ASK any pizza snob about Washington pizza and he'll laugh cynically. Then he'll tell you where to get the best pizza in town.
Thus, we recently polled pizza connoisseurs, amassed two dozen favorites from around the area and stacked them against each other in a three-day tasting. Conclusion: Although Washington doesn't have great pizza, it has a few ambitious efforts worthy of note and, even among the most highly touted, some disasters of which to be wary.
People around this town swear by their regular Friday night sustenance. And they are faithful to their favorites, we found: Ex-New Yorkers find it hard to swallow Prince George's County pizza with its flaky, pie dough-like crust loaded with heavy layers of cheese. Italian-Americans find deep dish pizzas too chewy and bready for their liking. And those raised on Chicago-style pizza insist there isn't enough crust on the D.C. versions to handle the thick, stew-like sauces that put Chicago-style pizza on the map. Still, we were able to draw some conclusions about the Washington pizza picture.
Predictably, there are far more mediocre pizzas around town than there are stars. These are the middle-of-the-road pizzas: thin-crusted, topped with average sauces and cheeses. Pizza made memorable because of whom you're sharing it with more than because of what you're eating. We left them off our list for reasons of space. While no one recommended chain pizzas, we felt compelled to add one to our tasting anyway; from Pizza Hut on Lee Highway in Arlington, it drew complaints of a crackery, thin crust and salty sauce.
When you're talking eccentric pizza, though, Maryland--and Prince George's County in particular--takes the biggest slice of the pie. Several pizzas from that area were similar, with square crusts made of short pastry; Gentleman Jim's went so far as to top its sauce with swiss cheese. These pizzas are not for eating cold. They must be tasted straight from the oven lest their crusts turn from flaky and light to gloppy or brittle (depending on their thickness).
One of the prettiest pizzas we found was on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington at Pizza 'n Pasta--a traditional thin-crusted Italian pizza with an even, thin layer of tomato sauce and mild cheese. We were surprised, though, to find that one of the least-liked pizzas came from Pizza 'n Pasta's branch on Lee Highway with its new oak oven, which rendered a flat, plain pizza with a soggy dough.
Crusts, we found, were the single most important factor for pizza evaluators. From the District, it was startling to note, some of the highly recommended pizzas arrived with underdone crusts. Fio's traditional Italian pizza was praised for its strong garlic flavor, but we couldn't help noticing the slightly soggy, underdone crust. Uno's in Georgetown, famous for its Chicago-style deep dish pizza, had a heavy, crumbly crust that was so undercooked it collapsed under the thick layer of cheese and sauce. But then A.V. Ristorante Italiano, in the District, Pines of Rome, in Bethesda and Generous George's Positive Pizza Palace in Alexandria proved what good, fresh-tasting crust could be.
There aren't any nouvelle pizzas in the Washington area that we could find. The closest we could come to unusual toppings were Italian tuna and a few whole cloves of garlic--no caviar or double crusts anywhere. So for simplicity's sake we decided to taste plain cheese and tomato pizzas, our reasoning being that while toppings are important, they are secondary to fresh sauces and doughs. From the two dozen samples, here are the best in each jurisdiction in alphabetical order: DISTRICT
A.V. Ristorante Italiano, 607 New York Ave. NW, 737-0550. Open weekdays, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sat., 11:30 to midnight; Sundays closed. Traditional Italian pizza, with a thin, round crust. It had a nice, homey look with an uneven, slightly browned, fresh and chewy crust. The top was loaded with dried herbs which added to its popularity. Many thought the sauce was a little too sharp. The mozzarella cheese was upstaged by the liberal sprinkling of fresh parmesan.
Geppetto, 2917 M St. NW, 333-2602. Open Mon. through Thurs., noon to 11:30 p.m.; Fri and Sat., noon to 1:30 a.m.; Sun., 4 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. An attractive deep-dish pizza. Wonderfully messy with mounds of soft, oozy cheese. The sauce was tangy and juicy, although some tasters found it to be a little salty. The crust had good fresh flavor, but because of its thickness, was slightly bready and soft.
Vace Italian Delicatessen & Homemade Pasta, 3510 Connecticut Ave. Open Mon. through Sat., 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Traditional Italian pizza--round with even, thin layers of sauce highly seasoned with oregano and mild cheese. The crust was thin and toothy. While tasters enjoyed this pizza, they felt it lacked an overall balance between sauce, cheese and crust.
