Dine Review: Inferno Pizzeria
A "refined" pizza restaurant from an accomplished chef
Tony Conte opened Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana last year. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
Observing Tony Conte in his open kitchen gently using his knuckles to coax a resistant ball of dough into the shape of a pizza makes the case that his life, as he likes to say, has come full circle.
The 44-year-old chef garnered multiple-star acclaim during an eight-and-a-half-year stretch at the Oval Room, the Washington, D.C., Valhalla of fine dining near the White House, but he started out with a high school job at Di Matteo’s, a pizzeria in his hometown of Hamden, Connecticut.
In October, Conte opened Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana, a 40-seat pizzeria in Darnestown. It shares space with a California Tortilla franchise in a box-shaped building between a CVS and a Capital One bank. That setting doesn’t exactly signal refinement, but what you find inside does.
Prosciutto pizza with tomatoes, arugula and buffalo mozzarella. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
The tables are made from reclaimed walnut. The lightly stained wood flooring isn’t wood at all; it’s ceramic tile. Some of the walls are the color of lobster bisque; others are made of overlapping stone slabs. One is a textural panel connoting flames—a nod to the pizzeria’s name (“hell” in Italian) and the intense heat of its white-tiled, wood-burning pizza oven.
Rimmed porcelain pizza plates were made locally by Amber Kendrick of Cloud Terre pottery. Other serving vessels are from Bernardaud, maker of fine French china.
Conte attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and worked in New York City for four years under renowned chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten before moving to D.C. Though he excelled in the rarified world of fine dining, he recently chose Tony over tony, like the philosophy professor in Atlas Shrugged who shifts to making hamburgers.
Guests enjoy good service in Inferno’s warm, rustic interior. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
Another advantage of giving up the big city rat race: Conte, his wife, Kim, and their two boys live only two miles from the pizzeria.
Conte’s father and paternal grandparents are natives of Pontelatone, a municipality 25 miles north of Naples. Food-centric pictures from there adorn Inferno’s walls. Those roots are what make this chef tick and are the real source of his passion.
The menu at Inferno is brief—five appetizers, seven pizzas and three desserts. The former and latter offerings in particular reflect Conte’s fine-dining background. They would pass muster in any highbrow eatery.
A piled-high salad of shaved winter vegetables yields a new discovery with each bite. Triangles of butternut squash mingle with ribbons of kale and chard, shreds of Brussels sprouts, and slices of parsnip, celery root and Asian pear, all dressed in a zesty charred serrano pepper vinaigrette and topped with toasted pumpkin seeds.
A seasonal salad of shaved winter vegetables. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
A sizable orb of creamy burrata cheese rests on a dreamy purée of persimmons that tastes like roasted marshmallow, thanks to the wood-fired oven. The cheese is crowned with slices of persimmons, some pickled and some caramelized, and an arc of dried speck (smoked prosciutto). The depth, textures and richness of the dish, with the speck adding a smoky note, provoke smiles.
Sunchokes, otherwise known as Jerusalem artichokes, are popping up on many a menu of late. (They taste somewhat like artichokes but are actually tubers from a species of sunflower.) Conte’s are wood-roasted and served with smoked toasted hazelnuts, mint, pickled ramps, togarashi (a Japanese red chili-based spice blend) and dollops of Parmesan-laced dressing to create a perfect amalgam of crunch, spice, acid, sweetness, salt and smoke.
Wood-roasted sunchokes. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
In addition to their sophistication, these dishes show ingenuity; Conte does all the cooking with the pizza oven and a combination steamer and convection oven.
Conte has applied for certification for his pizza as Vera Pizza Napoletana (true Neapolitan pizza) through VPN Americas, an organization with strict guidelines. Pizza must be cooked in 90 seconds or less in an 800- to 900-degree wood-burning oven. Only certain types of wheat flour, yeast, tomatoes, cheese, salt and olive oil are acceptable.
Conte spent a week studying with VPNA in Los Angeles before opening Inferno, but if what he deems the best way to make his pies doesn’t meet the group’s approval, so be it, he says.
He still strives to perfect his dough, limited to four allowable ingredients. “Flour, salt, water and yeast. Done. The end. There’s nothing to it,” he says. Except there is, which is why Neapolitan pizza aficionados love to debate who has the best crust and why. (Other D.C.-area VPNA members include 2 Amys in Washington and Pupatella in Arlington, Virginia.)
Inferno’s 11-inch, thin, crisp-bottomed pies bear the hallmark air bubble blisters of Neapolitan dough. I would prefer the pies had more blisters and were less brown, but that didn’t stop me from eating every bit every time.
Pumpkin panna cotta. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
Top-notch toppings outfit all the pizzas. The standouts: the Prosciutto (di Parma) with tomatoes, arugula and buffalo mozzarella; the Funghi Misti (with beech, cremini, hen-of-the-wood mushrooms) topped with smoked, mozzarella-like scamorza cheese and garlic-bacon oil; and the cheese-rich Pizza Bianca with flecks of white truffles—$23 and worth it.
Throw carbs to the wind and order dessert, be it the lush vanilla soft-serve ice cream in a Mason jar with stewed apples and shards of rosemary-specked pie crust, a barely set pumpkin-coconut panna cotta with pecan brittle and oven-candied pumpkin, or brown-butter chocolate chip cookies that prove the miracle of under-baking. Inferno, it turns out, is heavenly.
Ice cream with apples. Photo by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg
FAVORITE DISHES: Burrata with persimmons; roasted sunchokes with smoked hazelnuts; shaved vegetable salad; Pizza Bianca; prosciutto pizza; vanilla soft-serve with stewed apples. The chef uses seasonal produce, so dishes mentioned may not always be available.
LIBATIONS: Six bottled beers; six wines by the glass or bottle (one sparkling; three whites; two reds); Sprecher sodas from Wisconsin; mineral water; espresso/cappuccino
PRICES: Appetizers, $10 to $13; pizzas, $10 to $23
SERVICE: Staff is affable and well-informed.
PARKING: Plenty of free parking
David Hagedorn is the restaurant critic for Bethesda Magazine.