Vin 909 bills itself as a wine bar—or, in its brand of restaurant speak, a “winecafé.” This label simultaneously raises expectations of a night spent in lingering exploration of rare varietals while lowering expectations of the food.
Which is ironic, because the best thing about Vin 909 isn’t its wine list—fine if unexciting—but its cooking. Specifically its pizzas, which largely account for the hourlong waits at this charmingly restored bungalow in Annapolis’s Eastport neighborhood.
Chef and co-owner Justin Moore works magic with stretched dough. The first thing you notice is that there’s no flopping—you could set a carpenter’s balance atop it. So many pockets of air have been kneaded into the crusts that density is never an issue. At the same time, Moore imbues them with the proper chew.
One of the things about having a great crust is that a chef can take risks with toppings. Last summer, Moore did a pie with cheddar, fontina, baked beans, and coleslaw, which sounds like a disaster. It wasn’t, for much the same reason that a sandwich made with perfect crusty bread is nearly always good, regardless of its fillings.
He can do simple, too. A pie with wild-boar meatballs and soppresatta manages to be rich without being heavy, and his take on a Margherita—a pumped-up version of the spare Neapolitan ideal, with more sweet, lightly acidic sauce and more house-made mozzarella—is a smartly tweaked one.
Moore isn’t just a slinger of dough. I couldn’t resist ordering his play on lobster rolls—a creamy, chive-flecked crab salad piled onto buttered, griddled bread and awaiting a dip in a pinch bowl of seafood bisque—every time I was in. Through the fall, he was serving a terrific crab gumbo, since replaced with a clam-and-pumpkin curry, nearly as good.
The menu makes room for cheese plates and olive assortments, but aside from pizzas, there aren’t, strictly speaking, any entrées. This design plays to Moore’s strengths, forcing him to distill the essence of the compositions in his lineup of small plates (including poached shrimp with fennel rémoulade and grilled skirt steak with a dusky, Moroccan-style spice-and-nut sauce). His house-made burrata cheese is a ball of salted lusciousness that hardly needs its tasty garnishes.
While Moore commands the kitchen, co-owner Alex Manfredonia works the crowds like a seasoned host, offering samples of wines to tempt newcomers. His mostly young, friendly staff reinforces this feeling of a dinner party gone public, and you can sense their excitement at working in a place where lots of people want to be.
Manfredonia is an Annapolitan who met Moore while they were both working in San Francisco, and he persuaded the chef to head east. It’s a big get for Annapolis to have this talent and experience under one tiny roof. Now if only Manfredonia could be persuaded to rechristen the restaurant a pizzacafé.
This article appears in the March 2013 issue of The Washingtonian.