizes ensued — in Mission Beach, Crown Point and most recently, in this 4,150-square-foot space that offers a full bar and two patios — one of them kid-friendly with games. The address serves also as “pastry headquarters” for Musico.
Its expansive kitchen supplies desserts to the other Surf Rider outlets as well as to a portfolio of regional restaurants that fall under The Patio Group, which purchased Surf Rider two years ago while retaining Rossi as vice president of food and beverage, and Musico as pastry chef.
Rossi constantly bounces between Surf Rider locations making quality-control checks.
“I insist on hand-rolled dough. And if you don’t hear the crunch when the pizzas are being cut, it’s not right,” she said.
Hinting that olive oil in the dough formula is part of the secret, her resulting thin crusts yield a resilient crunch that holds up even after the pizzas cool to room temperature. Better yet, they joyfully escape the comparison to cardboard.
“I’m also super crazy about my pizza sauce. It’s my mother’s recipe that I slightly tweaked by adding more Parmesan cheese than she does.”
Indeed, I was struck by how the red sauce captured the soulful depth of flavors you’d encounter in Italian mom-and-pop joints throughout Philly, New York and New Jersey. Request a little cup of it for dipping your crusts, and you’ll get my drift.
Rossi’s oil-based “white sauce” graces the signature “surf rider” pizza, which showcases her favorite ingredients: Gorgonzola cheese, Roma tomatoes, basil and roasted garlic. A mere slice engulfs the palate with strong, sustaining flavors that you don’t expect from pizza lacking meat and red sauce.
There’s also Rossi’s “dirty sauce,” which was born out of a jalapeno-cream cheese dip that she engineered to bake on pizza. It lands on the outstanding spicy veggie pie featuring pepperoncini, jalapenos, artichoke hearts, roasted peppers and more. It’s used also on the “dirty” cheesesteaks filled with either beef or chicken breast.
The climactic moment of my visit is when I took my first chomp into the former. Even in my visits to Philadelphia, I can’t remember a cheesesteak leaving this deep of an impression on me.
Accented with grilled onions, cilantro, and white American cheese, which Rossi says must be melted into the finely sliced rib eye as it cooks on the grill, the dirty sauce is a boon to the construct. Rather than altering the sandwich’s classic flavors, it enhances them with mild heat.
As for the cheese, Rossi is anti-Cheez Whiz. She admits to hating the electric-orange milk byproduct that eateries across the nation offer as an option, saying it wasn’t the stuff she grew up eating on her cheesesteaks. Here, it’s white American or nothing.
I also ordered a regular chicken cheesesteak, most of which came home with me. Even without the dirty sauce, the abundance of juicy, minced breast meat combined with grilled onions, mushrooms and green peppers made for a fantastic second meal. To think that barely two decades ago, chicken cheesesteaks were considered sacrilegious variants to the classic beef ones. If you’re still leery, Rossi’s version will make you think otherwise.
From the illuminated dessert case fronting the order counter, I carried out a lemon-lime curd cupcake with sweetish frosting, a deliciously dense cream cheese brownie, and Musico’s now-famous carrot cake sandwich cookie.
Seeing them in their clear- plastic box, nobody would have guessed I had just exited a place that slings damn good pizzas and makes mind-blowing cheesesteaks. Bite into any of them and you’ll get the feeling you’re not in California anymore.
— Frank Sabatini Jr. is the author of ‘Secret San Diego’ (ECW Press) and began his local writing career more than two decades ago as a staffer for the former San Diego Tribune. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.