News & Politics

Pizza Wars

Thanks to an explosion of boutique pizza places, 2 Amys and Pizzeria Paradiso are no longer the last word in tasty pies. Is this the start of a real Washington pizza culture? Or just a trendy boomlet? Photographs by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.

Mia's Pizzas in Bethesda turns out beautifully detailed, wood-fired pies.

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.

Veteran chef Carole Greenwood, who opened Comet Ping Pong last year, scatters fresh ingredients on her pizzas–everything from smoked mushrooms to softshell crab.

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.

At Cafe Pizzaolo in Crystal City, some of Larry Ponzi’s excellent flat and crispy pizzas call to mind Naples, while some taste more like New York.

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.

Yes, American Flatbread is a Vermont-based chain. But you’d never know it from the pizzas. Heirloom tomatoes, house-made mozzarella, and pesto made from local basil top this terrific, hillocked crust.

American Flatbread in Ashburn touts the virtues of its “locavore” approach—buying its produce and meats from nearby farms. In a recent concoction, one of the oblong crusts was slathered with a thin pesto, festooned with Swiss chard and little dollops of goat cheese, and scattered with fresh corn kernels and a half dozen wild shrimp.

The ingredients were so good and so harmoniously combined that they could have constituted a separate dish. Eating it, I was reminded of the Italian notion of the crust as the “plate” for the toppings—which is why the pies at places such as 2 Amys and Pizzeria Paradiso come to the table unsliced.

That fastidiousness of detail is typical of the new-breed pizzas. But that fastidiousness has a price. I could hardly bear to tell my non-food-obsessed friends what I had shelled out for a pizza in Ashburn: $21.99.

“Don’t call ’em pizzas,” says Edan MacQuaid of the new pies. “Call ’em something else.”

Melissa Ballinger agrees: “It’s beyond pizza at this point.”

Beyond pizza? As in improving on pizza? Making something better than pizza?

This is going too far. It’s what happens when pizza strays too far from its native culture.

In New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia, pizza is still a street-level proposition, as much a part of the culture as the street musicians and the public art and the subway crazies. Pizza is so good and so plentiful, it’s almost pointless to engage in the exercise of singling out one above the others. A good slice is always within easy reach.

Ours is a boom that’s being fed by a taste for the gourmet.

A friend of mine disparagingly refers to this genre of pizza as “tomato bread”—in contrast to the cheesy, saucy pizzas he was weaned on—and declined my invitation to accompany me on my rounds of pie-eating over the last four months. Nothing personal, he said—it’s the principle.

Pizza, like barbecue, has always inspired sometimes irrational debate. And boutique pizza especially has a tendency to pit otherwise like-minded people into opposing and hostile camps.

Carlos Amaya, the chef at Coppi’s Organic—along with Paradiso, the long­est-running gourmet-pizza restaurant in town—admits to getting a little testy when forced to defend the legitimacy of boutique pies. He even claims that “tomato bread” is superior to the venerated thin-crust pizzas you find in New York, New Jersey, and Philly.

“Where is the cheese on these pizzas coming from, and why is the cheese so oily? I will tell you it’s not good for you. There’s organic cheeses coming out of New Jersey that are great, but that’s not what they use. They use bleached flour, flour that’s processed. It’s not necessarily good for your system. And let’s talk about the tomato sauce. A lot of these places, they’ll use a tomato paste to make a sauce, and then they’ll add water. And how many of these pizzas do they make a day? They’re stamping them out, almost.”

For the sake of comparison, he cites his tasty Genovese pie, topped with basil pesto, butterflied shrimp, and pine nuts.

“I’m using basil pesto—it comes from the co-op at Tuscarora Farms in Pennsylvania. The shrimp is sustainably sourced gulf shrimp from J.J. McDonnell, one of the great contributors to the Marine Conservation Network. I’m using fresh mozzarella from International Gourmet in Virginia. Even the pine nuts are organic. For this quality of product, you have to spend the money. I mean, this isn’t just snack food. It’s serious, serious cooking.”

Questions of authenticity are always interesting, but they’re also complicated. (Authentically Italian? Authentically Italian-American?) And ultimately pointless. To paraphrase Duke Ellington: There are only two kinds of pizza—good and bad.

