In a squat, white brick building off Little River Turnpike in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, Valentino's looks as if it has been airlifted from Queens. In spirit, it has. Co-owner and New York native Armando Afzali makes dough and sauce as his family has for years at joints in the Big Apple -- with one difference. "New York tap water . . . works well for pizza," he says. "Here, we use spring water to get the dough nice and soft, like butter. When you eat it, it melts in your mouth."
At lunch, Valentino's is packed with locals along with a hearty contingent of federal workers and Secret Service and police officers, Afzali says. (Friends occasionally call to make sure everything is all right, because the parking lot is full of cop cars.)
The restaurant offers a broad menu of pasta, subs and salads, but what most people go for, at least by our accounting one busy lunchtime, is the pizza. The dough is made in-house several times a day, as is the sauce, which has the natural sweetness of high-quality tomatoes. Valentino's offers all the usuals: white, pepperoni, vegetarian and a Meataterian, loaded with slices of Italian sausage (not the crumbly commercial stuff), homemade meatballs, pepperoni and ham. Modern pies -- topped with buffalo chicken, for example -- also make an appearance (slices $2.35 to $4.25; 20-inch pies $14.95 to $27.95).
The slices are huge and seriously filling: A 20-inch pie could feed two hungry teenagers or eight normal people. The pepperoni pie wore an authentic thin layer of grease; one topped with spinach, artichoke and mushrooms was fresh and tasted almost healthy. But our favorite was the Sicilian-style Papa Joe's (slice $3.75, 16-by-16-inch pie $24.95), which is named for Afzali's father. It has a crisp, airy crust and is topped with tomatoes, herbs and red onion.
The Valentino salad also was a treat, though the tomato slice anchoring it -- topped with roasted peppers, roasted tomatoes, mozzarella and basil -- tasted like December. Our only serious complaint was with the garlic knots ($2.75 per half-dozen). One taster greedily bit into one of the rolls, and olive oil squirted everywhere. But in the end, every one was eaten.
-- Jane Black (Dec. 12, 2007)