Emilio's Brick Oven Pizza is neither Emilio's nor, insists Emil Azar, its Iranian-born owner-chef, is it exactly pizza. "It's just really good gourmet food," he said. "I didn't know what to call it, so I decided 'pizza.' "
Indeed, some folks raised on good 'n' gloppy American-style pizza might not recognize Emil's 13 delicate flatbread creations, dabbed with a colorful smorgasbord of stall-fresh vegetables, cheeses and/or meats. Whatever Azar's take, these rustic round breads with toppings are pizzas, but pizzas with a flair and flavors rare to these parts.
Take the Rustica, for example. The crust is thin and dense, with a whiff of wood and a secret blend of flour that easily distinguish it from the chewier, whiter, blander competition. (Although my children were not thrilled with the topping of the pizza we ordered, they begged to eat my crusts.) Tossed on top are dabs of fresh mozzarella, paper-thin slices of zucchini and portabella mushrooms, roasted eggplant and marinated tomatoes. Beautiful, which explains the crowds on Friday and Saturday nights, people who heard of the place by word of mouth (Azar has never advertised), waded through the achingly slow Route 28 traffic and lights to get there and are happy when they have only a half-hour wait for a table.
Azar and his sister Roya opened Emilio's in May 1997 on Shaw Road in Sterling, in the same mini-mall as Belfort Furniture. Azar said he trained at restaurants and cooking schools in Italy, Norway and Canada before coming to the United States in 1994. A bright, clean space with Danish modern tables and chairs, Emilio's massive urns, terra cotta floors, piped-in opera music and floor-to-ceiling brick pizza oven all say "Italy"--that is, if you ignore the massive storefront windows overlooking a parking lot, the white acoustic-tiled drop ceiling and the terribly bright florescent lighting. All tolerable, but go there for the food. They don't deliver.
I went for lunch at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday and dinner at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday. There is no table service until 5 p.m. because of what Azar describes as a chronic staffing shortage--a common complaint for small businesses in a booming county economy. In all, I tried a small Rustica pie ($8.99), a small Al Pesto ($7.99), a large Margarita ($14.99) and a stromboli, which is a kind of enclosed pizza sandwich. To start, I tried a spinach salad ($3.99) and a mixed green salad, dubbed the Misto d'Emilio ($4.99).
If the pizzas seem a bit more expensive than their American counterparts, these salads are a bargain. The theme is freshness here. The house salad was a huge plate of crisp mixed greens, topped with tomatoes, walnuts and thinly sliced red onions. The platter-size spinach salad was equally enticing, served with pine nuts, onions, tomatoes, feta and overly balsamic vinaigrette. (Additionally, these salads could benefit from softer, riper or no tomatoes. There's a tendency for restaurants at this time of year to serve whatever tomatoes are on hand long after our local gardens have stopped giving, even if they are hard, tasteless knobs. Chefs, if you cannot find ripe Roma or cherry tomatoes or don't want to pay the freight for vine ripened, serve your salads without the things. I promise not to complain.)
The crust on the pizzas and the stromboli all seem to be the same good stuff as the Rustica, though the pie I tried during the day was soft and spongy while those I had in the evening were crisp, which I prefer. If you care, specify. The Margarita--with fresh basil, mozzarella, portabellas and tomatoes--and the Al Pesto, with marinated ricotta, big leaves of basil, some pesto and shredded mozzarella, were chock-full of good-looking, fine-tasting vegetables and cheeses. A few slices of this Pizza Light left me somehow sated but not full. I have no doubt that the 10 other featured pies with such once-inventive toppings as potatoes, squash, roasted peppers, artichokes and anchovies, and nine different kinds of cheese, are equally pretty and good for you, too. (No capers or cured black olives, but we can cross our fingers.) We need more Azar's out this direction, taking risks, trying out new recipes, pushing the envelope on the local dining scene.
That all said, I found there was an indefinable something missing from the Emilio's outing. I am hesitant to earn the scorn of my foodie friends who turned me on to Emilio's, but I found the three pies I tried a little bland. Perhaps I made unlucky choices; those featuring roasted garlic and peppers may yet turn the corner for me at Azar's place. But shouldn't a pesto pizza, for instance, have a zing to it, a bit of garlic to push the basil to another plane? I tasted none, and when I asked Emil, he explained that he uses garlic in most of his pizzas but that it is such a finely calibrated amount "you can't even taste it." I don't get the point of a stealth spice when it comes to pizza. And Azar's oven, while housed in a brick structure, is gas fired and relies on the cook to throw wood chips in from time to time for flavoring; I could barely detect it, so I suspect that didn't happen during my visits.
Service was competent, even generous: Roya Azar cheerfully removed a cheesecake from a bill after a customer complained about the texture. (I watched as the diner and her companion then scarfed up every last morsel.)
And the big vanilla cannoli ($2.49), from Vaccaro's in Maryland, was sweet and smooth, a hit with young and old alike in my little crowd.
William W. Horne's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Emilio'sBrick Oven Pizza
* Address: 22207 Shaw Rd., Sterling. 703-444-2555.
* Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; closed Sunday.
* Prices: 10-inch pizza, $8-$10; 16-inch pizza, $15-$18; salads, $4-$6.29; subs, $5; sandwiches, $4.29; calzone, $7; stromboli, $9.
* Miscellaneous: Eat in or carry out, counter service, beer and wine, no delivery. All major credit cards accepted.
CAPTION: Emil Azar, above, displays the fruits of his labor--a pizza and stromboli. Behind him is the brick oven where pizzas are cooked at his Sterling restaurant. At right, Azar tosses pizza dough into the air.