Melissa Ballinger, who grew up in the area, remembers “going downtown for pizza to Luigi’s, with the candles dripping wax down the sides, or going to AV Ristorante, with those huge pitchers of house wine and that old jukebox.” There was also Shakey’s, with its dark, tavernlike interior and crunchy, sweet-sauced crusts. She says she doesn’t know if these pizzas were any good or if she just remembers them fondly because they were the places she grew up with.

Same here. In those days, there wasn’t much else that was good, but there wasn’t much that was bad, either.

These days, there’s more good than ever.

The proliferation of “tomato bread” can be traced to Wolfgang Puck, who one day thought to lay slices of smoked salmon atop a hearth-baked crust at his Los Angeles restaurant Spago. That bit of ingenuity—the reinvention of the simple, red-sauce pizza as a blank canvas for a chef’s creativity—was the birth of the gourmet-pizza boom, spawning any number of advances (goat cheese) and abominations (foie gras) and moving pizza out of the realm of mere snack food.

Locally, Peter Pastan is the godfather of the boutique-pizza movement.

Ruth Gresser, who taught Edan MacQuaid how to make pizza and hired Melissa Ballinger to run her Georgetown operation, would probably prefer to call Pastan “the patriarch.” She calls herself “the matriarch.”

Pastan and Gresser opened Pizzeria Paradiso in 1991, setting up shop on the second floor of a townhouse next door to Obelisk, the Italian restaurant that Pastan had launched in 1987. From the start, Pizzeria Paradiso hewed to the same purist approach as its big brother. Like the pies Pastan had eaten in Italy, these were sparely sauced, topped with just a few half moons of fresh mozzarella, baked at more than 650 degrees in a wood-burning oven, and brought to the table unsliced.

There were occasional grumbles about the size of the pizzas, not to mention the cost for a single serving—wasn’t pizza supposed to be cheap?—but the quality was unmistakable and the cozy townhouse restaurant was swarmed with customers.

“It was almost,” Gresser says, “like people were waiting for this.”

For nearly a decade, Pizzeria Paradiso was an unchallenged colossus. All conversations about pizza in this town began and ended with Paradiso—its thin crusts, its blistered tops and chewy coronas. Though the wood-burning oven had become a trendy essential for many restaurants—even the exacting Yannick Cam had one installed at Provence—only the so-so Il Forno in Bethesda and the tasty Coppi’s Organic on U Street in DC were making wood-fired pizzas with anything approaching the seriousness of Paradiso.

The first real threat to Paradiso’s hegemony came from Pastan himself. In 2001, he sold Pizza Paradiso to his partner and, with the help of Tim Giamette, opened 2 Amys on a leafy street in DC’s Cleveland Park. The question of how he would distinguish the new place from the one he’d turned into the last word on gourmet pizza was answered in a public-relations masterstroke: Pastan applied for—and won—certification from the Denominazione di Origene Controllata of Naples, the governing body that sets strict standards on pizza-making. At the time, there were only five or six restaurants in the world that qualified for the honor. Paradiso was not one of them.

Pastan had one-upped his would-be rival. The certification at 2 Amys said, in effect: This is the most authentic pizza you’re going to find in the area.

It wasn’t long before 2 Amys was making good on its promise and producing the best pizzas in the area. Pastan also added a roster of lively small dishes to the menu along with a smart list of Italian red wines and a brief selection of desserts, including the best vanilla ice cream in the city.

There have been better, more luxurious, more rewarding restaurants in Washington’s history, but it would be hard to match 2 Amys in importance. Nora Pouillon had been the first to take up the cause of organic, high-quality ingredients at Restaurant Nora, and Pastan at Obelisk had piggybacked on her message, helping to extend its influence; 2 Amys made it accessible. It simultaneously elevated the stature of pizza while democratizing the idea of eating locally and seasonally.

The wonder is not that 2 Amys spawned imitators. The wonder is that it took so long.

Asked what he thinks of the competition, Pastan—a droll, ironic man with an outlook on life that stops just short of nihilistic—says: “I’m kind of amused by it.” His low-key tone says: What competition?

Pastan claims to have no interest in the efforts of the newcomers. Nor has he bothered to sample their work. Isn’t he curious to see what they’re up to? He laughs, admitting: “I’m in a constant state of denial about a lot of things.”

