This is a town of transients and transplants, and the ritual of talking about all of the essential foodstuffs Washington supposedly lacks is among our favorite sports. The litany of the missing is so familiar that even those of us who were born and raised here can recite it: We don’t have great delis, we don’t have great bagels, we don’t have great red-checkered-tablecloth Italian, we don’t have great pizza.
As a native Washingtonian, I’ve always taken them there to be fightin’ words. I mean, could the longed-for delicacies be any more New York–centric? Not to mention that this list of the missing slights the nonwhite cultures—Ethiopian, Indian, and Vietnamese, to name a few—that give the area so much of its culinary texture.
But I’m also a restaurant critic, and as a designated eater who is called upon to be discerning, I’m duty-bound to plead guilty: We are lacking when it comes to delis, bagels, and red-checkered-tablecloth Italian.
But pizza? Nope, not that one. Not anymore.
Almost lost amid the explosion of snazzy small-plate lounges, gastro-bistros, and ambitious neighborhood cafes that have transformed the eating landscape is the realization that good pizza is turning up everywhere. Peter Pastan’s 2 Amys and Ruth Gresser’s Pizzeria Paradiso—the restaurants that set the standard for pizza in this town and turned a simple pie into a gourmet outing—finally have some delicious competition.
Restaurants as different as the wine bar Sonoma, the beer-centered Rustico, and the new Liberty Tavern, a comfort-food haven, are turning out distinctive pies. And those establishments don’t revolve around a pizza oven.
But the boom is being driven by a generation of market-centered chefs who are discovering that pizza is an endlessly malleable vehicle for expressing their notions of elegant simplicity.
The new-breed pies aren’t the bargain that delivery pizza is, but they’re not foie gras, either. And in an era when finding a reasonably priced dinner in a restaurant can seem almost as hard as finding an affordable place to live, a single-serving pizza topped with two soft-shell crabs begins to look like a deal at $17.
The soft-shell pizza is the creation of chef Carole Greenwood, who is bringing the same reverence for fresh, seasonal ingredients to Comet Ping Pong, her pizza place, that distinguishes Buck’s Fishing & Camping, her main restaurant. If anything, the pizzas at Comet are a better, purer expression of her less-is-more philosophy than the roster of entrées and appetizers at Buck’s.
Melissa Ballinger, who was a line cook at the Tabard Inn more than 20 years ago, has positioned her Bethesda restaurant, Mia’s Pizzas, to be the kind of place that will woo families (kids’ art on the walls, pies strewn with toppings) as well as foodies (who pause to admire the construction of the crusts and sigh over small plates of broccolini dressed as if it were a salad).
At Bebo in Crystal City, the pizzas are a recent addition to a sprawling lineup that includes antipasti, pastas, whole-fish preparations, and simply roasted meats. At most restaurants, the arrival of a pizza menu more than nine months after opening would be a sign of desperation. Not at Bebo. The service is still prone to glaring embarrassments, and the kitchen can be inconsistent, but the pies are one of the glories of the place—a reminder that Roberto Donna at his simplest is Roberto Donna at his best.
It’s not just name chefs who are slinging dough.
Larry Ponzi, who plied his trade for years as culinary director at the Smithsonian, has set up his pizzeria on the other side of Jefferson Davis Highway from Roberto Donna. He’s even got the temerity to call it Café Pizzaiolo—invoking the Italian term for pizza maker and all but inviting customers to scrutinize him for signs of authenticity. Fortunately for him, he passes.
Most diners couldn’t identify the name Edan MacQuaid, but if you’ve eaten at 2 Amys over the last few years, he probably made your pie. Now he’s working the wood oven across DC at RedRocks in Columbia Heights, where he was recruited to re-create the style of pies (thin and crispy interior, poofy and chewy perimeter, minimally sauced and modestly topped) that made 2 Amys famous.