Upper Crust: Menomalé
Menomalé’s Neapolitan pies are giving the area’s top pizza places some serious competition.
Reviewed By Todd Kliman
Salsiccia pizza topped with sausage, sautéed mushrooms, buffalo mozzarella, and a drizzle of olive oil. Photograph by Scott Suchman.
Comments () | Published September 27, 2012
100 Best Restaurants 2013

Address: 2711 12 St. NE, Washington, DC
Phone: 202-248-3946
Neighborhood: Brookland
Cuisines: Pizza
Nearby Metro Stops: Rhode Island Ave-Brentwood
Price Range: Inexpensive
Dress: Informal
Noise Level: Chatty
Best Dishes Affettati misti; caprese salad; prosciutto-and-mozzarella panuozzo; pizzas—Tacchino (smoked turkey, sautéed mushrooms), Bianca (porcini mushrooms, Parmesan, prosciutto cotto), Di Ettore (cherry tomatoes, arugula, prosciutto).
Price Details: Salads and starters $4 to $12.50, sandwiches and pizzas $7 to $13.50.

Slideshow: Inside Menomalé

The surprising thing about the ubiquity of Neapolitan pizza in Washington—three places that serve it opened here in the past year alone—is that it’s the hardest of the pizza genres to do well.

Take the iconic Margherita, the highest expression of the Neapolitan ideal—a thin smear of tomato sauce, a few dabs of mozzarella, and a few shreds of basil. If the execution isn’t perfect, or damn close to it, and the ingredients aren’t first-rate, then it fits my friend Andre’s snarky assessment of most Neapolitan pies: “tomato bread.” Not only is there no margin for error; there are no compensating pleasures if all doesn’t go right. The diner can’t glory in gooey cheese, as he can with deep-dish, or enjoy a smorgasbord of toppings, as with New York-style, or be dazzled by size, as with New Haven-style.

The latest to give Neapolitan a go is Menomalé, a cramped, 28-seat dining room in DC’s Brookland that might have gotten away with simply being a dependable joint for a midweek meal, given the scarcity of options nearby. It’s that and more. Not only has Menomalé established itself as a destination for pizzaphiles—it has entered the conversation about the area’s best.

The restaurant is a collaboration between friends Leland Estes and Ettore Rusciano, who met while working at a similarly small but ambitious pizzeria in San Francisco. In Brookland, the pair found cheap rent and an opportunity to position themselves amid the microbrew culture that has begun to flower in Northeast DC. They hoped, by doing so, to underscore their passionately artisanal message.

Estes’s beers—20 on tap, 15 to 20 in bottles—showcase some of the most interesting work being done in both Europe and America. And Estes is as much guide as curator. A slight, bearded man with a sly wit, he likes to scan the room for diners staring with wrinkled brows at his chalkboard list, then sidle up to explain obscurities such as Troegenator or XX Corruption and offer sample pours.

Rusciano, the pizzaiolo, is a lean man with an intense expression who usually can be seen tending the 6,000-pound wood-burning oven, a custom-made hearth so massive and white it resembles an igloo. The Naples native is an attentive craftsman, with an understanding of balance—at their best, his crusts are thin and crisp in the center, puffy and chewy on the perimeter, and with so many air pockets in the billowed edges that doughiness is never a problem—and proportion: Toppings are applied so evenly you’d swear he was working from a template. He also knows how to use salt.

Typically, the best Neapolitan pies are the simplest. The genre tends to reward the less-is-more approach while punishing those who pile on the toppings. Rusciano, though, has a gift for combining flavors, and he doesn’t falter when he moves beyond the elemental simplicity of a Margherita (sauce, cheese, basil, olive oil). Forgoing sexy add-ons such as truffles or foie gras, he finds compatibilities among relatively ordinary ingredients—for instance, the way sautéed porcini mushrooms, Parmesan, and prosciutto cotto create a tight, multi-part harmony.

Whether he can find greater consistency is the question. In five visits, I had several great pies, a few good pies, and only once a mediocre pie. The difference between the good and the great invariably came down to the crust. If Rusciano can nail his crusts every time, then Menomalé has the chance to be something really special.

As good as the pizzas are, the single best thing I ate was one of the sandwiches Rusciano makes with repurposed pizza dough, the pizzaiolo’s equivalent of nose-to-tail cooking. His crunchy, slightly smoky flatbreads make an ideal sandwich bread. I love a version of ham-and-cheese that brings together bits of spiced sausage, strips of pungent prosciutto, creamy buffalo mozzarella, fragrant basil, and a smear of house-made mayonnaise. If I were Rusciano and Estes, I’d get a food truck just to sell it by the dozen.

Beyond the pizzas, sandwiches, and calzones, there are a number of salads. A plate of mixed field greens, fennel, and onions is no throwaway—its bright balsamic dressing is carefully applied, and every ingredient is made to count. The caprese salad features thick slices of house-made mozzarella so fresh and moist they call to mind the drenched layers of a tres leches cake. A must-order for a group is the affettati misti della casa, a shareable plate of excellent cured meats, cheeses, and olives along with several slices of Rusciano’s flatbread—though it’s so filling it might dissuade you from ordering that same flatbread in sandwich or pizza form.

I’m eager to see what becomes of Menomalé as it matures, gains confidence, and, let’s hope, achieves greater consistency with its signature item. I’m inclined to believe that great things await. For now, it’s an accomplishment simply to make good on the elusive promise of Neapolitan.

This article appears in the October 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

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  • Just Mi

    I know we don't have representation for Washington, District of Columbia, but please don't offend Washingtonians anymore. We live in Washington, DC. Washington VA is a town in Rappahannock County, Virginia, about 75 miles away from here.

  • Mark

    i live down the street in Edgewood and my wife and i took a short trip to Menomale a couple weeks ago for a date night. I've always considered pizza to be my favorite food, but never really ventured into the Neapolitan realm. Damn this pizza was good! The ingredients were ultra fresh (they use DOP) and the atmosphere was very cozy. I suggest the Burro D’ Oliva to start off with. Its a sampling of 3 house infused olive oils. Im not sure if the flavors change but we had mint, rosemary and some sort of hot sauce infused olive oils. They were fantastic as was the fresh made focaccia bread and roasted nuts it came with. The only gripe i had about the place was that for the indoor seating if you dont get the booth side of the table youre stuck sitting on a backless stool. I get it that they probably use those to save space since the place is small but the last thing i want after stuffing my self with delicious food is not being able to slouch down or lean back in my chair. Next time we'll wait for the outdoor patio seating.

  • swmluvah

    You DO realize you've stated that this is located in Washington, VIRGINIA, right??

  • fedup

    OMG SWOTI! Thank God you're here, "swmluvah"!

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