Upper Crusts

With several new pizza restaurants around, our food critic goes in search of the perfect pie



Everybody loves pizza, so little wonder that Bethesda and the surrounding towns have always had lots of pizza chains and carryout joints. Within the last couple of years, though, several swankier places have joined their ranks.

Just as the hamburger has been elevated in recent years (think BGR The Burger Joint), “the same thing is happening with pizza,” says Spiro Gioldasis, owner of Pacci’s Neapolitan Pizzeria in Silver Spring.

Cooked in oak- or coal-fired ovens, these artisan pies—their handmade crusts blistered with leopard-like spots and topped with high-quality mozzarella and zesty sauce—bear little resemblance to their mass-produced counterparts.

So which are the real winners among this mushrooming pie population? I decided to find out.

I limited my sampling to places that have opened within the last two years, compared the pizzas by style, and ate a Margherita plus one of the most popular specialty pies at each establishment.

Some overall impressions: We definitely have better pizza options, though not all of them are great. Pizza is made with few ingredients, but there are myriad variations in the dough, cheese and sauce—any of which can make a difference, as can the heat source and cooking time. And since this is a handcrafted product, pizzas can vary from day to day within the same restaurant, depending on who’s making them.

Defining pizza styles is tricky; it depends whom you ask. Similarly, everybody has opinions about what makes a pleasing pie.

Here are mine.

New Haven Style

Inspired by Old World New York pizzas, this style was popularized by two New Haven institutions, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, opened in 1925, and Sally’s Apizza, opened by Pepe’s nephew in 1938. Both serve irregular-shaped, coal-fired pizzas that have been altered by others through the years. The common thread is that the crusts are relatively thin, crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle. Clam pizza is a New Haven signature.

Haven Pizzeria Napoletana

The people: Rockville resident Tiger Mullen has fond childhood memories of stopping at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana on the way to visit his grandparents in New Haven. As an adult, he became obsessed with opening a pizzeria of his own. He partnered with Mark Bergami, a New Haven native who managed a number of pizzerias, including Pepe’s. After months of delay, their place opened in February.

The particulars: Two 100,000-pound brick ovens with 18-inch-thick walls fire the pizzas using anthracite coal that burns at about 2,000 degrees. The sauce is made from canned tomatoes that are less sweet than the San Marzanos used in Neapolitan pizzas, and the whole milk mozzarella comes from the family-owned Calabro Cheese Corp. in East Haven, Conn.  

The pizza: Haven Fresh ($11.50 for 10-inch; $22 for 16-inch): Topped with mozzarella, grated pecorino Romano, fresh tomatoes, olive oil and basil, the Haven Fresh is the closest thing to a Margherita. I had this pizza twice: Once, the crust was crisp on the outside with a somewhat airy interior; another time, it was thinner and cracker-like. I preferred the airier version, but both provided terrific bases for the full-flavored cheeses. However, the out-of-season tomatoes were pretty tasteless.  

Haven White Clam Pie ($15 for 10-inch; $30 for 16-inch): With freshly shucked top neck clams, grated pecorino Romano and lots of garlic and oregano atop a blistered crust, this distinctive and pungent pie will have you making a return visit. Just remember to bring a breath mint. Or better yet, order one of the OMG gelatos for dessert. 

The place: A handsome spot, with large, brown leather booths and some history: a wood floor reclaimed from an old Maker’s Mark whiskey house in Kentucky; and a white marble bar that was part of the floor at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall about 100 years ago.

7137 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 301-664-9412, www.havenpizzeria.com

Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza

The people: A group of family and friends own three area Pete’s pizza places, including a twin brother and sister who—not surprisingly—hail from New Haven. The Friendship Heights location opened in June 2010.

The particulars: Pete’s pies are cooked in gas deck ovens, as co-owner Joel Mehr doesn’t believe that coal cooking is a prerequisite for the New Haven style. Pete’s uses all-purpose flour for its crust, Grande whole milk mozzarella from Wisconsin, and Stanislaus canned tomatoes from California for its sauce.  

