Washington DC (Columbia Heights): RedRocks & Pete's Apizza

Two pizzerias on the brink of expansion and a trip down memory lane.

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Past meets present. Clockwise from left: The metro station that helped spur a myriad of changes to the hood, Capital City Public Charter School, CC's Liquors, Pete's New Haven Style Apizza, RedRocks Firebrick Pizzeria. [Photographs: Pizzablogger]

Perched atop the rise of 14th Street at the intersection of Monroe, CC's Liquors is one of the few survivors remaining in the heart of the booming Columbia Heights neighborhood from a generation ago. Today, the grayish turret housing the front door looks down 14th Street toward the renovated Tivoli Theater, now the GALA Hispanic Theater, and the cluster of new buildings containing living space, office space and housing stores like Best Buy, Target, Starbucks, Office Depot, and all of the other "necessary" stores purveying the trappings of modern life. People of various cultures and ages ply their way up and down 14th and the surrounding blocks, passing by renovated row homes, families pushing baby strollers, and even a dog park as they move toward their eventual destination. But during the years in which I last walked near this spot from time to time, CC's looked out onto an entirely different landscape.

Nineteen ninety-one: Most of the buildings currently housing the various retail, office, and apartment spaces clustered around 14th and Irving were simply not there. The Tivoli Theater was in shambles. CC's looked out onto a grim scene of trash-lined streets, dilapidated store fronts, beat-up row homes, and a surrounding neighborhood where it was easy to find crack rock or a bullet and next to impossible to score a good cup of coffee, much less good pizza. For many people at that time, CC's Liquors was very much a sign that you had strayed too far north up 14th street.

And yet, on a bitterly cold winter night in 1991, I stood on a porch a block away from CC's waiting for my friend to let me into the new place he had just moved into along with two other peeps who would play a role in the resurrection of the nearby U Street corridor. As if the neighborhood could sense my nervousness, the staccato clap-clap-clap of a handgun barked violently into the night from just around the corner. It was the first time I had ever heard a gun fired in a public space. The sounds of gunfire could be heard from that house on a somewhat regular basis, and two years later a man was gunned down nearly on the front porch of the house by a person wielding a shotgun. My friend moved on, and I frequented many other neighborhoods in the city over the years, but I had not walked around near CC's in this part of Columbia Heights for nearly 20 years. A subway stop and two pizzerias would change that.

On a pleasant Saturday afternoon looking to get out of the house after a bout of cabin fever from being clobbered by the one-two February 2010 blizzard, dubbed locally as "snowmageddon," Mrs. Blogger, Papa Blogger, Mama Blogger, and yours truly emerged from the Columbia Heights Metro station hungry and ready to devour a good amount of pizza.

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Inside RedRocks [ Photograph: Pizzablogger]

RedRocks Firebrick Pizzeria

1036 Park Road NW, Washington, DC 20010 (map); 202-506-1402, www.firebrickpizza.com
Getting There: Metro Green or Yellow line to Columbia Heights station. Walk north on 14th to Park Road, make a right and walk three blocks. RedRocks is at intersection of Park Rd and 11th St NW
Pizza Style: Neapolitan
Oven Type: Wood-fired
The Skinny: The Neapolitan-style pizzas here may not be mind-altering but are tasty, well-made pies of very good quality. Multiple red and bianca variants are offered, additional toppings are available, and smart pricing makes this cozy space a good spot for pie in WDC
Price: 12-inch pizzas, $8.95 (marinara) to $12.95
Slices? No, whole pies only
Alcohol/BYOB?: Beer, wine, and bar available

RedRocks was our first stop of the day. Situated in a renovated EOG rowhome at the intersection of Park Road and 11th Street NW, the two floored space at RedRocks is cozy, clean and offers outdoor seating as well. The exposed brick walls and wood tables form a clean space where sunlight falls through the windows and dapples the hardwood floor in various hues of light and shadow.

Owner James O'Brien opened RedRocks in the summer of 2007 and brought on consultant Edan MacQuaid, who had a dozen years of pizzeria experience from working at well respected DC pizza haunts Pizzeria Paradiso and 2Amys, to train the crew at RedRocks for a couple of months after opening.

The wood-fired pizza oven at RedRocks is situated downstairs and I was not allowed to go down and take pictures of it (I didn't mention "who I was"), but from the looks of the picture of the interior of the oven on the RedRocks webpage, the clearly defined, almost orange segment looking pieces of refractory concrete appear to be a dead ringer for a Wood Stone Mountain Series oven, which brings to question RedRocks mentioning of an "Authentic Italian wood-burning brick oven" on their website. Wherever the oven is actually from or what type it is, it is the skill of the fornaio that ultimately determines how well a pizza is cooked.

