A step beyond the pizzeria
By Justin Rude
Friday, May 11, 2012
Del Ray Pizzeria is unfortunately named. You won't go wrong eating the pies: The classic pizza selections are good, and some of the thin-crust ones are better. But if that's all you order, you're missing out on chef Eric Reid's talents. Try the Southern dishes and American comfort-food favorites that are his specialty, and you can dine very well indeed.
If Reid's name sounds familiar, you were probably a patron of the late, great Del Merei Grill, a much-missed Alexandria restaurant where Reid turned out crowd-pleasing crab cakes, Kansas City strip steak, deviled eggs and fried pickles. Look to the Del Ray Pizzeria's entree list and you can find bits and pieces of the Del Merei menu living on. Turn to the jambalaya pasta for well-cooked, evenly spiced shrimp with chicken and sausage with a rich cream sauce over penne pasta.
The Kansas City dish makes a return, as well - a cooked-as-ordered steakhouse cut at an everyday price of $22. Soon to make a comeback: Reid's shrimp and grits, a Del Merei standby that the chef says customers request frequently. Crab cakes and meatloaf round out the list of returning favorites.
Just as at the previous location, the stars of the show are sometimes the superlative sides. In the case of the crab cakes, that means hand-cut Old Bay fries and house-made slaw.
In fact, almost everything at the Del Ray Pizzeria is made in-house, a product of both the chef's aversion to big national suppliers and limited walk-in refrigator space. "All our suppliers come in small box trucks," says Reid, who makes all his sauces daily.
Sandwiches are a good choice for lunch and dinner. Buffalo chicken served on a kaiser roll is accented with jalapeno-spiked blue cheese. The cheesesteak, which makes no claims to any regional heritage, is served on a soft, pliant bun and loaded with sliced rib eye, red onions, mushrooms, banana peppers and provolone. Although the details of these sandwiches aren't particularly daring or exciting, they are executed with skill and care. The chicken is tender, and the batter is light and crispy where it hasn't absorbed the biting buffalo sauce. The cheesesteak is juicy without being sloppy: The plentiful toppings don't get in the way of the main event.
Beer lovers will find a home at Del Ray Pizzeria, where a changing menu of American craft brews includes offerings from locals DC Brau, national players such as Sierra Nevada and hop-head favorites such as Founders. At happy hour, all draft beers are $2 off. Best of all, even though those fried pickles aren't listed on the menu, the kitchen is always prepared to make them when asked - and I defy you to find a better beer food.
Of course, you can't talk about Del Ray Pizzeria without discussing its highest-profile customer. In December, President Obama stopped by the pizzeria on his way to the White House. And how did that affect the restaurant's popularity? "Mondays became Fridays," said Reid, who has doubled the frequency of his cheese orders to keep up with the increased traffic. After Reid added on the menu the three pies Obama had ordered, they now rank 1, 2 and 3 on the bestsellers list.
A little more than a year ago, Alexandria native Eric Reid, of the late Del Merei Grill, was hired to rescue this young and failing pizzeria/sports bar concept. First, Reid moved away from Chicago-style pan pizzas in favor of lighter, crispier pies topped with fresh, seasonal ingredients. He also began rotating in some of the hearty comfort food that he made his name with -- try the jambalaya pasta or patty melt and ask whether the fried pickles are available. On game nights, the restaurant's bar area fills up with fans of area sports teams, the Capitals and Redskins being the biggest draws. (Offers pizzas made with gluten-free dough.)
--Justin Rude (Dec. 9, 2011)