Where’s the wheat? On the hunt for the area’s best gluten-free pizza

A gluten-free vegetarian pizza from Pete's Apizza. (Photo by Anne Farrar/The Washington Post)

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The first time I considered ordering a gluten-free pizza at a restaurant, I asked the waiter if it was any good. “That depends,” he answered. “Are you gluten-free by choice or necessity?”

Why would it matter, I wondered. His reply: “If you can have gluten, you’ll think it’s awful. But if you can’t, you’ll say it’s the best pizza you’ve ever eaten.”

Where to find gluten-free beer

Where to find gluten-free beer

Nothing washes down pizza quite like a cold one. Even if it’s a gluten-free beer.

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He was right. After months without tasting that quintessential combination of flavors, sinking my teeth into that slice at Comet Ping Pong felt like curling up next to the fireplace in my childhood home; it was warm, familiar and comforting, and I never wanted it to end. Given that my fellow diners called the pie “gummy,” my receptors were probably confounded by my wheat-starved taste buds. But since that day, and through the recent explosion of gluten-free dining options, I’ve realized that some local restaurants serving gluten-free pies really do deserve praise (on top of the accolades they should receive for catering to us high-maintenance diners at all). Some are celebrated by celiacs and those who are gluten intolerant and at least tolerated by our less-cursed brethren.

So after we asked our gluten-free readers to tell us their favorite pizza spots, we sent gluten-loving writers on a mission to taste the wheat-free pies and offer their take.

Read on for details on the most praised pizzas according to feedback from our blog, Facebook, Twitter and e-mail, plus a point-counterpoint on each pie.

(EDITOR’S NOTE: Most of the restaurants mentioned in this story do not operate in a gluten-free environment. Celiacs should be aware that there is a risk dining anywhere that uses gluten-containing ingredients, especially restaurants that serve pizza, where flour might be in the air.)

Pete’s Apizza

How they do it: Pete’s has been serving up gluten-free crusts, made in-house daily, since its first shop opened in 2008. Co-founder Joel Mehr had a friend with celiac disease, and he wanted to have a pizza for her and others in her situation. That’s why the pizza is called Kyra’s Favorite. (Pete’s also sells gluten-free pasta, cookies and tiramisu, plus vegan cheese.) The recipe has evolved over the years; it’s now a dough made from tapioca starch, chickpea flour and rice flour that’s parbaked before toppings are added. The restaurant uses separate pans and utensils for the pies.

What readers said: “What I really like about Pete’s is they do not stand pat in their never-ending search for the perfect crust. After all, any place can have fresh mozzarella or other great toppings, but when it comes to gluten-free crust, that’s what separates the excellent pizzas from the wannabes. Pete’s also knows how to bake the crust to get just the right texture to let you eat it with knife and fork or pick it up like a New Yorker.” — Jerry Malitz, former president of DC Metro Celiac Organization

What Weekend editor Amy Joyce said: Being an ardent Pete’s fan, I ordered the gluten-free pizza with great trepidation, partly because my young children were going to be eating it. I feared they would see right through my attempt at getting something different. The 12-inch round — the only size the gluten-free pie comes in — was gobbled up as quickly as the traditional pizzas we usually order. The crust’s texture was a little grainy (or sawdusty, as I later described to a friend). But it was still chewy, warm and satisfying. As one who likes thin crust, it worked for me; the edges were crispy and almost cracker-like. The cheese and sauce complemented the crust, and gave only a hint at the somewhat peculiar nature of what we were eating. A true sign that this gluten-free pizza passed the test: We actually ordered a second pie and our fridge was leftover-free.

Price: One size only; 12-inch pies start
at $14.

Locations: 3017 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 1400 Irving St. NW; 4940 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 962 Wayne Ave.,
Silver Spring. www.petesapizza.com.

Lost Dog Cafe

How they do it: Lost Dog gets its thicker crusts from Still Riding Pizza, which uses a blend of bean flour, rice flour and tapioca flour. (That company also sources Menomale, Comet Ping Pong and Open City, among others.) The crusts arrive individually packaged and are kept in the freezer. The restaurant has separate pans and slicers for its gluten-free creations.

