Game for Pizza
** 1/2 Comet Ping Pong
5037 Connecticut Ave. NW 202-364-0404
Open: dinner Tuesday through Friday 5 to 10 p.m., Saturday 5 to 10:30 p.m., Sunday 3:30 to 10 p.m. Closed Monday. AE, MC, V. No smoking. Wheelchair accessible. Metro: Tenleytown, Van Ness. Parking behind building. Prices: dinner appetizers $5 to $6, entrees $7.50 to $17.
When the old Thai Room restaurant went dark two years ago, one of its neighbors knew it wouldn't be long before someone else would move into the space. "It would be me or someone else," recalls James Alefantis, a co-owner of Buck's Fishing & Camping, the contemporary American restaurant he runs with chef Carole Greenwood. It didn't take long for the seemingly ageless restaurateur with the Peter Pan face to figure out that he'd rather be competing against himself than a stranger.
What to serve? Alefantis and Greenwood originally thought they'd devote a menu to roast chicken and call the place The Hen House. The idea of keeping some vestige of the long-running Thai restaurant intrigued them, too, and the business partners considered keeping part of its title -- but offering pizza -- at The Pie Room. In the end, chicken lost out to pizza; Alefantis found a neon sign from Comet Liquor in Adams Morgan that he couldn't live without; and the interior of the Thai Room was transformed, with a lot of sweat and a shoestring budget, into a modern-day version of yesteryear's Italian American pizza parlors, with the added attraction of a few Ping-Pong tables in the back.
Despite the paucity of decent places to eat in the vicinity, Comet Ping Pong was not an immediate hit when it opened in October. Some patrons groused that the salad-and-pizza menu was too small. Others complained that the signature pies were too expensive. I had a problem with consistency. The crust looked and tasted different from pie to pie. The service was sweet and young, but a slight air of "What are we doing?" permeated the dining room.
What a difference nine months make. Surfing a big wave of interest in pedigreed pizza that stretches from coast to coast (is there a food lover going to Los Angeles who hasn't booked ahead for a seat at Pizzeria Mozza?), Comet Ping Pong is now a brand that should be raised in any serious discussion of Washington pizza (and nostalgia).
Comet's menu hasn't grown much since the early days. There are still only two salads, one a respectable toss of mixed greens, the other a fine Caesar, both served in thin wooden bowls. They've been joined recently by an appetizer of chicken wings that remind me why I like Greenwood's food so much: She has an extraordinary way with the ordinary, as anyone who has eaten her first-class mussels, prime steak and chocolate cake at Buck's Fishing & Camping can attest. The wings at Comet are big and meaty, glossy with honey and tingling with vinegar and red pepper flakes. They are good by themselves but become addictive after a dip in horseradish sauce.
The theme is made strikingly clear before you even step inside the restaurant, thanks to the Ping-Pong table parked outside the front door. Inside, the good vibrations continue, with a maze of green tables painted to resemble Ping-Pong surfaces, lights that could pass for Ping-Pong balls on growth hormones and three Ping-Pong tables in a back room, just past a cozy bar and a stack of wood that fires Comet's igloo-shaped pizza oven. The look is natural rather than forced, and it includes whimsical details. Be sure to check out the restrooms, where artist Piero Passacantando graced the walls with fantasy Italian landscapes that show people playing table tennis.
More eye candy hangs across from the bar: 52 black-and-white photographs of just about everyone who had a hand in the restaurant's creation. That includes Joseph Wills, the metal worker responsible for the clever wood-and-metal benches in the dining room; Ed Addiss, the wine importer who finds bargains from lesser known wine regions (in this case, southwestern France); Ali Moussalli, who grows beets, chard, herbs and onions on his farm in Northern Virginia for Greenwood; and even Alefantis's mother, Susan. "She does things for me all the time," her son explains.
The appeal of such a venue is broad. Families appreciate the joint for the obvious (be warned: the sounds of restless little ones can easily outmuscle Dean Martin and Rosemary Clooney on the soundtrack), and the stargazing can be prime. Among the VIP regulars are ballet director Septime Webre and talking head Tucker Carlson, but even Donald Rumsfeld has dropped by for a pie.
I know, I know. You're wondering about the pizza. Comet's pies are intended to reflect the childhood memories of Greenwood (who grew up in suburban New York and Washington) and Alefantis (who was raised in Buffalo and Washington). As such, the crust is thin and crisp, with a flavor distinct from so much of the competition because of the chef's mix of Italian pizza flour and whole wheat flour. The base is seasoned with garlic-infused olive oil before toppings are applied, and the round is slipped into an oven that hovers between 600 and 700 degrees. No ordinary base decoration will do: Greenwood makes her pies using fresh mozzarella cheese made from the milk of Jersey cows, hence the cheese's pale yellow hue, and a sauce that she made from the 2,000 or so pounds of tomatoes she got from farmer Mark Toigo and flavored with basil, garlic and a bit of honey before canning them at a Pennsylvania facility.
The bronzed and bubbling results show up as large ovals or rectangles, cut into squares and presented on wax paper-covered silver trays. The toppings typically include something meaty (spicy sausage with garlic and fresh mozzarella) and something not (wilted greens scattered with black olives and mild ricotta), but they also change to take advantage of what beckons in the market. In late spring, I was tearing through asparagus, thin slices of crisp potato and fontina cheese, a lovely nod to the season that tasted as good as it looked. More recently, whole soft shell crabs decorated my crust, an idea Greenwood says she got from chef Jeff Buben by way of chef Roberto Donna. (Diners trying to get some assistance from the staff on how to tackle soft shell crabs on a crust don't get much help. Experience has taught me to slice right through the little beasts, which enriches the pie with their tasty liquid innards.) Another hit from the water is the pizza sprinkled with tender little clams, soft onions and fresh thyme. Additional toppings cost a dollar or two; one of the more unusual and delicious: mushrooms smoked over the grill at Buck's.
Dessert is another recent addition to Comet, and you'll want to save room for it: vanilla, chocolate and mint chocolate chip ice cream is churned by the locally owned Moorenko's Ice Cream according to Comet's specifications and is offered by the scoop, as part of a root beer float or in a sundae in a silver dish. Plan to go all the way -- good sundaes are hard to find. I'm keen on vanilla ice cream heaped with swollen strawberries, but others at my tables say the Tin Roof, with its warm chocolate sauce and roasted peanuts, makes them swoon.
Truth be told, though, the best finish I ever had at Comet Ping Pong was yet another pizza.
To chat with Tom Sietsema online, go to washingtonpost.com on Wednesdays at 11 a.m.