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Interior shot of the oven [ Photograph: RedRocks website]

While this is somewhat of a moot point and I ultimately like the pizza and space at RedRocks, I need to take RedRocks to task for some of the information on their website, as I am somewhat frustrated by these types of potentially confusing statements continually displayed on various pizzeria websites and in print advertising. Keep in mind I am no expert, but my own pizza-making experiments in my humble standard kitchen oven and ongoing research has shown me that some of the information on the RedRocks website is questionable.

I know this to be a fact because I ate with a fellow pizza-lover a few months ago at another pizzeria and he complained the Margherita did not use mozzarella di bufala and was therefore not "authentic." I asked why he thought this and he mentioned RedRocks pizzeria. This person took RedRocks website statement, "Our Margherita pizza features mozzarella di bufala, made from buffalo milk, a Neapolitan tradition" to mean that it is a Neapolitan tradition to use mozzarella di bufala on Margherita pizza. This is clearly not the case, as fior-di-latte is the most commonly found mozzarella employed in Napoli, even though the making of bufala itself is indeed a Neapolitan tradition (and to be fair might be what RedRocks is alluding to).

To continue my quibbles, the statement, "High heat creates flavors through caramelization of sugars that are difficult, if not impossible, to create when pizza is cooked in conventional pizza ovens", if taken literally by a person, is bordering on flat out bullcrap. Caramelization of sugars is most certainly possible in a standard home oven that reaches the typical 500°F to 550°F, as caramelization occurs at temperatures as low as 320°F to 340°F. Just putting any dough in a wood fired oven does not ensure great caramelization. The sugars in question being "caramelized" are largely made available through a proper fermentation process, not as a sole end result of using a high temperature oven. Again, my primary concern is more correct dissemination of information to the pizza peep masses and less convoluted advertising nonsense. Okay, got that offa my chest. Now, back to the pizza, eh?

The pizzas at RedRocks were not quite as good as my initial stop-and-pop here in October of 2009. However, it could be argued that the best judge of a pizzeria is what the pie is like on a slightly "off" day. Based on our visit, the pies at Redrocks are still pretty damned good. We ordered a Margherita, a Napoli (sauce, fresh mozzarella, anchovies, capers, basil), and an Eggplant (roasted eggplant, goat cheese, parmesan, sea salt, black pepper). The late afternoon sunlight pleasantly spilled across our table hinting at the promise of Spring, albeit making for poor picture taking conditions.

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A margherita from my October 2009 visit [Photograph: Pizzablogger]

The Margherita at RedRocks is a solid rendition of this classic pizza. The cornicione was not as mottled as during my previous visit, but it was puffy, had a nice seasoning of salt to it, was slightly crispy on the outside and tender in the crumb without being gummy.

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The margherita from my most recent visit[Photograph: Pizzablogger]

The sauce on the Margherita has the fresh brightness that should be expected on a good-quality Neapolitan-influenced pizza and has a little more natural sweetness than the sauce found on other Neapolitan style pizzerias like 2 Amys. RedRocks mentions they use two types of imported Italian tomatoes; both San Marzano and Sinatra tomatoes are used. If both tomatoes are indeed being mixed together to create the sauce, perhaps it is the Sinatra tomatoes which add a note of sweetness that subtly lingers in the aftertaste. The RedRocks Margherita comes with mozzarella di bufala, which has a little more flavor than the mostly textural contribution of the more commonly used fior di latte. This combination of ingredients combines to form a respectable Margherita at RedRocks.

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Crumb shot of the Margherita. [Photograph: Pizzablogger]

The Napoli (tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, anchovies and capers) at RedRocks is perhaps more successful than at other pizzerias precisely because the sauce is just a tad sweeter. The expected sharp flavor attack of the anchovies, olive like taste of the capers and the definite saltiness added by both ingredients are tempered a little more competently at Redrocks. Personally, this is the type of pizza you have to be in the mood to eat, but when you are ready to do so RedRocks can tickle your fancy.

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From left: Eggplant and Napoli pizzas. Click to make bigger. [Photograph: Pizzablogger]

The Eggplant pizza (roasted eggplant, goat cheese, pesto, sea salt, black pepper) arrived with a crust that was perhaps a little too pale, but this pizza was another good pie. My primary concern with eggplant, which I personally like on pizza, is it can wind up being slimy on the finished pizza. Not so on this day at RedRocks. The eggplant was fleshy and earthy. The use of goat cheese, black pepper and pesto combine to form a nice combination of flavors and textures on this pizza, which I would definitely order again.

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Eggplant pizza undercarriage and crumb shots. Click to make bigger. [Photograph: Pizzablogger]

Overall, I wouldn't call the pizza at RedRocks "mind blowing" like Motorino East Village and Una Pizza Napoletana, but this is one of the better pizzerias I have visited in Washington DC. The space is comfortable, unpretentious, is not as loud as some other places and offers a sizeable outdoor seating area as well. Add in a nice selection of beer and wine to the quality pizza served here and RedRocks Firebrick Pizzeria is a very good bet if you are in Washington DC.

