Perfect Pies

Neshan Naltchayan

We’ve scouted the town to bring you our picks for the best pizzas in D.C. Whether you’re after a traditional recipe or something with true pizzazz, Washington’s contributions to America’s favorite food stack up easily to the best efforts of New York or Chicago.

Best Margherita Pizza: RedRocks Firebrick Pizzeria
Columbia Heights (1036 Park Road)

Perhaps it would seem bizarre to discover that a converted brothel out of Columbia Heights has emerged as one of the area’s tastiest pizza destinations, but RedRocks makes no apologies — nor do they have reason to. While their base of operations is the corner house of a modest residential block, with an interior recalling a speakeasy, their traditional Neapolitan pies exemplify the culinary history of their Italian ancestry. RedRocks gets the Downtowner’s vote for best traditional margherita pizza in the city.

The selling point here is the crust. Their dough, prepared fresh daily, is a blend of imported “Caputo 00” Italian flour, the finest milled grain widely recognized as the world’s best pizza flour. Thin yet crisp, bubbly and slightly charred, the wood-fired crust has an extra pinch of salt to help the mozzarella and fresh tomato erupt with flavor, wholly fulfilling the aromatic anticipation. The liberal use of basil leaves, tossed whole onto the pie, adds an herbal flourish that cools and refreshes the palette.

The menu has a wide array of choice vegetarian options, notably the “Pizze Bianche,” with roasted eggplant, goat cheese and pesto. The umbrella-cluttered patio, almost as large as the interior seating area, makes for ideal summer dining. Their Monday night special, half price bottles of wine, is another draw. This one is not to be missed.

Pizza with a Kiss & a Kick: Moroni & Brother’s Restaurant
Petworth (4811 Georgia Ave.)

In 1991, José and Reyna Velazquez were dishwashers at Pizzeria Paradiso, having just come to the US from El Salvador. They worked their way up to head chefs there, perfecting the craft of the wood-fired, brick oven pizza. Almost 20 years later, Moroni & Brother’s brings together their native and entrepreneurial influences, serving traditional Salvadoran cuisine by day and gourmet pizza by night.

Though the restaurant is only three years old, one might assume upon entering that Moroni & Brother’s has been in the neighborhood for decades. There is a local complacency to the dim atmosphere and unpretentious décor, the brick oven behind the small bar toward the back, unromantically wedged between towers of pizza boxes and aluminum shelving.

Their pizza, however, is as robust and tasty as they come. Although José maintains that his pizza is strictly and traditionally Italian, his Salvadoran roots betray him — much to the delight of pizza lovers. The crust is thick, soft and mellow, with a touch of sweetness that complements the fresh vegetables and frequently utilized spicier toppings. The Diavola, one of their best sellers, is lushly topped with spicy sausage, red onion, sweet peppers and jalepenos — not the most traditional Italian pie, but a damn good one. Other noteworthy additions include the Explosive, with spicy salami, black olives, and hot pepper flakes, and the Bianca, with oregano, parsely, red onion, pine nuts and parmesan. Moroni & Brothers is yet another reason to keep an epicurean eye on Petworth.

Best Lunch & By-the-Slice Spot: Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza
Columbia Heights (1400 Irving Street, Suite 103)

Pizza by the slice is difficult to find outside of New York City, but Pete’s New Haven has introduced it to the District with serious verve. Sitting on top of Columbia Heights Metro and selling a wide, creative variety of pizza by the slice at a great price (starting at $2.50), Pete’s is the ideal place to stop for a quick bite or a tasty lunch.

New Haven-style Apizza (pronounced “ah-Beets”) is a lesser-known, yet thoroughly distinct style of pizza. “The focus is on the crust,” says Dominic Palazzolo, assistant manager. It has a characteristically thin crust that is crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside. The pizzas are enormous — 18 inches in diameter — and the slices hold their shape when picked up, without folding over and spilling.

The toppings are just as noteworthy. Their best seller, “Edge of the Woods,” is heaped with ricotta cheese and spinach and blanketed with crispy fried eggplant. This pie is a signature, unique to most any pizza experience you are likely to have. Their “Staven,” a twist on the traditional pepperoni and sausage, comes with caramelized onions, red pepper flakes and whole roasted cloves of garlic.

The Sorbillo is another rare treat. The “birthplace of the pizza,” this rectangular crust is filled with salumi and mozzarella, and topped with a healthy dollop of ricotta.

Though perhaps most impressive of all is that Pete’s New Haven has gluten-free pizza on the menu. The dough is made with tapioca starch and chickpea flour. “It’s a great feeling for us,” says Palazzolo of the gluten-free pie, “to be able to provide pizza for people who haven’t had it for upwards of five to 10 years.”

As a family owned and operated restaurant, it is a mission of Pete’s New Haven to support other small, local businesses. Their soda fountain sports only Boylan Soda, a New Jersey-based organic soda company. Likewise, many of the ingredients and toppings are organic and locally grown. With a new location in Friendship Heights opening this week, there’s plenty to go around.

Best Dining Experience: Il Canale
Georgetown (1063 31st St)

Just off M Street in Georgetown, Il Canale has fashioned a reputation for serving up authentic Italian cuisine and thin crust gourmet pizza. It is in a comfortable location by the C&O Canal, far enough removed from the bustling traffic to feel secluded and intimate. Sitting in the small patio on the antiquated brick sidewalk, the atmosphere alludes to a small Florentine eatery. Inside the décor is chic and modern. The waiters are well informed of the restaurant’s mission, and delight in discussing the menu and culinary traditions with customers. It is a good place to enjoy good food.

