Photographs by Michael WilkinsonPizza is a sensitive subject among many different groups—one misconception about a region’s style of pie can get you chased out of town. Brooklynites swear by the thin crusts at DiFara’s, Chicagoans dig in deep at Gino’s East, Sicilians have their squares, Napoleons lay claim to inventing the thing, and Washingtonians just rely on Comet Ping Pong and 2 Amys.
By opening Pete’s Apizza in DC’s Columbia Heights, husband and wife Joel and Alicia Mehr and business partner Tom Marr have imported the lesser-known—but just as fiercely defended—New Haven style of pizza to the neighborhood.
A New Haven pie, first of all, isn’t pizza; it’s apizza, pronounced “ah-beets.” You better practice that a few times before you order a slice in southern Connecticut. Apizza is considered as such if the crust is thin with a crispy outside, chewy inside, and black-and-tan mottling. New Haven style usually—but not always, the Mehrs are quick to point out—means using a coal oven. (Pete’s stone oven is gas-fired.)
The ingredients are simple and natural and applied sparingly. Fresh (or often canned or jarred) crushed tomatoes stand in for tomato sauce. Although the pies resemble a circle, they usually aren’t perfectly round. And most of all, don’t even consider New Haven style to be a derivative of New York-style pizza. It’s not.
Alicia Mehr knows the New Haven rules well after spending the first 22 years of her life in that town. Before opening Pete’s, she worked for Occasions Catering here. Joel and Tom Marr ran the kitchen at the National Gallery of Art. After living in DC for ten years, the Mehrs decided to open their own apizza shop.
It’s been two years since they wrote their first business plan and took off to research the perfect pie, biting into slices as near as New York City and as far as Naples, Italy. In January, they spent a weekend at Grand Apizza in East Haven, learning the tricks of the trade, including the sacred dough-making process. (Joel and Tom make the dough every day.)
In late April, they served their first slices and pies at Pete’s, named for Alicia’s father and Alicia and Joel’s nine-year-old son. Slices are served on real plates, ingredients are organic and sourced locally, and everything in the place is biodegradable. Twelve flavors of gelato come from Georgetown’s Dolcezza. The menu also includes salads, antipasti, pastas, and panini.
The most popular slice so far? The white-clam apizza—a tomatoless version topped with garlic, pecorino cheese, clams, and a dusting of oregano—was inspired by famed New Haven pizza shop Frank Pepe’s.
“I think we are starting to educate people,” Alicia laughs, adjusting her baseball cap, which bears a navy-blue Y for Yale, another New Haven institution.
Pete’s Apizza, 1400 Irving St., NW; 202-332-7383; petesapizza.com. Open Sunday through Thursday, 11 AM to 10 PM; Friday and Saturday 11 to 11. Salads and starters $3.50 to $8.95, slices $2.50 to $3.25; pies $7.95 to $23.95.
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