RedRocks Firebrick Pizzeria will be opening a second location in Old Town Alexandria, in May of 2010, at 904 King Street (map)

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"Capital City Public Charter School" are what the letters perched atop the six doric columned, brick and glass facade of a rehabbed building perched on the border of Columbia Heights spell out, but for many people who were teens and twenty somethings growing up in and around DC during the eighties and nineties, this place will forever be thought of as the Wilson Center. Standing guard over the triangular intersection of Irving, 15th and 16th Streets NW, I imagine few of the newer residents of the Columbia Heights neighborhood realize this building is a musical icon of sorts.

Many cities made their own contributions to the punk rock influenced music being played from the late seventies into the nineties, but the sounds emanating from the basement of this building and other DC venues reverberated far past the borders of Washington DC. While it could be argued other spaces like the old 930 Club, DC Space, Fort Reno and Madams Organ were more important, the Wilson Center was still hosting shows after those other spaces had closed shop. Bands and people like Minor Threat, SOA (Henry Rollins), Faith, Bad Brains, Fugazi, Dave Grohl and many, many others either honed their sounds playing here or were influenced seeing shows at the Wilson Center.

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My ticket from the Fugazi 10 year anniversary show at the Wilson Center. I was one of the lucky SOBs to be there

It's been 13 years since I last stood in front of this building, with Fugazi's 10-year anniversary show in 1997 being the last show I would see in this fabled venue. The Wilson Center would host its last show in 2001, but the sounds from the shows inside of this building over a twenty year period can still be heard, even if only as influential tinges, in many modern day "alternative rock" bands. The Capital City Public Charter School building looks a lot different than it did back in the eighties and nineties when it was primarily a Latino Cultural Center, a testament to the many changes, some good and some questionable, that have occurred in this neighborhood over the past two decades.

With a few songs from those Wilson Center shows buzzing in my head, there was pressing business to attend to....more pizza!

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Pete's New Haven Style Apizza

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Pete's Original. Tomato sauce, whole milk mozzarella [ Photograph: Pizzablogger]

Pete's New Haven Style Apizza

1400 Irving Street NW, Washington, DC 20010 (map); 202-332-7383, www.petesapizza.com
Getting There: Metro Green or Yellow line to Columbia Heights station. Pete's is literally a few steps away from the Metro station
Pizza Style: New Haven style
Oven Type: Gas fired deck oven
The Skinny: Somewhat rustic crust has a nice, breadlike chewiness to it and is properly cooked. Slightly sweet sauce and decent cheese add up to a solid, albeit unspectacular, pizza that is much better than your average pizzeria. A selection of 18 pizzas, including a gluten free option and 21 additional toppings (soy cheese as well) are available.
Price: 18" apizza $18.95 to $25.95
Slices?: Yes. $2.50 to $3.25 per slice
Alcohol/BYOB?: Beer & wine available
Delivery: Yes. Check website for areas

Pete's New Haven Style Apizza, often referred to simply as Pete's Apizza (pronounced ah-beetz), sits literally steps away from the Columbia Heights Metro station at the intersection of 14th and Irvine Streets NW. According to the Washington Post, a group of five investors, including husband-and-wife owners Joel and Alicia Mehr (Alicia grew up in New Haven), along with business partner Thomas Marr, modeled Pete's after their favorite New Haven–style pizzeria, which is not located on Wooster or State streets, but is Grand Apizza in East Haven, Connecticut.

Pete's was about half full when we arrived, but the rectangular, 40-ish seater filled up quickly soon after we hunkered down. The drill at Pete's is you go to the counter to order, tell 'em what you want, grab a number and skidaddle to an open seat, where someone will bring your vittles to the table. This ordering set-up often helps to speed along lines at other restaurants employing a similar system and it appears to do so at Pete's as well. Such a system makes it possible, for instance, to drop by on your way home from work and get a couple of slices or a pie in a relatively quickly, even if the place is quite busy. And I watched a good amount of people do just that.

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Inside Pete's Apizza. The clocks on the wall display the time in Naples and New Haven. [Photograph: Pizzablogger]

The owners have contended that a coal-fired oven is not required to make New Haven–style pizza and gas-fired deck ovens with stained doors handle the cooking chores at Pete's.

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Although Pete's isn't that old, the doors to the deck ovens have that "ole battle-axe" look to them. Click to make bigger. [Photograph: Pizzablogger]

After a short bit sipping our draft Lagunitas IPA, a Pete's Original and an Arugula Apizza were brought to us and plopped on our metal stands. Without further adieu we dug into the Pete's Original Apizza.

