When Ankur Rajpara and Jonathan Allen opened Pizza CS in 2011, they took over a Rockville space formerly occupied by a Three Brothers Italian Restaurant. It may have been the single greatest upgrade since Harrison Ford replaced Tom Selleck in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
Rajpara’s story is an inspiring tale of cross-cultural assimilation, the kind that doesn’t have much currency in the divisive, keep-everyone-in-their-box economy of modern America. The son of Indian immigrants, one a practicing physician, Rajpara was toiling as a project manager and marketer when he volunteered to overhaul an underperforming cafe in a Dubai office building. It was his first taste of the restaurant business, and he was hooked.
When Rajpara returned to the States, he installed a brick oven in his parents’ home in Westminster, Md., and began his education in Neapolitan pizza. He traveled to Southern California for a VPN Americas course to better understand how pizzaiolos in Naples take only a few ingredients and transform them into the charred, chewy, slightly soupy rounds that define the city’s pies. Then he got to work at his parents’ house, practicing daily to hone his chops, the garage rocker of pizza.
Once he and Allen agreed to take over the old Three Brothers space, Rajpara hopped on a plane to visit the birthplace of Neapolitan pizza. He apprenticed for a few days at the respected Pizzeria Mattozzi, where he learned that, no matter how accomplished he might become, his pies would never measure up to those pulled from a wood-fire oven in Naples. The silky buffalo mozzarella, he discovered, is made fresh daily there. “There’s nothing that compares to that,” Rajpara says.
Now a certified member of Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani America, Rajpara exhibits deep respect for the history and craft of Neapolitan pizza, which was evident in the first pie I ordered at this strip-center storefront: a beautifully baked round, at once smoky and elastic, the fresh tomato sauce dappled with crumbly, fennel-laced sausage, roasted red peppers, just-wilted basil and dollops of buffalo mozzarella. It was love at first bite.
In the nearly five years since the guys opened Pizza CS, the menu has not expanded much beyond pizzas. The focus remains firmly on the pies, with only a handful of salads and specials. In an industry that perpetually reinvents itself, Rajpara and Allen are more interested in tradition and consistency than in, say, creating 13 pizzas to represent the original British colonies. The partners have even incorporated their mission into the name: CS stands for “come sempre,” which is Italian for “like always,” a reminder that consistency is paramount.
If there are inconsistencies at Pizza CS, they occur at the Stefano Ferrara brick oven, where the pizzamaker will not always bake the pies hard until they’re splotchy with char, otherwise known as “leopard spots” among Neapolitan jargon-slingers. Many may not care to see their crusts carbonized beyond recognition, a pizza consumed by fire. But I think something special happens when Rajpara’s dough — built with two Caputo flours, fermented nearly 48 hours and animated with sea salt — is licked by flames until the lip becomes black and blistered. The interaction between heat, smoke and dough seems to produce something akin to pizza umami.
But whatever the chemical process, I sensed a missing layer of flavor whenever a pizza arrived without its big-cat colors. And I need to be clear about my particular fetish for this one-ring circus of char: Even when black spots didn’t appear before my eyes, I still enjoyed the pies. In fact, the CS Margherita Extra on the specials menu — a pie topped with little blackened orbs of Piennolo cherry tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius — popped with a mineral sweetness. I barely missed the char.
With or without the umami crust, I gladly tore into numerous pies: The Rocket is a white pizza that ferries a leafy green nest of arugula, its bitterness an edgy response to mozzarella and Grana Padano cheeses. Another white pie, a special, comes off as the pizza equivalent of chicken Florentine, except lighter and less burdened with buttery guilt. The Soppressata arrives looking like a round of bubbling lava. Its looks are not deceiving: Topped with hot soppressata salami and chili flakes, the pie will burn your house down. The Milano offers more balance, a sizable feat given its loudmouthed toppings of kalamata olives, sausage and artichokes. Pizza CS even bows before a colleague: Its Moto, topped with Brussels sprout leaves and pancetta, is a tasty homage to a similar pie at Motorino in New York.
You take more chances with the salads. The spinach gorgonzola is a modest metal bowl of the fresh greens, thin slivers of red onion and pancetta, all tossed in a blue-cheese dressing on the mild side of the pungency spectrum. The Caesar features housemade croutons — essentially, crusty pieces of pizza dough — which regrettably must be doused with a thick, gritty dressing. The smoked mozzarella salad, with arugula as its leafy base, benefits from a vinegary pop of balsamic dressing.
As almost an antidote to its focused, no-nonsense approach to Neapolitan pies, Pizza CS has carved out a cheeky space, complete with graffitied walls, dark and comical artwork and even a foosball table in back. A sign hangs over the counter, where you order your pizza and beer (or wine, I guess), and it reads: “No slices. No pineapple. No ranch,” a back-handed, self-congratulatory reminder that this pizzeria makes no concessions to trends.
Well, except for that Nutella dessert pizza available as a special. Then again, one bite into this simple, sweet-and-nutty pie — crispier than its soft, pliable cousins — I realized Rajpara and Allen had done something I thought impossible: They had made me appreciate, even enjoy, one of the biggest cliches in the pizza world. Let’s keep that between us, okay?
1596-B Rockville Pike, Rockville, Md., 240-833-8090, pizzacs.com.
Hours: Lunch: 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; dinner: 5 to 9 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, and 5 to 9:30 p.m. Friday; weekends: noon to 9:30 Saturday, and noon to 8 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Twinbrook, with a 0.3-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $8.50 to $16.50 for pizza.