A friend had told me not to miss Bonci Pizzarium when my wife and I visited Rome several years ago. I still remember standing in front of the shop, on the northeast side of the Vatican, with other hungry customers as we waited for the garage doors to roll up. I don’t know what I expected as the metal doors started to rise, including one painted with Bonci’s mascot, once described by writer Elisia Menduni as a “big, kind flour creature, a gentle giant with strong hands for kneading and strong arms for hugging.”
But I wasn’t expecting what appeared before my eyes: glass display cases packed with slabs of pizza as brightly colored as the tulip fields of the Netherlands in spring. We were in Rome during the fall so Gabriele Bonci — what do you call him? chef? baker? pizzamaker fanatic? genius? — had an array of pizza al taglio that reflected the season: smoked pizza with Yukon Gold potatoes; slices topped with softened beets, the color of a dark Burgundy; slabs stuffed with broccolini and mortadella; the variety was at once tantalizing and overwhelming.
My memories of Bonci came rushing back the moment chef Ettore Rusciano said he and his wife, Mariya, were serving the same kind of Roman pies at their second location of Menomale, which debuted in February on the ground floor of the Belgard apartments in what everyone now calls the NoMa neighborhood because everyone still thinks New York is the epicenter of culture. He even forwarded me a few photos of the slabs available, which instantly invoked a Pavlovian response.
When Rusciano says he’s introducing Roman pies to his repertoire, I pay attention. The chef is one of the best bread makers in Washington, though you may not realize it since his work is often buried under freshly milled San Marzano tomatoes, fior di latte mozzarella, bright green leaves of basil, sauteed mushrooms, extra virgin olive oil or so on. A native of Naples, Rusciano is a card-carrying member of, and instructor for, The True Neapolitan Pizza Association, an organization that certifies Neapolitan pizzerias are playing by the rules.
The certification merely guarantees a baseline competency for Neapolitan pizzas. It doesn’t mean that every pizzeria certified is producing the same pie, or even excellent pies for that matter. Rules should not be confused with mastery, and Rusciano is a master of his craft. He orchestrates every element of his Neapolitan pizzas — the hydration, the fermentation, the application of toppings, the sensation of bitter char against soft, salty crust — until it all comes together like a symphony. His margherita is a hall of famer in the region.
In his dedication to the cause, Rusciano in Washington is not unlike Bonci in Rome. If you’ve ever paged through Bonci’s “Pizza” cookbook, you know about the man’s commitment to pizza al taglio, the Roman-style pie with the focaccia-like crumb. “I don’t use ‘products’ in or on my pizzas,” Bonci writes. “I make pizzas using ingredients with a history, with faces, hands and craftsmanship behind them. It’s taken me many years to find the ingredients I use, and I’m always looking for new ones.”
Rusciano knows Bonci and his work, but when the time came for him to learn the art of pizza al taglio, he turned to the godfather of the style: Angelo Lezzi, sometimes spelled as Angelo Jezzi in Italian. Actually, Rusciano studied with Gabriele Valdes, who works for Lezzi. They spent hours on video chat, breaking down the process for producing the kind of thick, crusty-but-airy slices that define pizza al taglio. (Incidentally, Rusciano calls it “pizza in teglia,” a term used for whole pies served in different sized baking sheets, which is how he sells his slabs. “Pizza al taglio,” by contrast, translates to “pizza by the slice” in English, but it’s all the same style of pizza.)
I won’t drag you into the weeds on the process, but the key to quality pizza al taglio lay in a few important steps: the hydration rate of the dough (it’s a laborious process to reach 86 percent hydration without warming the dough, Rusciano notes); the two-day fermentation in a cold walk-in; and the twice-baked crust, a par-bake with a sprinkling of mozzarella and then a second bake with your preferred toppings. Oh, there’s a specialized oven, too, one in which the cooks can control the temperature on the top and bottom of the cooking chamber.
In some ways, Rusciano’s pizza in teglia is the mirror opposite of his Neapolitan pie. The latter is salty, delicate, elastic and blistered from its brief stay in a wood-burning oven. Rusciano’s pizza in teglia sports a crispy base, providing a little pushback as you bite into it. The crust has noticeably less salt, too, and its crumb has a network of honeycomb cells. The inner bubbles are light and yeasty, as if the dough has been designed to flavor the air itself. The base is browned, but not charred, with scattered blisters that look like toasted marshmallows.
Pizza al taglio is also a portable bite, in contrast to Neapolitan pies, which are often eaten with a knife and fork in Naples. The Roman crust provides a firm base for your selected toppings. Rusciano opts for timeless preparations, instead of seasonal ones, if mostly because he doesn’t have the kind of direct access to farm-fresh produce that pizzaiolos do in Italy. Regardless, you’ll find plenty of lust-worthy offerings, whether with red sauce or without: roasted eggplant with garlic and crushed peperoncino; a chef’s special with salmon, cherry tomatoes and arugula; a Salsiccia with sausage and mushrooms; and a Bolognese topped with a layer of ground Angus beef meat sauce.
The Roman pies are unique to the NoMa outpost, but should you want something from Rusciano’s established hit list, you can do that, too. Not just his Neapolitan pizzas, which compare favorably to those at the original Brookland location, but also a mouthwatering Verde calzone, a blistered half-moon of pizza dough stuffed with pesto, salami, ricotta and mozzarella. Pair that with a vivace salad, with sliced strawberries, Bulgarian feta and a sprinkling of paprika, and you have my kind of balanced meal: something light and refreshing, something rich and rewarding, everything delicious.
Out of curiosity, I asked Rusciano how his Roman slabs are selling. I mean, the guy has been one of Washington’s brightest lights for Neapolitan pizza. Diners, he admitted, were initially slow to order the new pies, but he found a simple remedy. He added a description to his pizza in teglia to explain the dish to American customers: “handmade pan grandmother pizza.” Sales immediately went up.
33 N St. NE, on the ground floor of the Belgard; 202-216-0630; menomale.us.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Tuesday.
Nearest Metro: NoMa-Gallaudet U, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $4 to $56 for appetizers, antipasti, pasta, pizza, entrees and desserts.