This is not to detract from the food itself. Steeped in the richness of Italian tradition, there is a reliable consistency in the confidence with which each dish is prepared. Even the table bread comes with an excellent dip of olive oil, pepper flakes, marinated garlic cloves and rosemary.

Their Neapolitan pizzas have fluffy, substantial crusts, well browned on the outside. The tomato sauce is ripe, tangy and fragrant, and the buffalo mozzarella tastes farm fresh, absorbing the strong, fragrant basil. The resulting pizza is a perfectly balanced work of craft. Artisanal pizza at its finest.

Best Pizza after the Game: Matchbox
Chinatown (713 H Street), also Capitol Hill (521 Eighth St. S.E.) and Rockville, MD (Fall 2010)

The four guys behind Chinatown’s Matchbox — New Yorkers Perry, Ty, Mark and Drew — make no bones about the wide ethnic influences on their menu, a sort of neo-Mediterranean-Southwest-American blur. Believe us, it’s no detriment. Delightfully labyrinthine floor plan, professional, friendly wait staff and wood-and-glass-intensive décor aside, the menu alone is enough reason why Matchbox has earned loving nods from foodies across the city since it opened in 2002.

While the uninitiated may come for the traditional entrees, spend your energy (and hard-earned cash) on their pizza, fired expertly in an 800-degree wood oven and served up as a 10- or 14-inch pie. We tried the veteran “spicy meatball” pizza, a regulars’ favorite from day one, featuring pureed garlic, bacon bits, crushed red pepper and halved meatballs over a layer of fresh mozzarella. Simply superb. The low, smoldering spice is enough to satisfy the discriminating three-alarmer, but won’t overpower those who prefer a milder flavor. Also delicious was the coppa and arugula pie, termed quasi-vegetarian (and truly so, if you forego the ham) and topped with decorous rounds of charcuterie, Roma tomatoes and a lush bundle of Mr. President’s favorite green. Expect a generous smoky carbon taste from the crust.

Matchbox is also known for their mini-burgers, minimal wine markups (a bottle of 2006 Duckhorn merlot will run you a very reasonable $76) and respectable selection of craft beers. If you’re not making a beeline here after a Caps or Wizards game, you’re just plain missing out.

Best Place for Pizza and a Brew: Pizzeria Paradiso
Dupont Circle (2003 P St.), Georgetown (3282 M St.)

If you’re a local, you’ve no doubt caught wind by now of Paradiso’s legendary pizza. If you’re especially plugged in, you may even have learned it goes better with one of their painstakingly selected craft beers, most from breweries so indie you’ve probably never heard of them (Yeah, we did just say that. Please forward outraged complaints to our editor). Add in a casual, community atmosphere with Hendrix and Johnny Cash blaring overhead, and you’ve got a recipe for a night (or lunch) out that can’t fail.

First, the pizza: The brainchild of virtuoso chef Ruth Gresser — who once held court at Dupont’s Obelisk — Paradiso’s spin on Neapolitan pizza (they call it “Tuscan”) flaunts a puffy, airy brown crust loaded with astonishingly fresh tomato chunks and Italian cheeses ranging from Parmesan to pecorino (and, of course, mozzarella). We recommend the “Atomica,” a moderately spicy spread of salami, briny black olives and pepper flakes. But let’s be honest: you can’t really steer yourself wrong here. Pies come in 8- or 12-inch sizes.

Then there’s the beer. When you finally navigate through the dissertation-length beer list, you’ll find yourself frothing at the mouth with questions (wild yeast ale or Flemish sour?). Or maybe it’s thirst. You may also be a bit overwhelmed, so if you’re still at a loss, ask one of the very knowledgeable servers to get you started. From there, start exploring. The two Paradiso restaurants boast nearly 30 taps and 300 bottle varieties between them with amazingly little overlap. They also rotate their brews every two weeks, so exercise patience with all your might; you’ll get to try them all in due time. Don’t miss a chance to stop by the downstairs bar on Tuesday and Wednesday evenings from 5 to 7 p.m. All drafts are half off, making for, arguably, the best happy hour in town.

Most Authentic Italian: Two Amys
Cleveland Park (3715 Macomb St.)

The one trouble with Cleveland Park’s most famous pizzeria is just that — it’s famous. There’s a reason the atmosphere is packed and boisterous, and it likely has to do with the crowds thronging at the doorways on the weekend just to get a seat. But trust us, it’s worth it. On a Saturday night, a party of four should have just enough time for a quick stroll to the National Cathedral before their table’s ready. Once inside, sit down and take in the Spartan, quaint décor — rub your hands along the bare wood bench tables, dish out a little red pepper from the square jar and order yourself a stemless glass of montepulciano. If you’re with your sweetheart, head to the back for a half pint of Moretti beer at the woodplank bar, over which cured meats deliciously hang.

The menu at Two Amys is quick to point out that the restaurant abides by Neapolitan pizza standards outlined by the Denominazione di Origine Controllata (DOC), the Italian quality assurance standard (and you thought it was just for wine!). Sink your teeth into a bite of their signature Margherita Extra and you won’t be surprised it gets a stamp from the Italian brass. Lovingly floated on a chewy, slightly salty crust are impeccable chopped tomatoes, creamy, essential buffalo mozzarella and ripe cherry tomato halves for good measure. If you’re feeling adventurous, order a little arugula on top and tuck in. The pies are served unsliced, so have your knife and fork at the ready, and keep your “bellissimas” to a low volume.

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