Somewhere along the way, Americans have made pizza such an American food that it often bears little resemblance to the plate-sized, thin-crust beauties that Italians enjoy. Drenched in bland tomato sauce and heaped with toppings like a Dagwood sandwich, the typical American pizza has become a food group all its own.
Seven-month-old Fire Works, in Leesburg's Market Station complex, has put the Italian back in pizza and, along the way, put the train-station feel back in the town's former freight depot. Both endeavors are stunning successes.
These are pizzas any Italian would recognize -- thin crusts, nearly charred bottoms and still-bubbling toppings at the table. About the size of a dinner plate, these pizzas are designed to be a meal for one person, not fodder for a group. A large size is available.
Central to Fire Works's success is the four-ton, concrete wood-fired oven that was installed by a crane on decking between adjacent restaurant Tuscarora Mill and the old train depot. The oven is Fire Works's only real cooking equipment and is the focal point of the dining room.
Booths along one wall look like the double-sided benches that once were the main seating for rail stations. At the bar, the footrest has been fashioned from two 800-pound lengths of actual train rail, and the retro stools are chrome and black. Photos of the old Leesburg depot line the sunny yellow walls.
A shiny wall of mosaic tile surrounds the opening to the oven -- cut through an exterior wall -- and the overall effect is of a chic pizzeria in Milan. A deep deck on two sides of the building provides more seating outdoors than can be accommodated inside. Smoking is allowed only on the deck.
Everything cooked at the restaurant emerges from that one giant oven, whose crackling flame can be seen from the dining room. Patrick Vinh, the chef at Tuscarora Mill who worked with its owners, Kevin and Shawn Malone, over several years to open Fire Works, said the only secrets to the pizza are great ingredients and the oven's temperatures -- in excess of 750 degrees.
The oven is closed at night but is still more than 400 degrees the next morning. It's cleaned daily. It takes about 2 1/2 hours for it to reach pizza-baking temperatures.
A typical pizza takes about 2 1/2 minutes to cook, and it has to be moved around even during that brief stay. A difference of a few seconds can mean the difference between a crisp but not crackery crust and a soggy middle or overcooking. The staff seems to have the timing down well.
Five of the six pizzas I sampled at Fire Works came out perfect; only a Margherita pizza -- tomato and mozzarella cheese -- was ever so slightly undercooked, maybe by five or 10 seconds.
The pizzas are truly the dazzlers of the menu.
Combinations are not limited to the specialty pizzas listed on the menu -- a diner can design a pizza with any of the ingredients on hand, including salami and asparagus.
The most popular pizza is the Smokey Blue, which combines gorgonzola cheese with bacon, roasted onions and a balsamic glaze. Under the intense heat, the toppings meld and become almost like a hot spread atop a crisp crust.
The Fire Cracker, with exemplary pepperoni slices, red onions, chopped olives and red pepper flakes, packs a bit of fire.
The Sopranos pizza is heavier on the toppings, with mushrooms, sausage, cheese and a touch of truffle oil, a nicety that probably would be lost on Tony himself. Quattro Carni (four meats) combines meatballs, pepperoni, sausage and salami. And Fire Works's version of white pizza adds spinach to the creamy garlic sauce and mozzarella cheese topping.
Vinh said he and the Malone brothers fashioned Fire Works after Washington's Two Amys Pizza and Pizzeria Paradiso. The relationship is most apparent in the Margherita pizza -- Two Amys's trademark offering -- which has slices of tomato mixed with basil chiffonade and fresh mozzarella.
Even a couple of the appetizers arrive via the oven -- an especially savory cheese and spinach dip heated to bubbling and served with plain flatbread and mushrooms stuffed with pesto, gouda cheese and tomato sauce. There also are a couple of sandwiches and several varieties of calzones, also cooked in the oven.
The menu includes two pasta dishes -- baked ziti with tomato sauce and baked ziti with meatballs. The ziti with tomato sauce is bland but probably would please a finicky child. Several salads, including a good rendition of a Caesar salad (spelled Cezar here in honor of manager Cezar Alupoaei), round out the menu.
The most creative use of the oven is for the chocolate chip cookie sundae. A scoop of cookie dough (from the bakery South Street Under, also owned by the Tuskies folks) is placed in a small au gratin dish, heated until it is just cooked on the outside but still doughy on the inside, and then topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup. It's a great ending to a wood-fire cooked meal.
--Nancy Lewis (May 24, 2007)