The pizza: Margherita ($20 for 14-inch; $25.95 for 18-inch): My previous pies at Pete’s have been quite good, with a terrific crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-in-the-middle crust and toppings added in a thoughtful ratio. But on this visit, the Margherita’s crust was thin, flat and crisp with a monsoon of mozzarella that made it top-heavy.

New Haven ($20 for 14-inch; $25.95 for 18-inch): The crust was a problem (see Margherita above), and the whole thing was so greasy that my fingers left splotches on my notepad. I liked the garlicky kick, but the chopped Chesapeake clam population was sparse.

The place: Not much going for it in the way of atmosphere and service. You order at the counter, get a number, sit down at a table (if one is available) and wait for your food to be delivered. If you want another drink, dessert or a carryout box, you have to shimmy your way between the tables and get it yourself. My friend calls it “takeout food with tables.”

4940 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 202-237-7383, www.petesapizza.com

 

The Margherita Pizza at Pacci’s Neapolitan Pizzeria features fresh, creamy rounds of mozzarella. Photo by Stacy Zarin-GoldbergNeapolitan

With thin, foldable crusts and soft centers, Neapolitan pizzas are cooked in wood-burning, dome-shaped brick ovens at high heat (about 900 degrees) for a short period of time (no longer than 90 seconds). True Neapolitans are made with soft, finely milled flour, cow or buffalo mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes, a variety of plum tomato grown outside Naples, Italy.

Pacci’s Neapolitan Pizzeria

The people: Owner Spiro Gioldasis is a busy guy. He also owns Pacci’s Trattoria & Pasticceria and the new Stage Burger Lounge, and manages Mrs. K’s Tollhouse, all in Silver Spring. Rosario Granieri, formerly of Oro Pomodoro in Rockville, originally fired up Pacci’s brick oven. But the pizzaiolo, as pizza-makers are called, left in November, and three different pizza-makers are now on the job.

The particulars: Sometime after opening Pacci’s in late April 2010, Gioldasis was going to have his pizzas certified as authentic Neapolitan by a trade association. Unhappy with the process, he withdrew. Still, he says Pacci’s pizzas have all the requisite ingredients.  

The pizza: Margherita ($11 for 12-inch): Gioldasis recently tweaked the dough recipe, adding less water, among other things. The smoky, nicely blistered crust seemed firmer and less soupy than on previous visits, but was still easy to fold. Topped with lightly melted rounds of fresh, creamy mozzarella, this is a good pie, albeit not a great one.  

La Diavola ($13 for 12-inch): The high-quality, spicy salami has the perfect kick, but the short cooking time didn’t give it time to crisp. Flaccid pork products don’t do much for me, particularly when the rendered fat pools on the pie.

The place: A wood-fired pizza oven in the front introduces the long, skinny space, and wines attractively stacked on shelves behind the bar give Pacci’s a cool and sophisticated vibe. The ambience somehow makes the pizza taste better.

8113 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-588-1011, www.paccispizzeria.com

Pizza CS

The people: Friends Ankur Rajpara and Jonathan Allen opened the place in November, across the street from the popular Matchbox (starting “the David and Goliath of pizza wars,” Allen jokes). Rajpara studied Neapolitan pizza-making for two years and is the pizzaiolo; Allen, who worked his way up in the restaurant business over 15 years, is the chef de cuisine.

The particulars: They make their pies in an oak-burning brick oven, using the requisite Neapolitan ingredients.

The pizza: Margherita CS ($12 for 11-inch): I admire the artisanship and authenticity of Neapolitan pies, but I’m a crispy-crust person, so I can’t relate to soft, soupy middles. That said, Rajpara’s crust is nicely bubbled around the edges, and is slightly thicker and less charred on the bottom than its Neapolitan competition. It’s a good effort; I just don’t get the wet blanket appeal.

Sonia ($11 for 11-inch): Generous combination of veggies—spinach, roasted peppers, red onions, mushrooms and olives. But given the quick cooking time and the added moisture from the vegetables, liquid was dripping down my friend’s wrist as she ate a slice.

The place: The counter service, seating and décor have a sub shop feel. The pies are better than the atmosphere suggests.    

