Fired Up for Pizza
RedRocks joins Washington's growing parade of high-end pizzerias
By Tom Sietsema
The Washington Post Magazine
Sunday, Oct. 28, 2007
"If this were in my neighborhood," a friend says, pausing between sips of Smuttynose Shoals Pale Ale and bites of pizza at RedRocks, "I'd be here all the time."
This is my third visit to yet another pizzeria in the Washington area -- and no complaint there. People who bemoan the lack of good pies hereabouts have been living in caves. From Bethesda (Mia's) to Arlington (Bebo Trattoria) to Ashburn (American Flatbread) -- and seemingly everywhere in between -- the bar for crust and toppings has never been higher. Why, a food critic could write about nothing but pizza places for the rest of the year and still not finish the whole story.
Set in a converted rowhouse, RedRocks strikes the casual observer as a swell place to unwind. The servers make you feel right at home right away -- at the door with a big smile and at the table with a good deal. "Half-price cheese pizza and $4 rail drinks till 7 o'clock!" one of the cheerleaders informs me when I show up in time to beat the clock one night. (Late birds shouldn't feel slighted: The deal starts again at 10 p.m.)
Hovering over the activity is a slim, fair-haired guy wearing a permanent grin, otherwise known as the owner, James O'Brien, a musician (he plays guitar and piano) and barkeep-turned-restaurateur. He'll tell you his passion for pizza stretches back to his youth in New Jersey and time spent in New York and New Haven, Conn., places that live and die by pies. Only after he knew pizza would be the next bullet point on his resume did he meet the man who would shed serious light on the subject: consultant Edan MacQuaid, whose dozen or so years of employment at Pizzeria Paradiso and 2 Amys -- Washington's trailblazing pizza purveyors -- give RedRocks street cred.
Following the restaurant's launch, MacQuaid spent two months at RedRocks, training its kitchen crew and passing along some of his learning. Such as: Use only extra-fine milled flour from Italy. And: The dough should be made in small batches several times a day and should never see the inside of a refrigerator. It's okay to use canned plum tomatoes for the sauce, the veteran pizzaiolo shared, but only buffalo mozzarella will do for a classic margherita pizza.
The route to a good pie includes a proper oven, and RedRocks, whose name refers to the type of bricks used to make such, has one. Its low dome and small "mouth," or opening, help retain heat (the oak-fired chamber reaches 900 degrees). To be a good pizza maker, says MacQuaid, who has moved on to another pizza project of his own, "takes lots of practice and attention to detail."
That attention to detail is evident at Red-Rocks, but not always. At their best, the pies are marvelous: yeasty but not too, thin but not too, with slightly raised rims and crusts that are singed but not scorched. Even in their weak moments, the pies are still better than Domino's. My gripes here have less to do with the base than with the decorations: mussels that taste a little tired, tomato sauce with a faint tang, toppings that appear to be rationed. Still, there's more to like than to dis, and I'd be tempted to make a habit of the "shells" pizza (named for the sweet steamed clams on a pie scattered with slices of garlic, bits of pancetta and onions) and "sausage and peppers," which features fennel sausage that's made in house.
The pre-pizza appetizer options rely on too much starch. Does anyone really want bruschetta topped with tomatoes and basil before, say, a margherita pizza, especially when the toasted slices of bread are routine eating? Or roasted potatoes with aioli, which gives the impression that RedRocks is trying to dip into the tapas craze, too? Unfortunately, the leafier alternatives aren't very compelling. The Caesar salad lacks punch, and a plate of pretty vegetables -- steamed baby carrots with their tops intact, skinny green beans that retain a nice crunch, juicy teardrop tomatoes -- is held back by a bagna cauda ("hot bath" in Italian) that no self-respecting Piedmontese cook would recognize: RedRocks's dip has too much olive oil and not enough garlic or anchovies. Better impressions come by way of herbed olives, served warm (alas, with bread), and the dairy queen of the moment, burrata. Light, white and creamy, the cheese is shiny with olive oil and tweaked with airy sea salt. Hard to resist.
Pizza is the point here, but a diner has a few other main courses to consider. A fillet of branzini is satisfying, decorated with garlicky olives, green beans, baby carrots and . . . hey, all those accessories are also appetizers! Of the panini, the chicken between slices of thick bread, slathered with romesco sauce and sweetened with soft onions, engages me most. Diners who don't eat meat strike out, though: Stiff slices of undercooked eggplant alternating with basil leaves and a bit of goat cheese taste like an attempt to convert vegetarians to the Other Side. Similarly, wine fanciers take a back seat to beer drinkers in terms of selection.
An outdoor patio is one of the few details to distinguish RedRocks from the houses that surround it in this mostly residential neighborhood. Inside, despite some attempts to make the place feel like it's been around awhile, the two-story townhouse sports a definite "new car" sheen. The wood floors gleam; the brick walls look newly set; and the black-and-white photographs of the area as it was in the '40s and '50s are arranged just so. During lunch and brunch, sun pours through the big windows. At full tilt, the hard surfaces reflect everyone's chatter. But no one seems to mind. Good pizza and chipper servers make great distractions.
RedRocks has some details to fine-tune. Pacing is one of them. Chances are high that you'll be eating your appetizer when your entree appears. Variety -- easy on the carbs, please -- is another issue. On the other hand, pizza is the purpose, and RedRocks, with a tweak here and a more generous hand there, could well become a destination for other than just its neighbors.