Tom Sietsema: Menomale, Pupatella, Pizza CS
By Tom Sietsema,
The recipe for true Neapolitan pizza is pretty simple. You have to use a wood-burning oven. Only San Marzano tomatoes are allowed. As for the crust, no more than four ingredients — supersoft flour, sea salt, fresh yeast and water — can apply.
Among a recent wave of subscribers are Menomale in the District, Pizza CS in Rockville and Pupatella in Arlington. Each dough-spinner follows the rules spelled out by Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, dedicated to preserving “real Neapolitan pizza” (Vera Pizza Napoletana, or VPN). And each restaurant adds something special to the scene.
Caterer Leland Estes and pizzaiolo Ettore Rusciano left their jobs in San Francisco last fall, put everything they owned in a U-Haul and drove across the country to capitalize on Washington’s restaurant-barren Brookland. Once there, they took a sad TV shop and, using their own hands, turned the storefront into a sunny pizza parlor.
Rolled out in May, Menomale is fewer than 30 seats in two cramped rooms. But they pack in a lot of pleasure. The front room, basically a hallway dominated by a 6,000-pound white oven, is Rusciano’s domain. Turn the corner, and you find a slip of a bar made with lumber the owners scored free in Baltimore, a photograph of the Bay of Naples at night and a chalkboard that reveals Leland’s sudsy passion. “I’m a beer nerd,” says the dispenser of 10 beers on tap, 10 by the bottle (plus some swell cocktails).
Tip No. 1: Starters tend to be outsize, and little of what I’ve sampled — unwieldy marinated seafood, caprese salad with cottony tomatoes — is worth taking space away from Rusciano’s typically thin, lightly blistered and pleasantly yeasty pizzas. There are more than a dozen, including a zippy Diavola scattered with spicy salami and peperoncino. Tip No. 2: You’re missing half the fun if you don’t imbibe or at least listen to Estes expound on his favorite subject. Smashed Blueberry, a hybrid between a porter and a Scotch ale, smells like a warm fruit pie but tastes of chocolate and coffee; Baladin Nora Sour is an Egyptian-inspired brew from Italy that hints of coriander.
Estes says “menomale” is Italian for “thank goodness.” Which is precisely how residents of Brookland — but also pizza and beer nuts outside those borders — must feel about this fresh slice of bliss.
Friends Ankur Rajpara and Jon Allen knew they wanted to go into some kind of food business together when they met up at Two Amy’s three years ago. What could you eat every day? they asked one another.
The answer was as clear as the pie on their plates: Neapolitan pizza. It would take Rajpara, a former real estate developer in Dubai, and Allen, a restaurant manager, until November 2011 to launch Pizza CS in Rockville. (The letters stand for “come sempre,” “like always.”) In that time, Rajpara learned the art of the art at the VPN training school in California.
The two business partners tend to be the first things you see when you walk into their pizza parlor. Inevitably, Rajpara is scattering ingredients on a round of dough, and invariably, Allen is taking orders, handing over numbered cards and dispensing easy-drinking wine for those who want something stronger than Diet Coke. Looming behind them is an oak-fired oven made by third-generation craftsmen from Italy using clay from volcanic ash from Mount Vesuvius.
The menu is concise, with just a handful of salads preceding the main event. Baby spinach tossed with pancetta, red onion and Gorgonzola dressing would be better if the mix weren’t served in a small metal bowl, just as the pizza would be easier to slice if the knives weren’t flimsy.
None of this is on my mind when the pizza hits my tongue. One happy distraction, the beautifully charred Moto pizza, a white pie, combines petals of Brussels sprouts, pancetta and mozzarella. Another diversion is the simple, satisfying margherita, notable for its tangy tomato sauce and raised lip.
A local product is scooped up for dessert: ice cream from JJ Hoffman’s Creamery in Carroll County. And helping to occupy the youngsters while mom and dad finish their meal are foosball and shuffleboard tables in back.
“Pizza Addicts Only” declares the sign on the door of Pupatella .
If you’re not a convert when you walk in, you will be by the time you devour the last scrap of crust here. Enzo Algarme, who owns the two-room storefront with his partner in business and life, Anastasiya Laufenberg, was born in Naples, where he grew up hanging around some of the city’s 200 or so pizza joints.
He borrows a late relative’s nickname for his signage. Pupatella, he says, is “what everybody called my grandmother in Italy.”
It would be a challenge not to be charmed by the place, which opens with an orange couch and counter seating near the front window and moves on to a red igloo of an oven stoked by hat-wearing cooks, one of them Algarme. A ding! of a bell signals a pie is ready. The standing menu of red and white pies runs nearly 20 flavors long; rugged chorizo, red onion rings and velvety red peppers could become a habit. Some neighbors lovingly bring fresh figs from their own trees, which Algarme incorporates into a popular “fig & pig” pizza using prosciutto. Now that’s local. No matter the topping, the crusts are the kind you could eat by themselves: a little smoky, fragrant with yeast, never soupy in the center.
Of the new crop of Neapolitan joints, Pupatella, which originated as a food truck in 2007 and matured into bricks-and-mortar three years later, offers the biggest menu. If you want to take a detour from pizza, try a pasta or special (maybe wispy squash blossoms).
The fried stuff is as good as the baked. Crisp arancini filled with meaty eggplant and soft mozzarella are a favorite splurge, but even the fried mozzarella balls teach us something: The snack doesn’t have to taste industrial. (Fresh mozzarella and tangy marinara sauce help.) The starters come out fast, one of many explanations for the young families that pack Pupatella, dressed with orange booths, red and white globe lights and a small bar in its cozier second dining room. Sold!