1596-B Rockville Pike, Rockville, 240-833-8090, www.pizzacs.com

Pizzeria da Marco

The people: International businessman Beni Golani has a majority stake in the restaurant, while part-owner Alessandro Ferro manages the place day-to-day. Pizzaiolo Dino Santonicola left a few months after the restaurant’s May 2011 opening, following a controversy over his comments about Washington area diners being “closed minded.” The new pizzaiolo is Robert Bristow, a Maryland native who worked with Santonicola before he left.

The particulars: The restaurant is one of a few dozen pizzerias in the United States (and one of four in the Washington area) certified by VPN Americas, the American and Canadian delegation of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, as meeting the strict requirements for Neapolitan pizza-making. True to Neapolitan tradition, the restaurant does not pre-slice its pies.

The pizza: Margherita D.O.P. ($13.50 for 11- to 12-inch): See my philosophy about Neapolitan pies under “Pizza CS.” That said, the Margherita D.O.P. (Protected Designation of Origin) is a bright combination of high-quality ingredients with a pleasantly smoky crust. Just eat it fast before it gets too soggy.  

Diavala ($12.50 for 11- to 12-inch): The waiter warns us that the Diavala is spicy, but in fact, it could use more oomph. Thinly sliced finocchiona (fennel-flavored salami), sliced fresh garlic and roasted red peppers are a nice trio, yet the result is nothing special.

The place: It’s large and lovely, with rust-colored banquettes and brick walls and a Carrara-marble topped bar. With 5,000 square feet and seating for 130, this is a serious restaurant, not a quaint pizzeria.

8008 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-654-6083, www.pizzeriadamarco.net

New York Style

Old World, coal- or wood-fired pizzas were introduced decades ago in places like Lombardi’s, Patsy’s and John’s Pizza, and have thin, crisp crusts with chewy interiors. These pies, cooked at high temperatures, are different from the large, foldable street pizza that is cooked in gas deck ovens and available by the slice all over the Big Apple. (The latter are featured at Crust, a new restaurant at 12303 Twinbrook Parkway in Rockville that was not open at press time.) Coal Fire and Matchbox both say their pies are inspired by the old New York pizzerias.

Coal Fire

The people: Before opening Maryland’s three Coal Fire restaurants (with a fourth scheduled to open in Crofton this spring), company President Dennis Sharoky owned an amusement vending firm for 20 years, which hooked him into the bar and restaurant scene. Operating partner Brian Kannee has worked in that world in Montgomery County for his entire career, including a stint at one of the first Ledo Pizzas. Coal Fire’s Gaithersburg location opened in May 2010.

The particulars: Though the pizzas are predominantly fired by anthracite coal, the ceramic-domed oven also has a radiant gas burner on one side and a thermostat-controlled gas heater underneath, which help maintain a consistent temperature on the cooking stone. Inside the oven, the temperature gets to about 900 degrees, cooking the pizzas in about four minutes. The restaurant makes its own fresh mozzarella and also offers three sauces—classic, signature and spicy.

The pizza: Margherita ($12.95 for 12-inch; $15.95 for 16-inch): The menu says the Margherita’s crust is first brushed with olive oil, but mine had a meager wash. A thin layer of tomato sauce, too little of the homemade mozzarella and exposure to the intense coal fire left this pie tasting a bit parched. The crust definitely has potential, though.

Rustic Red ($13.95 for 12-inch; $17.95 for 16-inch): The combination of fresh roasted red peppers, red onions and mozzarella—with the restaurant’s “signature sauce”—sounded promising. But the honey-spiked sauce combined with the sweet peppers was too sugary for me. Thank goodness for that crust.

The place: Pleasant and comfortable, with roomy booths and interesting black-and-white, poster-size photographs on the walls. Nicer than a pizza parlor, but still informal.

