Upscale Pizza Shops Fight For Slice of Bethesda Market
Pizzeria Da Marco General Manager Alessandro Ferro says there are a million ways to make a pizza, which is a good thing for him, since there seem to be almost as many Bethesda restaurants in the business of making them. The upscale pizza craze has hit (and, so far, stuck) in Bethesda, where there are at least four brick-and-mortars in the freshly prepared pizza game, and possibly more on the way. Ferro's wood-fired oven Neapolitan pizza joint (8008 Woodmont Ave.) opened in May of 2011. In February, Haven Pizzeria Napoletana (7137 Wisconsin Ave.) opened its doors and its 100,000-pound coal-powered oven. Since 2006, chef Melissa Ballinger has cooked up pizzas and other Italian dishes for customers on the patio at Mia's Pizzas (4926 Cordell Ave.). Then, there are the glut of traditional delivery places and fast casual chains such as Vapiano (4900 Hampden Lane) and Matchbox (1699 Rockville Pike). There seems to be little room to breathe for a place like Ferro's. But then again, in pizza-making, where a detail as minor as the temperature of the oven floor can drastically alter the final product, there might actually be a place for all. "We each offer a slightly different product and experience," said Rob Gindes, general manager at Mia's. "There's room for everybody." Each place touts the things that make it unique. Ferro claims to have the only authentic Neapolitan pizzeria in Bethesda. He imported his oven, handcrafted by famous pizza oven-maker Stefano Ferrara, from Italy. He uses one type of flour imported from Italy and San Marzano tomatoes specific to the volcanic soil of Italy's southern Campania region. Some of his mozzarella is shipped from Wisconsin. Naturally, the rest comes from the place where it all started. The oven burns at about 900 degrees and pizzas cook fast — in 60 to 90 seconds for a soft, chewy crust and sometimes soupy mixture of ingredients that better preserve their natural taste. The menus advise customers to use a knife and fork. Haven Pizzeria pizzaiolo Mark Bergami takes an entirely different approach. His pizzas are admittedly not traditional Neapolitan. Haven uses an expansive, coal-powered oven more familiar to Neapolitan bread makers than pizzaiolos to cook pizzas slower for a crunchier, more well-cooked pie. Bergami grew up in and around New Haven style pizza in Connecticut. Ferro is from Genoa in northern Italy. Mia's offers a well-established product in a known and enjoyed atmosphere. But even they will trot out a revamped menu in the coming weeks. Most of the pizzas are priced between $8 and $13 and menus are built around the classic Margherita, Marinara and White selections. At that point, it's up to the restaurants to get creative. Ferro has tried fruity pizzas in the summer. Haven offers White Clam Pizza with fresh clams, grated cheese and tomato slices. Mia's has the Jorge's Inferno, with pepperoni, pesto, garlic and small peppers. "There are a lot of choices here. We had been working on this for a long time, so we're sort of pot committed," Bergami said. "Bethesda's an interesting market because very few places seem to do very well. And there's just a lot of places that seem to keep turning over." "Completely saturated," is how Wheaton resident and mobile pizza maker Frank Linn described Bethesda's pizza market. Linn built his own wood oven for his Frankly...Pizza operation, which he hopes to one day turn into a brick-and-mortar store. "It's crazy there, but I think people want good pizza. It's fast food by nature. It can't be slowed down by adding a tablecloth to it," Linn said. "But people don't want cheap ingredients. They watch the Food Channel. They're educated. They understand it doesn't have to be you sitting there with that big, nasty, greasy pizza." Still, there are cultural pizza differences that are not easily overcome. Ferro admitted to at times compromising toward a more American style of pizza, crunchy and easy to pick up with your hands. "Some people like it. Some people hate it. We're trying to make our customers happy but we're fighting that," Ferro said. "It's business versus authenticity a lot of times. It's a little bit of a dilemma because it's like, 'Do you want to make money or do you want to keep doing what you believe in.'"