A Slice of Heaven: Washington, D.C.

Hey, Slicesters, Ed Levine here. If you follow this site regularly, you know we've been excerpting chapters and info from the pizza book I wrote, Pizza: A Slice of Heaven. Since Adam has been talking a lot about D.C. pizza as of late, I thought I'd post my chapter on the subject. Enjoy! —Ed

It was at Ella's Wood Fired Pizza, the first stop on my Washington, D.C., pizza tour, that I developed my owner-occupied pizza theory. I sat down at a table across from the beautiful, fire-engine-red, wood-fired brick oven and ordered a Margherita and a marinara pizza. I asked my waiter where Ella's got its mozzarella and sausage. He said he didn't know but would ask the chef, who was sitting at the bar. The chef then walked past my table on the way to the kitchen. I repeated the questions directly to him. He said, "I don't really know. I think the mozzarella comes from California, and the sausage, well, I don't have any idea. A lot of sausage comes from Pennsylvania, so maybe it's from there." This exchange did not fill my stomach with confidence; at the very least, a chef should know where his ingredients come from. Maybe he's new, I consoled myself, and his name couldn't be Ella. But there was no Ella in sight, and nobody else in charge.

Read all Slice of Heaven excerpts on SliceUnsurprisingly, the pizzas were thoroughly mediocre. Much better than your run-of-the-mill slice place or chain, but nothing you'd travel even ten blocks for. Our next stop was Matchbox, which makes a big deal on its menu about its coal-fired oven and all the trips made to the great pizza emporia in New York. I ordered a medium half-plain, half-sausage pie, and asked our waitress where they got their mozzarella and sausage. She came back and said the guys making the pizza didn't know. Our pie arrived, and it was yellow, which meant they were using aged, not fresh, mozzarella. The sausage had a nice fennel taste, but the sauce was overpoweringly herbaceous. It tasted of dry, old oregano. The waitress came over and said they got their sausage from Sysco, a megasized food distributor. I appreciated her candor, but not the pizza. Once again I felt there was a pizza leadership vacuum at Matchbox. I was beginning to get discouraged about pizza in the District of Columbia. How could our nation's capital, full of college students, 20-somethings working on Capitol Hill, not to mention a hundred senators, 532 members of the House of Representatives, nine Supreme Court justices, and the president and vice-president not have at least a few solid slices? This state of affairs is unpatriotic, not to mention unregulated.

My next stop was Pizzeria Paradiso, located upstairs in a townhouse and touted as the gold standard of Washington pizzerias. It had a gorgeous woodburning pizza oven. Once again, however, there appeared to be no one in charge. My waiter, a genial sort, took my order, a Margherita made with half regular cow's-milk mozzarella and half water-buffalo mozzarella. It was a good sign that they had mozzarella di bufala, and a few minutes later the pizza arrived at my table. It had a high lip, a puffy and chewy crust, and very good hole structure. It was the first good pizza on the tour. Still, there was clearly no owner present.

When I asked my waiter about the mozzarella and the sausage, he went back to the kitchen and returned with, "We get the mozzarella the same place we get our goat cheese. The sausage we make ourselves, we fry it up every morning." Only in Washington, D.C., would they consider sausage taken out of a package and fried to be house-made.

I spent the night with our friends Merrill and Tim Carrington. I had called Merrill the night before I took the train to D.C., hoping she could pick up a pizza at 2 Amys, the highest-rated pizzeria in the Washington Post Dining Guide, because the place wasn't open on Monday, the day of my journey. Merrill, a wonderfully spiritual sort, was appalled by my plan. "We love 2 Amys, and it's five minutes from our house, but if you eat a day-old pizza from there, you can't possibly judge the quality of it. It won't be fair, and it's not right." I find it's hard to argue with really smart spiritual types, because they're invariably right. I asked if I could spend Monday at their house and pick up a pizza from 2 Amys at 11 a.m. on my way out of town.

We called in our order at 10:30 a.m., and I arrived at 11 to pick up my Margherita. It's a very pretty place, 2 Amys, with mustard-colored walls and high ceilings. It felt like a church of pizza. Most important, there was someone in charge, a dark-haired person barking out orders. "Will someone pick up that phone, please?" It turned out to be Tim Giamette, one of the owners.

He wasn't very friendly, but he clearly had the fever, and he was there, right when it opened, on a Tuesday morning at 11, when there was no one except me in there, and he didn't have to be. I asked him about the pizza, made in a white, dome-shaped, wood-burning oven. "We run a bakery. Everything is in the dough. All it is is flour, salt, and water. We make it fresh every day, roll it out by hand, stretch it and proof it twice. A great pizza starts and finishes with the dough. Everything else is secondary. If you do that right, everything falls into place. We use a combination of La Parisienne low-gluten flour, made by Gusto's in San Francisco, and regular King Arthur flour, fresh cake yeast, canned San Marzano tomatoes, which we drain and purée in a Mouli grater. We save the water and add it if we need to. We get our mozzarella, both the flor di latte and the mozzarella di bufala, three times a week. The pizza makers top the pie with a little sauce, some mozzarella. Our pies are minimally topped. They bake at 600°F for a couple of minutes. We are constantly adding wood because we need the flame to produce a convection effect in the oven. We get a little bit of char on the bottom and top of every pie. We got this pizza maker, Edan McQuaid, he's the best pizza guy on the East Coast. He's only 30, but he probably came out of his mother's womb making pizza."

I was glad to hear a pizza rant in Washington, D.C., by an on-the-premises owner of a pizzeria. Someone who cared and watched over the whole process. Just then my pie came out of the oven. They sprinkled some extra virgin olive oil on it and placed it gently in the box. It looked perfect. It tasted even better. It was perhaps the best traditionally Neapolitan-style pizza I've had in the States. But unlike Neapolitan pizza, it had a crisp crust, beautiful hole structure and just the right amount of char. It was a perfectly balanced pizza. I ate half and dragged the other half with me onto the subway to Union Station to catch the train back to New York. I opened the box and took a bite of one of the remaining slices. It still tasted great, a full hour after it was made. Another mark of a great pizza is that even an hour after it comes out of the oven, it still tastes like great bread with melted cheese and tomatoes and basil.

Maybe there is hope for the pizza in Washington, D.C. It has at least one owner-occupied pizzeria. All we need is a few more, so that I won't write to my congressman asking for federal pizza standards.

Pizzeria Paradiso
3282 M Street NW, Washington DC; 202-337-1245
2029 P Street NW, Washington DC; 202-223-1245

2 Amys
3715 Macomb Street NW, Washington DC.; 202-885-5700

About the author: Ed Levine is the founder of SeriousEats.com and wrote the book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven.