At Seventh Hill, pizza and passion The owners of Montmarte go Italian

Pie maker Anthony Pilla spins pizza dough in the air at Seventh Hill Pizza in Washington, D.C. June 2010.
Pie maker Anthony Pilla spins pizza dough in the air at Seventh Hill Pizza in Washington, D.C. June 2010. (Stacy Zarin Goldbe)
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By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, July 25, 2010

"I'm having such a great day," says the slender, sweat-beaded pizza-maker behind the counter of Seventh Hill. "I love what I do!'

Anthony Pilla's passion pours forth every time someone requests a pie. That's the 23-year-old cook's prompt to put on a show for anyone lucky enough to be sitting on a lemon-yellow stool at the wooden bar, where the view captures a glowing stone oven and Pilla's flour-dusted stainless-steel work station.

See Pilla gently press a ball of dough from the center outward, turning it counterclockwise as he moves. Now watch him lift the dough from the table and move it back and forth. When he tosses a round in the air, it's with the nimble grace of Astaire.

The pizzaiolo's enthusiasm rubs off on his audience. The old men, the young women and the guys in ties (hey, this is Capitol Hill) standing in line to place their orders can't help but feel a bit cheerier than when they stepped inside this tiny pizzeria, which is next to, and run by the owners of, the more upscale French-accented Montmartre. (They had considered opening a wine bar or rotisserie in the former Ben & Jerry's ice cream parlor but figured a pizzeria made the most sense for the small space and put Pilla, who had been at Montmartre but missed pizzamaking, in the kitchen.)

I've never met a pizza I haven't fallen in lust with at Seventh Hill, where the names of the dozen or so signature pies reflect the immediate area. The Lincoln Park is meatless with artichokes, zucchini and portobello mushrooms. The Union Station gets cheesy with Gorgonzola, pecorino and goat cheese. The Navy Yard, meanwhile, is racy with sausage and oregano. Be sure to check out the specials, printed on a chalkboard paddle on the wall. Not long ago, a combination of juicy chopped clams, threads of baby arugula and bright pesto stole my heart, at least until my next visit, when the SW Waterfront caught my eye. I'm a sucker for anchovies and olives, which ignite the pie's surface along with tomatoes and basil.

All of the pizzas have one item in common: stellar crusts. Pilla refers to his crusts as a cross between Neapolitan and Roman. I know them as thin and pliant, with a puffy lip, or end crust. Every bite hints of yeast, whispers of char from the fire --and compels you to keep eating.

In the fashion of true Italian cooking, Seventh Hill takes the approach that simple is more. The trim, 20-seat dining room reinforces its theme with small metal pizza pans doubling as sconces and plain wooden paddles fanned across the walls. Seventh Hill, which includes a front patio with another 25 seats, takes its name from both its Washington address and the seven hills upon which so many great cities, from Rome to Moscow, have risen.

I was disinclined to get a panini until I had eaten my way through every pizza on the menu. That would have been a huge mistake, because the bread for the sandwiches, which come in a handful of varieties, is baked to order in the same hickory-fired oven as the pizzas. The saucer-size wrappers are puffy, warm and scented with olive oil steeped with rosemary and garlic. Grated Parmesan adds depth and crackle to the bread. The Italian panini was lavished with inches of mortadella, salami, provolone and tingling hot red cherry peppers. The vegetarian version tempted me to turn in my carnivore card: Packed with roasted red peppers, creamy mozzarella, artichokes, eggplant and that summery pesto, the hefty handful was a mess to eat but sheer pleasure going down.

The soups change daily; those I've tried have been first-rate. On one of the hottest days of the year, dipping into a big bowl of white grape gazpacho -- delicately sweet with fruit but also intriguing with celery, mint and almond milk -- was as refreshing as wading into a mountain stream. "I wish I could take credit for it," says Pilla, who nods in the direction of his bosses, chef Stephane Lezla and manager Christophe Raynal at the neighboring Montmartre. Soups are served in an outsize bowl with a round of warm bread -- Pilla calls it "love bread" -- turning something simple into something sensational (and more of a meal).

There are a couple of salads, but greens are a lesser draw. A mound of arugula splashed with balsamic vinegar and finished with shards of pecorino makes a better impression than the mesclun topped with ringlets of dry carrot. Both salads are served in such large portions that they spill out of their containers. "Stick with pizza," a pal whispered after eating just a few forkfuls. I felt the same way after trying one of the few desserts, a vague cantaloupe panna cotta.

There aren't waiters at Seventh Hill so much as there are people who pour another glass of wine or clear dishes from the table. "Pretty much self-serve, but we like to help out," Pilla says. He responds to a diner's request to take home leftovers by handing her an empty pizza carton and sharing a crack: "I'd be offended if you left any!"

Seventh Hill is meant to be casual. Even so, I'd love to see it emulate the competition a bit with better starters, a broader selection of wine and sweeter endings. On the other hand, Seventh Hill has something none of its rivals do: a rising star in Pilla.

Two stars (Good)

Seventh Hill Pizza, 327 Seventh St. SE. 202-544-1911.

Open: 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday, noon to 9 p.m. Sunday. Major credit cards.

Metro: Eastern Market.

Prices: Salads and soup $6 to $6.50, eight-inch pizzas $9.95 to $10.95, 12-inch pizzas $15.95 to $16.95.

Sound check: 73 decibels/must speak with raised voice

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