116 Main St., Gaithersburg, 301-519-2625, www.coalfireonline.com

Matchbox Vintage Pizza Bistro

The people: Perry Smith, Drew Kim and Mark and Ty Neal are the partners behind the burgeoning Matchbox empire, which started in Chinatown in 2003 and now includes locations on Capitol Hill and in Palm Springs, Calif. The Rockville restaurant opened in December 2010. Plans are in the works for two more locations (one at 14th and T streets in Northwest Washington; the other in Merrifield, Va.), and the longtime friends also own Ted’s Bulletin, an old-fashioned, comfort food eatery, and DC-3, a hot dog joint, in Southeast Washington. Smith graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1983 and lived with Ty Neal in Greenwich Village, where they ate lots of John’s of Bleeker Street pizza—hence the New York inspiration.

The particulars: The partners toyed with coal, but concluded correctly that oak produces smokier pies. In the two rectangular brick ovens in the front of the Rockville restaurant, the pizzas cook at about 725 degrees for about four minutes. Matchbox uses bread flour for its crust, and allows the dough to rest overnight before shaping and baking it.

The pizza: Oven-Dried Tomato and Fresh Buffalo Mozzarella ($13 for 10-inch; $21 for 14-inch): The closest thing to a Margherita, this pie sports an amazingly crackly, blistered and smoky crust. Thanks to oven-drying, the tomatoes are intensely tomatoey, and the generous basil acts as an ingredient, not a garnish. With a noticeable but judicious sprinkling of sea salt, it all adds up to a flavor-packed pie.

Matchbox Meat ($14 for 10-inch; $22 for 14-inch): There’s a meat locker’s worth of nickel-size pepperoni, spicy Italian sausage and crispy bacon piled on this pizza, which manages to remain relatively grease-free. It’s too much of a pigpen for me, but meat mavens will appreciate it. And that thin, crisp crust holds up beautifully under the weight of it all.

The place: It’s a wow, with seating for more than 400, 25-foot ceilings, two bars, two outdoor patios, two brick ovens, a private party room, a mezzanine level, a fireplace, an outdoor fire pit and tables embedded with matchboxes.

1699 Rockville Pike (at Congressional Plaza), Rockville, 301-816-0369, www.matchboxrockville.com

 

Haven Pizzeria Napoletana’s Mark Bergami makes his pizza New Haven style—with a relatively thin, coal-fired crust. Photo by Stacy Zarin-GoldbergThe Best:

New Haven: Haven Pizzeria Napoletana

Neapolitan: Pacci’s

New York: Matchbox

Margherita (or similar): Matchbox

Specialty pizza: Haven Pizzeria Napoletana’s White Clam Pie

Overall: Matchbox

Pizza Delivery Joints

Long live carryout and delivery pizza joints, where hungry teenagers, families with small children and anyone wanting a quick pie can go for serviceable food at decent prices.

The staff of Bethesda Magazine blind-tasted 12-inch cheese pizzas from four delivery places that have opened recently in downtown Bethesda. We ordered three online (the fourth, Jiffy Shoppes doesn’t provide that service).

The clear winner: Bel Piatto Pizza (formerly Red Tomato Pizzeria), which scored substantially higher than the other three. Tasters liked its chewy crust, gooey cheese and good proportion of sauce.

The others—Jiffy Shoppes, Pizza Tempo and Naked Pizza—all scored about the same, but Jiffy Shoppes slightly edged out the competition. It appears that you get what you pay for: The higher-priced pies were better.

The award for quickest delivery goes to Naked Pizza, which clocked in at 25 minutes from order to delivery.

Here are the results, from highest score to lowest.
Prices are for a 12-inch cheese pizza.

Bel Piatto Pizza

7812 Old Georgetown Road, 301-986-8085, www.belpiattopizza.com.
$10.99; $10 delivery minimum; $1.50 delivery fee.

Jiffy Shoppes

4924 St. Elmo Ave., 301-961-4949, www.jiffyshoppes.com.
$11; $10 delivery minimum; no delivery fee.

Pizza Tempo

8021 Wisconsin Ave., 240-497-0000, www.pizzatempo.us.
$9; $10 delivery minimum for online orders only; $1.50 delivery fee.

Naked Pizza

4914 Del Ray Ave., 301-215-9899, www.nakedpizza.biz.
$7.99; $8.50 delivery minimum; $1.50 delivery fee.

Carole Sugarman is the magazine’s food editor.

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