What readers said: The Gluten-Free VIP Meetup group went with Lost Dog pies for a recent get-together. “Lost Dog cafe is great. They delivered our pizza on time and gave us every single ingredient in their pizzas when we requested them to. It had a thin crust which brought a New York Pizza-touch to it. I wouldn’t imagine any other gluten-free pizza as good as Lost Dog,” said group organizer Nica de Leos.

What Food section writer Becky Krystal said: Lost Dog Cafe’s gluten-free pizza crust is a tale of two textures. The bottom is crispy, which with a bite yields to a soft, doughy crumb. The crust is on the sweet side, though not in a bad way when paired with tomato sauce. I missed the elastic chew and fermented flavor of the traditional crust. But the gluten-free option should be an acceptable substitute for those avoiding wheat. Just be warned: Eat the gluten-free pizza while it’s still hot; once cold, it loses the crispy bottom, goes a bit gummy and sticks to your teeth — nothing a swig of one of the cafe’s (gluten-free!) beers can’t fix.

Price: One size only; individual (9-inch) pies start at $12.95.

Locations: 5876 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 2920 Columbia Pike, Arlington; 1690A Anderson Rd., McLean. www.lostdogcafe.com.

Rustico

How they do it: Rustico makes its chickpea-flour-based crust in-house daily and takes pride in educating its servers about gluten intolerance and other allergies. Chefs use separate utensils, and the pies are placed on special baking sheets before they’re put in the oven to ensure the pizza doesn’t touch surfaces where traditional pies have rested.

What readers said: “Rustico is really, really great, a definite A+. I can’t remember particulars and for me that’s a good thing because I felt like I was eating a regular pizza. They do it more on the thin side in the pizza oven, so it was thin and crispy, not cardboard tasting like other gluten-free pizzas.” — Sabrina Morelli

What Food section writer Tim Carman said: The gluten-free dough at Rustico is prepared with chickpea and tapioca flours, which combine to create a kind of salty pinto bean flavor. You could do worse. The crust, of course, has little rise and no chewiness because it has no gluten structure (although the recipe includes xanthan gum and gelatin powder to try to mimic the elasticity of gluten). Biting into the crust is like biting into a Fig Newton: sort of pleasurable on its own, especially if you can somehow forget the soft chewy pull of all the pizzas you have eaten before.

Price: One size only; 11-inch pies start
at $13.

Locations: 827 Slaters Lane, Alexandria; 4075 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. www.rusticorestaurant.com.

District of Pi

How they do it: The restaurant is known for its deep-dish pizzas, but the gluten-free pies have a thin, crispy base. The crusts are made by Minnesota’s French Meadow Bakery and contain rice flour, tapioca flour, potato starch and egg whites, among other ingredients. The restaurant has designated cutters, paddles and equipment for gluten-free pie-making.

What readers said: “It only comes in small and thin crust, but I think it’s better than their regular thin crust. The Hill [mozzarella, pepperoni, salami, onions, green bell peppers, kalamata olives and banana peppers] is our favorite, followed by the Maplewood [mozzarella, house-made spicy italian sausage, cherry peppers, fontina, fresh basil].” — Katelynd Mahoney

What Weekend writer Maura Judkis said: The gluten-free crust at District of Pi, which comes in a perfectly matte color I can describe as manila envelope, is not bad — it’s just inferior to its wheated cousin, which offers a greater multitude of textures, from chewy to crispy to crunchy. Throughout dinner, my companion and I played a guessing game called “What Does This Taste Like,” with answers that included matzoh, hospital food and, from a former Hill intern, “pizza from the Senate cafeteria.” But finally, we were able to pinpoint the exact flavor: DiGiorno. Like the famously advertised frozen pizza, it’s not delivery, but it’s not much better.

Price: One size only; 10-inch pies start at $11.95.

Location: 910 F St. NW. www.pi-dc.com.

