There's something to be said for the pizza joint that pours all of its energy into the pies, while the brick and mortar suffers. If the pizza is good, the rundown space can be endearing. If they're not, it's a dump. Conversely, the pizzeria that's immaculately and luxuriously appointed runs the risk of drawing too much attention away from the pizza. With the opening of Matchbox's cavernous new location on 14th St., multi-tiered and boasting extravagant flourishes like booths suspended in midair, this question has been more relevant than ever. With several locations in and around DC (each one more elaborate than the last), the question still remains: is the pizza any good?
Matchbox offers a wide range of pizzas to choose from (in addition to a substantial list of non-pizza entrées), ranging from a simple oven-dried tomato and sea salt number to the more elaborate shrimp and potato pie. There's a heavy focus on variety, but none of the pies are ever overwrought with never more than a few toppings each. The many other options notwithstanding, judgment of any pizza shop begins with their most basic pie, which in Matchbox's case is the oven-dried tomato and fresh mozzarella pie (10" for $13/14" for $21).
Topped with oven-dried tomatoes, mozzarella, basil, and sea salt, it's Matchbox's Margherita equivalent. Like all of the pies, it's baked in a wood-fired oven at over 800 degrees, which produces a light charring. The crust is thin throughout, but not flimsy. A light dusting of corn meal on the bottom adds a little to the crispness. The outer rim is only slightly thicker and not exactly an airy, bready crust. Still, it provides a uniformly crisp and flavorful base for the pie. The sauce is billed as a "zesty tomato sauce." True to its name, there's a generous dose of herbs and spices in the sauce lending a strong tangy quality to an already sweet sauce. At times it can be almost too sweet and tangy, but the presence of the sea salt adds a balancing element. The basil is chopped and dried, instead of in whole leaves, so not as fresh as I'd have liked, but it adds the necessary herbal element. Dollops of mozzarella are applied liberally and are melted into creamy puddles that work nicely to tie the whole pie together. The end result may not be your traditional Margherita, but it's an eminently edible pie that's accessible for Matchbox's target audience, which is just about everyone. It won't satisfy purists, what with using dried basil and a heavily seasoned sauce, but it's tasty and a great introduction to Matchbox's style of pizza.
Venture further into the expansive menu and you'll find the prosciutto and Black Mission fig pie ($14/$22). Served on the same thin, crisp, and lightly charred crust, the prosciutto and fig is a white pie. Topped with a layer of mozzarella, gorgonzola, roasted garlic, prosciutto, figs, and arugula, each mouthful is a nice balance of textures and salty and sweet. Each fig is a potent burst of sweetness that's countered by the smokiness of the garlic and salty, thinly sliced prosciutto. With such strong flavors, the cool and light arugula does a great deal to cut some of the intensity.
So the answer to the all important question is that, yes, Matchbox slings some solid pies. Perhaps not good enough to sustain its business if they were served out of something as tiny and grimy as Dom DeMarco's one room operation, but pizza isn't the only thing Matchbox has going for it. It's telling that the slogan "3-6-9" is emblazoned on shirts and floor mats at all of the Matchbox locations. Telling because it has nothing to do with pizza. One of the most popular items are the sliders (they come in orders of 3, 6, or 9 for $9, $16, or $20 respectively). Little juicy burgers on extremely buttery brioche buns served underneath a mountain of dangerously snackable onion straws, they're extremely popular and rightfully so. If you're not careful, it's frighteningly easy to ruin your appetite with a plate full of these and you'll likely be picking at the onion straws long after the sliders and your pizzas are gone.
There are a lot of reasons people flock to the Matchbox locations around DC—the ambiance, respectable bar and happy hour scene, sliders, and, of course, pizza. Any one of these is a defensible excuse to check out Matchbox, but for our purposes, I'd recommend it with a caveat. With the surge of Neapolitan pizzerias opening in DC lately, Matchbox is far from being the best or most authentic pizza in the city. What it is, however, is an extremely accessible and easy product with options for everyone. You're not likely to have to go out of the way to find a Matchbox and if you do, you don't have to feel like you settled.
Matchbox 14th Street
About the author: Brian Oh is a Washington, DC based international development professional, food lover, and photographer. In his free time, you can usually find him chasing down a good burger or slice. Follow him on Twitter @brianoh11