Zebra Room, 3228 Wisconsin Ave. NW, 362-8307. Open Mon. through Fri., 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 8 a.m. to midnight. This was a cute, unsophisticated-looking pizza. The crust was sweet and very thin, a short dough that turned brittle when cold. The sauce was garlicky but lacking herbs, and there was lots of good-flavored cheese. MARYLAND
Gentleman Jim's, 2005 Viers Mill Rd., Rockville, 762-3440. Open Mon. through Sat., 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. One of Maryland's quirky square pizzas with a thick, flaky crust that turned gummy when it sat too long. The shocking layer of sharp swiss cheese and the thin, sweet sauce proved to be a bit much for some tasters; but others said, favorably, that it was like being time-warped back to high school.
Italia (delicatessen), 8662 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring, 588-6999. Open Mon. through Sat., 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Pizza is available on Fridays during lunch; at other times, with two hours advance notice. The good news about this traditional Italian pizza is the fresh basil sprinkled over a sweet, slightly salty sauce. The bad news is the crust, which was bready and chewy, and the mild-flavored cheese, which separated from the body of the pizza, throwing off the balance of this pretty pie.
Ledo Restaurant, 2420 University Blvd., Hyattsville, 422-8622. Open Mon. through Sat., 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; Sun., 9 a.m. to midnight. The cheese was the most interesting part of this pizza, with its smoky flavor. The sauce was thick, quite sweet and slightly salty. Tasters tended to love or hate this pizza, though the balance tipped downward as the flaky crust grew cold and spongy.
Little Italy Pizzeria, 4402 St. Barnabas Rd., Marlow Heights ("In the heart of little Detroit"), 423-4234. Open Mon. through Thurs., 11 a.m. to midnight; Fri. and Sat., 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.; Sun., noon to midnight. This traditional Italian pizza generally was well-received. Still, tasters felt the sauce wasn't tangy enough and they wanted more of the flavorful cheese. The crust was thin, but it left most tasters chewing more and swallowing less than they would have liked.
Pines of Rome, 4709 Hampden Lane, Bethesda, 657-8775. Open Mon. through Sat., 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. to 10 p.m. This was a beautiful pie: round, fresh and professional-looking. The sauce was full of the flavor of lightly cooked tomatoes but it stopped short with a slightly rubbery crust and the too-thin layer of cheese.
Sola d' Italia, 14324 Layhill Rd., Silver Spring. Open Mon. through Wed., 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Thurs. and Sun., 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., Fri. and Sat., 11 a.m. to midnight. This pizza was a nice package: There was a thin veneer of mild-tasting cheese and the sauce was salty with just a tease of dried herbs. The crust, though, was doughy and chewy. VIRGINIA
Generous George's Positive Pizza Plaza, 3006 Duke St., Alexandria, 370-4303. Open every day, 10 a.m. to midnight or so. This was a huge puffy pizza with inch-high edges and two inches of tasty crust to chew through before you got to the goodies. The sauce was tangy, and the tasters wanted more of it--along with the average cheese--to help balance out the thick crust. The hefty sprinkling of dried oregano was a winning touch.
Mario's Pizza House, 3322 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 525-0200. Open weekdays, 8 a.m. to 2 a.m.; weekends, 8 a.m. to 4 a.m. This pizza in the style of Prince George's County had a lot of character with a square flaky, chewy crust. The thick layer of cheese grew rubbery but still was complimented for its smoothness and good taste. The sauce, not a simple tomato sauce, was cooked down, rich and dark. Like the other square pizzas, it drew strong responses, both positive and negative.
Pizza 'n Pasta, 2131 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, 527-5658; Open Mon. through Thurs., 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.; Fri., 11:30 to midnight; Sat., 4 p.m. to midnight. Closed Sunday. The prettiest traditional Italian pizza we found. A round, thin, good-flavored crust that was slightly underdone in the center and brown and crusty at the edges. The sauce was tangy with a tad too much salt. There was a thin layer of nice sharp cheese. A little greasy.
Taste of Italy 765-6661, 1309 Shenandoah Rd., Alexandria. Open Mon. through Fri., 11:30 to 9:30 p.m.; Sat., 4 to 9:30; Sun., 4 to 9:30. The crust was plump. The cheese had good flavor but was spread unevenly. The tomato sauce was spicy with lots of dried oregano and fresh garlic. A little too heavy on the salt.