Tim Carman wrote about Pizzeria da Marco for a June 15 First Bite column.
The early Yelp reviews of Pizzeria da Marco in Bethesda were decidedly mixed, a fact that didn't sit well with chef and Naples native Dino Santonicola, who told the Feast blog last month that locals were "closed-minded" to his Neapolitan pies. But as I bite into my slice of margherita D.O.P. ($12.50), I can relate to at least one of the general public's complaints: The center of my pie is seriously soggy.
As I bring the slice to my mouth, there's almost nothing solid to hold onto, the thin liquid crust, melted cheese and tomato sauce slipping through my fingers like so much wet sand. Searching for answers, I think I spot the problem. The round is clogged with buffalo mozzarella, far more than I'm used to seeing on Neapolitan pies; the thing is almost American in its cheesiness.
I float this theory by owner Alessandro Ferro, who suggests another possibility.
"I think it's probably the type of mozzarella," says the Italian native, noting that fresh buffalo mozzarella, the real stuff from Campania that da Marco uses, has a higher water content than other mozzas.
The owner, of course, is correct, which only reinforces my point: The more buffalo mozzarella, the more water. Duh. Truth be told, this is only a regional flooding problem. Once you get past the center of Santonicola's pies, you hit dry land. More important, once out of the soup, you discover the truth about the pizzaiolo's handcrafted work: These are deeply flavorful pies, and that's just the crusts. The crumbled Italian sausage and the smoked mozza on the namesake Marco pie ($13) only increase my satisfaction.
Santonicola, who learned to swing a paddle in some of Naples's finest pizzerias, understands the complex interplay of dough, time and a fiercely hot fire. His crusts, blistered and blackened, are charred just enough to deepen and offset the salty, yeast-driven flavors of the dough. Santonicola's ability to extract flavor from his minimal ingredients immediately places da Marco in the upper tier of local Neapolitan pizzerias, whose numbers seem to be growing faster than the national debt.
Da Marco's quick rise shouldn't come as a surprise given Santonicola's skills and his principal tool, a hulking wood-burning oven designed by his friend Stefano Ferrara, a third-generation master of the craft. What is a surprise is the front of the house. Not the space itself, which is sort of lean and elegant in that unfinished, industrial way. No, I'm talking about the service, which during my two visits ranged from friendly but sloppy (pizza and salad arrived simultaneously) to surly but efficient (the server's silence was creeping me out). I expected more, given Ferro's vast experience at such restaurants as the Bartolotta in Las Vegas.
Then again, Pizzeria da Marco isn't Vegas. The place clearly channels Naples, right down to da Marco's all-Italian wine list. The biggest concessions to the American market may be the Miller Lite on tap. And all that cheese.