Fire Works Pizza

How they do it: The crust is made in-house daily using tapioca flour, rice flour and potato starch. One of the few restaurants that offers gluten-free pizzas in multiple sizes, the restaurant also takes additional precautions with working surfaces and utensils to cut down on cross-contamination.

What readers said: “I love Fire Works because it is fresh and not a frozen crust that most restaurants use. Their crust is not super heavy — a lot of gluten free bread items are really dense (almost like rocks) and that takes away from the actual pizza and topping. Fire Works gluten free crust is thin, similar to New York style. Bonus: It looks like regular pizza. When you order a regular pizza and a gluten free pizza at Fire Works it looks virtually the same, and you could not tell the difference, whereas at other restaurants you could spot from a mile away which pizza was gluten free.” — Courtney Mesmer, president of DC Metro Celiac Organization

What Weekend writer Fritz Hahn said: Fireworks’ gluten-free pizza actually looks more like a gluten-free flatbread. Whereas the “regular” pizza has a puffy, blistered-and-blackened crust, the gluten-less version is thin, with almost no perceptible ridge along its circumference. The crisp, almost crackerlike crust has a noticeable sweetness, which I’m guessing comes from the tapioca flour that is the base of the dough. It’s an interesting flavor that plays well with zesty tomato sauce, garlic and basil.

Price: Available in two sizes — 10-inch and 14-inch; prices start at $11.50 and $18.

Locations: 2350 Clarendon Blvd., Arlington; 201 Harrison St. SE, Leesburg. www.fireworkspizza.com.

ZPizza

How they do it: Locations of this chain outsource crust creation and then freeze their imports. Ingredients include rice flour, tapioca flour, potato flour and potato flakes, and the restaurants use separate working spaces, plus special pans and utensils for their gluten-free pies.

What readers said: “My favorite is Zpizza. They have great toppings, and I love that it’s a lighter pie. I don’t feel quite as bad eating it frequently.” — Whitney Sayce

What deputy Food section editor Bonnie Benwick said: Eat it fast. That’s the best way to tackle Zpizza’s classic cheese pie with organic tomato sauce, low-fat mozzarella cheese and a gluten-free crust. This store receives boxes of pre-made gluten-free dough rounds and is careful to note that it’s “not a gluten-free environment.” A 10-inch thin-crust, dinner-plate-size pizza emerges from the deck oven with edges that remain crisp for about three minutes before they devolve to chewy (not in a good way) and tough. The sweet-ish sauce and cheese are sparingly applied. After a 20-minute ride home, the boxed gluten-free pizza congeals to a state of plasticized flying disk.

Price: Available in two sizes — 10-inch and 14-inch; prices start at $9.25 and $16.95 at the Washington location.

Locations: Multiple locations in Washington, Virginia and Maryland. www.zpizza.com.

Honorable mentions:

“My favorite in this area is One Dish Cuisine (8001 Hillsborough Rd., Ellicott City).
It is a thin crust and really tastes like pizza, at least according to those who have dined
with me.” — Dayna Pachman

“My wife is Gluten Free, so therefore most of the time I am gluten free. [One of] our
favorite gluten-free pizzas in the District is at Pizza No. 17 (1523 17th St. NW), north
of Dupont Circle.” — Andrew Patrick

“My favorite is Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza (610 Ninth St. NW), across from the Portrait Gallery.
Hand-stretched, tasty, durable, well-topped, and wood-fired — my partner said it tasted better than the wheat crust. Haven’t found a better one, although I’m still waiting for a deep-dish gluten-free pizza.” — Kent Forrester

“Fuel’s (three District locations) gluten-free pizza is legit. It actually tastes like normal,
thin-crust pizza. My gluten-loving boyfriend agreed.” — Veronica Hohenstein

“In the area, I enjoy Ledo Pizza (multiple area locations) the most. It has a thicker crust,
along with the Ledo sauce.” — Chris Coneeney

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that none of the restaurants mentioned operate in a gluten-free environment. One of the honorable mentions, One Dish Cuisine in Ellicott City, is a completely gluten-free facility certified by the Celiac Sprue Association.

 
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