Carlos Amaya attributes the explosion of boutique pizza to the rise of the “locavore” movement. “Without that awareness of organic and local and seasonal,” he says, “none of this would be happening.”

Gresser sees flattery in the imitations, a validation of her integrity and commitment. “The more people who eat and make pizza similar to mine—that’s a good thing!” She says she has no thought of opening a third location (the second Paradiso is in Georgetown) because, with all of the newcomers following her purist example, “other people are doing it for me.”

Pastan shrugs off these explanations. The proliferation of his kind of pizza, he says, comes down to this: Making these pies is profitable. “On the one hand, pizza is America’s favorite food,” he says. “But cynical me thinks it’s an easy way for people to make a lot of money.”

He recounts a conversation he had some time ago with James Alefantis, co-owner of Comet Ping Pong. Alefantis had just told him he planned to open the place with his chef, Carole Greenwood.

“I said, ‘Why don’t you open a Mexican restaurant? This city could use a really good Mexican restaurant.’ He said, ‘I don’t know anything about Mexican food.’ I said, ‘Yeah, but you don’t know anything about pizza, either.’ He said, ‘Yeah, but it’s easy.’ ”

Pastan adds: “Making good pizza takes a lot of work. The key is compulsive behavior. It takes passion.”

Pizzeria Paradiso and 2 Amys are held in a kind of awe by the new crop of pizza makers, who talk about the integrity of their approach and the success of their business models with the same breathless enthusiasm.

But they also chafe at the monopoly the two places have enjoyed and, with it, the straitjacketing of public taste.

On the surface, Café Pizzaiolo would seem to have copycatted the 2 Amys/Paradiso model. The operation revolves around a wood-burning oven that produces excellent crusts for judiciously sauced pizzas topped with high-quality cheeses, meats, and vegetables. The room is bright and cheery, with kids crayoning at the tables and making mischief between the tables.

But listen to owner Larry Ponzi talk about his carefully chosen wine selection. Carefully chosen not in the sense of a wide-ranging list full of rarities. Carefully chosen in the sense of a list that’s consciously designed to be accessible. “It’s a nice wine selection,” Ponzi says, “but not an overbearing one.”

In other words, it’s not the sort of list that’s going to code “foodie” for the customer who wants to have a simple glass of red with his cheese pizza—not be challenged by the rarefied, all-Italian selection at 2 Amys.

Ponzi spent many summers as a boy with his aunt in Brooklyn and remembers his trips to many of the seminal pizza destinations in the borough: Ray’s, Grimaldi’s, Patsy’s. Simple, unpretentious places, all of them. Their pizzas don’t invite inspection or dissection. They don’t offer themselves up as something new.

There’s no certification of authenticity on the walls of Ponzi’s place, and although he’s a stickler when it comes to his crusts—he uses olive oil for his Neapolitans and a fresh sourdough starter for his New York–style, and he makes sure customers get a hit of salt when they take a bite—his pizzas scarcely resemble boutique pizzas. They’re flat, closer in appearance to traditional New York pie. And the toppings are resolutely unsexy. For those wary of gourmet pizza, with its promise of something new, Ponzi’s are certain to set them at ease.

He acknowledges that 2 Amys has set the standard. But he also says, “I like this model. I think 2 Amys is just . . . .” Long pause. He searches for the right word—the diplomatic word. “A little bit upscale.”

Edan MacQuaid is more direct. MacQuaid now is a consultant on contract at RedRocks, but he plans to open his own place in Arlington within a year. He was the pizzaiolo at 2 Amys for more than five years before he split, not so amicably, from Pastan last fall.

“What I’m doing now at RedRocks is I’m following the rules of the Department of Agriculture in Italy to the letter: dough fermented at room temperature, oven around 900 degrees, San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella from Campania. These are the laws that define pizza if it’s going to be called Neapolitan. We use a soft dough, and it never goes into the fridge. It takes six hours from the time the flour goes into the dough pot and then another six hours to bake it.”

He claims 2 Amys is taking short cuts: “They refrigerate the dough for up to 36 hours; they use semolina on the underside to slide it into the oven. They don’t follow the recipe.”

The oven at 2 Amys, he notes, is from Woodstone, a Seattle company that also supplies California Pizza Kitchen with its ovens—albeit gas ovens.

