By Frank Sabatini Jr.
The namesake guy behind Mr. Moto Pizza House immigrated to New York City from his native Italy, became obsessed with the city’s pizza, and took the recipe to Southern California to start a business. He’s an animated character with a thick, dark mustache.
Mr. Moto, however, doesn’t really exist. He’s the invention and alter ego of Gibran Fernandez, a San Diego-born entrepreneur whose story loosely parallels his business mascot.
Fernandez fell in love with pizza-making while working at Pizza on Pearl in La Jolla. He eventually purchased a stake in the eatery and went on to open Mr. Moto in Pacific Beach and North Park. In May, he’ll open a third location in Point Loma.
Fernandez frequents New York to “get ideas” from pizza makers there, although he has long nailed down the vital tenets of their dough-making process, which requires the use of high-gluten flour, purified but mineral-rich water, and hand tossing the dough.
The resulting crusts are thick and chewy along the edges and thin and bendable beneath the toppings — a familiar and celebrated contrast of textures to pizza fanatics nationwide.
In keeping with the New York concept, pizzas at Mr. Moto are sold in customary large slices as well as whole. Though in modern-day style, gourmet toppings in many cases are applied, extending extend well beyond traditional pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, mozzarella and red sauce.
Dropping into the North Park location with an intense hankering for pizza of any kind, we lusted over the display case of sliced pies like sugar-craving kids in an old-fashioned candy store.
My companion immediately gravitated to the “smoky greens” pizza carpeted with wilted spinach and dotted with ricotta cheese. Balsamic glaze gave it a tinge of sweetness, although the overall flavor profile was too far out for this New York State native.
After easily wolfing down my half of a pepperoni slice, I discovered the joys of melted panela cheese on Mr. Moto’s “pizza of the month.” It’s a mild, white Mexican curd made of cow’s milk that quickly turns creamy from heat and absorbs the flavors of ingredients mingling with it — in this case sausage, pepperoni, garlic and basil.
I vote to give this pizza a name and add it to the list of year-round choices, which currently amount to 15 signature styles.
From that lineup, a slice of “Mama Moto” proved equally appealing with its double wham of creaminess from mascarpone and burrata cheeses. Cherry tomatoes and truffle oil added a juicy, earthy flair.
Stuffed garlic knots are Mr. Moto’s culinary claim to fame, according to Fernandez. They’re made with two different combinations of fillings: spinach, ricotta and mozzarella; or pepperoni, jalapenos and mozzarella. Each version includes bright marinara sauce for dipping, as well as ranch dressing if you must.
The knots are excellent regardless of their fillings, thanks to their crusty exteriors that form as the dough bakes after being dipped into garlic-parsley sauce. Underneath, they’re as airy and light as popovers.
We were also fond of the meatballs, available in threesomes as an appetizer. They aren’t made in-house, but we didn’t care as our forks glided through the soft and finely ground mixture of pork and beef.
The menu also includes a house and Caesar salad served in shiny metal bowls. We ordered each and favored the herby Greek-like vinaigrette served with the house salad over the excessively tangy dressing that accompanied the Caesar. The lettuces in both were fresh and crisp.
But with the aromas of baked dough, melted cheeses and savory toppings permeating the indoor-outdoor eatery, your desire for a heaping pile of fresh produce can fly out the window when stepping through Mr. Moto’s doors. His impish persona is built on pizza-making. And his fanfare is steadily growing as a result.
— 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. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.