It's hard to overstate the central role of a wood-burning oven in the success of Arlington's new Pie-tanza restaurant.
It's the first thing you see when you walk in: a stainless steel opening in a curved brick wall that dominates one side of the restaurant. It's also the first thing you feel. The 500- to 600-degree heat from the oven radiates several feet away. Glass panels along a bar that fronts the giant beehive-shape oven block most of the heat, but some still creeps through openings between the panels.
Ed P. McKee, who opened Pie-tanza in mid-April with partner Karen Lavan Waltman, said they had to remove their storefront to accommodate delivery of the 7,000-pound oven, which arrived already assembled. They also had to make certain the floor of what was previously a Popeyes Chicken & Biscuits wouldn't buckle under the weight. After all, there is another business downstairs.
The oven is the source of the very best on Pie-tanza's menu: 12-inch wood-fired pizzas.
These are pizzas like the ones at a neighborhood pizzeria in Italy: a cracker-thin crust, complemented best with just a couple of toppings. Pile on too much and the crispness is compromised. Better to stick with the combinations offered or just one or two of the two dozen available toppings. Complete the meal with a glass or carafe of the house wine or a bottle of Italian beer.
There are plans to introduce a smaller pizza as a lunch special, McKee said.
Pietanza (pronounced pee-e-tahn-za) is Italian for cuisine or dish. McKee said he and Waltman realized early on that most people neither pronounced the name correctly nor knew what it meant. "So we decided to Americanize it completely," McKee said.
Pie-tanza's opening continues the transformation of the Lee Harrison Shopping Center into a dining destination. Nearby are Taqueria el Poblano, Chinese Gourmet, Sushi-Zen and Ghin Na Ree, a traditional Thai restaurant in business for more than two decades. Other tenants are the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery, Starbucks and Harris Teeter, a grocery with a takeout department.
McKee said demographic studies showed that the North Arlington location could support a gourmet pizza restaurant. "Unlike Popeyes, which suffered because there was no drive-through, we think this is a perfect location for us," McKee said.
He said they project that about 30 percent of business will be takeout, and there is a separate counter at the rear for those orders.
The two owners have extensive backgrounds in the restaurant business. Waltman worked for the local Cafe Deluxe chain for eight years and previously for the Rio Grande Cafe chain. McKee worked for Cafe Deluxe for four years and previously for the Cheesecake Factory and On the Border chains, and for restaurants in Colorado.
Pie-tanza's menu includes appetizers, salads, sandwiches and a few pasta dishes.
The tomato and bread and white bean soups are Italian classics. Pie-tanza's versions are hearty and filling.
Fried, stuffed olives are a novelty: fat green olives, stuffed with sun-dried tomatoes and a bit of Fontina cheese, breaded, deep fried and served with a savory, warm marinara. Each little nugget is bursting with flavor. An order of six just isn't enough.
Bruschetta with tomato comprises thin, toasted slices of focaccia with a diced tomato mixture, accented with basil and balsamic vinegar. But the bread is too crisp and too thin to soak up the juices from the tomatoes, which aren't vine-ripened wonderful.
The star appetizer is the rosemary flatbread -- essentially the same dough as the pizza crust but sprinkled with rosemary and sea salt and wood-fired.
The Caesar and house salads may be ordered in half-sizes as starters, and even so are very generous. Both are lightly napped with tasty but not overwhelming dressings. The Caesar is more citrus than redolent of anchovies, and the house salad dressing barely glistens on the field greens laced with roasted peppers, teardrop tomatoes and shaved Parmesan cheese.
The main-course chicken and walnut salad is much lighter than it sounds. Romaine lettuce is tossed with shreds of poached chicken breast, raisins and walnuts and dressed with a lemon olive oil.
The big disappointments were the baked pastas. It's hard to figure out how such flavorful, chunky marinara can be transformed into a bland, tasteless mass, either as lasagna -- with way too much flavorless sausage -- or baked ziti -- with not even a hint of zest.
Desserts are rich and decidedly Italian, though none is made in-house. The cheesecake -- original and chocolate-based turtle -- is from the Cheesecake Factory. The brownie in the brownie sundae is from Marvelous Market, and most of the other desserts come from specialty companies.
The espresso chocolate mousse, with coffee ice cream and topped with chocolate-covered coffee beans, is enough for at least two people. And the tartufo is an Italian classic: a creamy center, surrounded by gelato and encased in a chocolate shell.
Pie-tanza 2503-B N. Harrison St., Arlington, 703-237-0200, www.pie-tanza.com. Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Appetizers, $1.89-$6.99; main courses, $6.49-$10.99. Accessible to people with disabilities.
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