But first, I think it is important that I digress (again?!) and mention I have not been to New Haven (yet). My only experience with New Haven–style pizza is eating at Frank Pepe's Mohegan Sun location on two consecutive days. Long story short....it was definitely the most disappointing pizza-eating experience I have had so far. The pizza was just OK, at best. So, you can tell I am not a qualified person to say how true to form a pizza joint offering "ah-BEETZ" is, but I can give my opinion on whether I thought the pizza was any good or not.

Sinking my teeth into the Pete's Original, the crust was immediately noticeable for its texture. This crust is a little crisp on the outside with a slightly toothsome, rustic breadiness to the crumb that is chewier and denser than the lighter, airy crusts of a Neapolitan-style pie. It was a nice contrast from what we had just eaten at RedRocks. The crust had some decent flavor to it and a nice char, which would not hit "burned" on the mythical char-o-meter.

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The undercarriage of our Pete's Original shows nice browning and some light char. [Photograph: Pizzablogger]

The sauce and the cheese on top of the Pete's Original were nothing to really write home about but definitely not bad either. The sauce may be a tad too much toward the sweet side, but it does the trick. The cheese to me was more of a textural note and had only a little flavor to it. Interestingly, and to display just how individual pizza can be to people, the comments from our group on the Pete's Original ranged from "good" to "I wouldn't walk across the street for a slice of it." Personally, I like the contrast of something different so close to RedRocks in the neighborhood. The Pete's Original, with its good, somewhat rustic and definitely crisp, chewy crust and more familiar toppings and flavor notes is a solid, straightforward everyday pie (keep in mind I ate only whole pizzas and did not try the individual slices available for sale).

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Crumb shot of the Pete's Original [Photograph: Pizzablogger]

While the Pete's Original was a good, workmanlike pie, the Arugula Apizza missed the mark on this day. Again, the crust in my opinion was very well done, with excellent browning and some breadlike flavor to it. While I have only been to Pete's Apizza once and need to go again to get a better gauge on consistency, it's always nice to receive a pie like this out of a gas-fired deck oven without having to ask for your pizza (apizza) to be "well done." Good stuff.

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Arugula Apizza bottoms up [Photograph: Pizzablogger]

However, what's on top of the Arugula Apizza was not singing joyous notes to our palates. All four of us agreed that the marinated onions completely overwhelmed the entire pizza. Don't think marinated, think pickled. I don't mind strong flavors, but there has to be something else to provide balance and on our visit, there simply was none. There was not enough pepperiness to the arugula to foil the pickled onion flavor and this is an instance where a saltier pecorino romano might be better suited than the parmigiano-reggiano used on this pie.

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Arugula Apizza. At least on this night, the marinated onions were far too pickled tasting and dominated the pizza]

Some of you may be thinking something along the lines of, "Does this place offer a clam pie and, if so, why didn't you order it you moron?!" Yes, Pete's offers a white clam pizza, dubbed the New Haven (white clams, garlic, evoo, pecorino romano, oregano $23.95). Alas, I have a severe allergy to clams and cannot eat them. In addition, I would like to come back and try the Margarita at Pete's (tomato sauce, mozzarella di bufala, basil, pecorino romano, evoo $25.95).

All in all, I personally think it is a stretch to suggest that Pete's Apizza is serving the "best pizza in DC." Our group all agreed that we didn't feel Pete's is a destination pizza worth going out of the way for. However, there is nothing quite like it in DC either. It's also important to remember that there is a need for a solid, everyday slice of pizza, and Pete's fills in this need quite well. Pete's also provides for a nice contrast of styles in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. If I lived in Columbia Heights or took the Metro past the Columbia Heights station on a regular basis, you can bet I would hop off occasionally to pick up a pie or a few slices of Pete's Apizza on the way home.

Pete's New Haven Style Apizza will be also be expanding to add a much larger second location at 4940 Wisconsin Avenue NW (map) in the Tenleytown-Friendship Heights neighborhood.

With the pizzas eaten and our bellies full, we walked out of the door at Pete's and down the elevator to catch our train. I couldn't help but steal a last view of the significant changes which have occurred over the last 20 years in Columbia Heights. Yes, there are still problems here and not all of the aspects of gentrification are positive, but what has happened in Columbia Heights is nothing short of remarkable. And in this changing neighborhood where laughter is now more often heard than the deafening silence of empty nights from years past, it's a very good thing area residents have two nice places to sit down, relax for a second and enjoy a bite of our favorite food.

By the time this is published I will be visiting Al Forno for the first time to try their grilled pizza. Not too long from now I'll be back here to report on a pizzeria in Baltimore that is about to make some significant changes to what is already one of the city's best bets for pizza.

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