“It’s got a high dome and large mouth—it’s hard to keep a high heat in there. They top out at about 650 degrees. It takes long­er to cook the pizzas.”

At RedRocks, MacQuaid is using a refractory oven—made in Italy, with a lower dome and smaller mouth—that cooks the pizzas at a temperature between 750 and 900 degrees.

He vows that his own place will be even “more purist” and “more authentic,” thanks to a “naturally fermented dough” that will be made without “commercial yeast” and an oven that he intends to have built on site using Italian bricks. It will be a “nice place to work,” he says, a place with a “communal feel”—as opposed to “a pizza factory.”

I ask if that’s a veiled reference to 2 Amys, which casts itself as a kind of foodie temple.

“It’s totally a pizza factory,” says MacQuaid. “It’s a good one, but they can make a thousand pizzas a day there.”

Strong words, but as yet nothing to back them up; RedRocks’ pies might look the part of a big-time boutique pizza place, but they don’t quite taste it. The bigger, more immediate challenge to Pastan’s reign is Comet.

Alefantis and Greenwood opened their pizza place on the same Connecticut Avenue block as Buck’s Fishing and Camping, making it easy for the owners to zip between places during the evening. But it can’t have escaped Pastan’s notice that the arrival of Comet Ping Pong has given Cleveland Park residents two exceptionally good gourmet pizza places—Comet and 2 Amys—to choose from.

Somewhat in the manner of an upstart campaigner, Comet’s arrival has altered the perception of the front-runner. In recent years, complaints about the loud, kid-dominated dining room at 2 Amys had become so strong that the restaurant recently added a kid-free second-floor dining room. Meanwhile, Comet has positioned itself as a thoroughly adult space, as dark and moody as anything in New York’s Soho neighborhood, with a self-conscious design that turns the place into a sly piece of performance art (pizza included). Nothing to stop a ten-year-old from eating here, but there’s no way he’d get it.

And for Greenwood, a mixed-media artist in addition to a chef, getting it is half the point of eating at Comet.

The other half, of course, is the pizza. High-quality ingredients aside—Greenwood canned 2,000 pounds of Toigo Farms tomatoes in advance of opening—this is, in the New Haven tradition, a decidedly oily pie, and with a bolder, more vibrant taste than the pizzas at 2 Amys. Stylistically, you could say it’s the difference between Italian pizza (spare, lightly sauced) and Italian-American pizza (abbondanza).

And that difference is significant: Opened just a year, Comet now serves pies that rival those at 2 Amys as the area’s best. For 15 years, if you wanted gourmet pizza in DC, you were limited to buying the Paradiso/2 Amys model with all its assumptions. No longer.

Moroni & Brothers, a new place in DC’s Petworth, is among the latest and unlikeliest entrants in the pizza wars. Owners Jose and Reyna Velasquez worked their way up from the bottom at Pizzeria Paradiso to become managers. During their 15 years, they picked up the essentials of making wood-fired pies, but from all appearances they have little interest in reprising the Paradiso style.

Their pizzas are a lot closer to the ideal of New York or Philly style than they are to any boutique standard. The crusts are thin and crispy in the center, with thick, chewy perimeters, but they’re not constructed to make a point about purity and balance—they’re sauced and cheesed the way good prole pizzas are supposed to be. They’re even sliced before they hit the table.

The atmosphere is equally unassuming, with linoleum floors, brick-colored paint, and fake-wood tables; even the wood-burning oven isn’t front and center in the room. Pizzas and panini take up only a third of the menu; the other two-thirds is devoted to Salvadoran cooking—which means this might be the only place in the area where you can get a good, hot Marinara pizza and a steaming bowl of Mondongo.

The pizzas are good—nothing revelatory, nothing memorable. But there’s something encouraging about the arrival of Moroni & Brothers.

Washington may never develop into an authentic pizza culture with an abundance of tasty, affordable, no-fuss pizza. But this humble pizzeria, with ties to the area’s pizza royalty, is cause for hope—even if more polished, more ambitious places continue to snag the attention. With any luck, others like it will emerge—proving that pizza in this town need not be serious to be good.

This article appeared in the October, 2007 issue of The Washingtonian.  

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