Dinner Deals Meals Under $15

Dinner Deals: Cafe Pizzaiolo in Alexandria

By Julia Beizer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 25, 2009

At a glance: When Larry Ponzi and his wife, Christine, moved to the Washington area from Upstate New York, they knew something was missing from the local restaurant scene. "It seemed to be hard to find just a good comfort Italian [restaurant], so I would make a lot of that at home," says Ponzi, 40.

After living in the area for more than a decade, the Ponzis set out to fill that void. They opened Cafe Pizzaiolo in Crystal City in January 2007 and then Pizzaiolo Cafe & Bar in Del Ray in November 2008.

The newer restaurant offers two distinct experiences. Belly up to the U-shaped bar and you'll be surrounded by neighbors, particularly on Tuesdays, when pizzas are buy one, get one free. The space is small and pubby, and at night, most eyes are glued to the flat-screen televisions. The large dining room is a nice counterpart. Filled with natural light, the room is family-friendly with lots of high chairs and a shelf full of board games. Larry, a father of two younger than 10, says he wanted to make parents with young children feel welcome and not merely tolerated.

The distinctive contemporary paintings in the dining room might seem a bit out of place next to chalkboards announcing desserts and drinks, but there's a neat story there. Local artist David Jung is Christine's brother. He lent the couple a few of his older works to help decorate the place.

On the menu: Let's start with pizza. Pizzaiolo offers two types: New York style and the Neapolitan. Both are thin-crust pies, but the use of a sourdough starter lends a chewiness to the New York variety. A Caprese pizza's minimalist mix of basil strips, diced tomatoes and rounds of mozzarella lets the airy Neapolitan crust shine through. Experience the New York crust in a hearty pie topped with spicy sausage and cooling ribbons of roasted red and yellow peppers. (The kitchen deploys roasted peppers the way some cooks employ herb garnishes. They appear on salads, sandwiches and a bready bruschetta.) Both crusts come nicely singed.

Mozzarella sticks steal the appetizer show. Made in-house, these long fingers of deep-fried mozzarella put standard-issue, Irish-pub cheese sticks to shame. Like the lighter silver-dollar-shaped zucchini fritters, the starter comes with a bright, chunky marinara dipping sauce.

Lasagna Bolognese arrives in a piping hot casserole dish drenched in cheese. The gooey blanket could overdose even the most dedicated cheeseaholic, but it's comforting in the way this particular pasta dish should be.

Salads are especially good here. Mixed greens serve as the basis for all, except the lemony Caesar, which rests on curls of romaine. Salads come in two sizes, but even the small is a hearty portion, good for a first course or as an accompaniment to one of the toasted ciabatta sandwiches. I like the Italian sub for its folds of spicy meats, soft provolone and sharp red onion.

At your service: On a busy night at the bar, staffers can easily get overwhelmed and forget about your table, but on the whole, especially in the dining room, service is attentive and helpful.

What to avoid: The pesto pizza lacked the robust flavor of basil and felt weighed down by a slippery sauce and too many watery toppings. The chips provided with sandwiches are lackluster, but don't choose fries as an alternative. The pudgy potato sticks are beefy and listless. "Cold" was the only adjective that popped to mind as I tasted the chocolate ganache cheesecake; opt for gelato instead.

Wet your whistle: The restaurant offers plenty of Italian wines by the bottle and glass, bottle and draft beers, soda and oversize cups of coffee.

Bottom Line: The Ponzis wanted comfort food, and with Pizzaiolo Cafe & Bar, they have delivered. The dining room is a great setting for a family meal away from home.

Pizzaiolo Cafe & Bar
3112 Mount Vernon Ave., Alexandria
Contact: 703-837-0666. http://www.cafepizzaiolo.com.
Hours: Daily from 11 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. The bar is open until midnight.
Prices: Appetizers $3.25-$7.50, entrees $6.95-$17.95
Wheelchair access: Good
Kid-friendly: Very. The restaurant doesn't have a dedicated children's menu, but it offers small pizzas, mac and cheese, pasta with sauce on the side and other kid-friendly fare.

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