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Pupatella is a budding chain that still delivers the goods

Some of the Neapolitan pizzas available at Pupatella’s Dupont Circle location (clockwise from top): onion tart; burrata; pesto; and chorizo. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)

Washingtonians were well-versed with Neapolitan pizza by 2007 when a young couple debuted their fire-engine-red Pupatella cart on a stretch of bricks near the Ballston Metro station. 2Amys may have had a certificate hanging on its wall, verifying that the pizzeria adhered to Neapolitan traditions, but Pupatella had something perhaps more important tucked away in that spotless mobile trailer: Enzo Algarme, the guy in the dark sunglasses who called Naples home.

Algarme was still punching the clock as an embryologist when he and Anastasiya Algarme (nee Laufenberg) started selling pizzas on the streets of Arlington, many months before the gourmet food truck revolution hit Washington in 2009. The cart was something of a consolation prize. Enzo and Anastasiya had hoped to open a bricks-and-mortar restaurant, but they ran into the same stone wall that blocks many newcomers from entering the hospitality industry: They had no track record and no credit history to sway the banks or landlords to give them a shot.

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Biting into a pie pulled straight from the oven was still a novelty on the streets in 2007, and maybe we lowered our expectations a notch as a result. But Enzo Algarme had no interest in being graded on a curve. He was fresh off a six-month apprenticeship at Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente, the Naples institution that caters more to locals than tourists. Enzo applied the same techniques and ingredients that he learned back home to his tin-can pizzeria in Ballston, down to the ultrafine 00 flour and San Marzano tomatoes.

The cart’s Achilles’ heel was its oven, a small, twin-deck, gas-powered unit that topped out around 600 degrees, some 300 degrees below the standard set for Neapolitan pizza. He made it work, though, even when the lunchtime crowd grew impatient for their pies, sometimes waiting as long as 45 minutes for that poor little oven to keep pace. “I couldn’t believe people would wait that long for food-cart pizza,” Enzo tells me one Saturday morning during a phone call.

I’ve been thinking a lot about those pizzas back in Ballston as I’ve punched up the online app for Pupatella’s latest location, a sleek corner spot in Dupont Circle where the interior mixes elegant tile floors with distressed brick walls and street-corner graffiti. You probably haven’t seen much, if any, of these design elements in the weeks since Pupatella opened in the former Rosemary’s Thyme Bistro, but you will once your fingers become too numb to handle pizza on Pupatella’s popular wraparound patio.

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Enzo and Anastasiya Algmare have been on a wild ride these past 13 years, and really, the business is not close to peaking yet. If you had asked me 10 years ago, when Pupatella opened its first restaurant on Wilson Boulevard in Arlington, who among the local pizzamakers was best suited to launch a chain, Enzo Algarme would have been far down the list. He’s a perfectionist, a self-described obsessive, who can’t leave well enough alone. For the first four years or so, he basically made every pizza sold at the Wilson Boulevard location. The human body can withstand such stress, both physical and emotional, only so long before it breaks down, as Enzo would discover.

“I didn’t like myself anymore. I lost who I was. I could see myself getting upset at things that wouldn’t upset me before,” he tells me. “I would really have a short fuse at work, and I would yell at employees. I knew that wasn’t me.”

Perhaps Pupatella, and its chef, would have been ground to the nub had not Enzo decided to step away from the business, at least partially. For more than a year, he spent time with his family. He traveled back to Italy. He learned, he says, to let go and trust others with this gemstone that he had been polishing, over and over and over, for many years. It is the reason, I’m convinced, Enzo and Anastasiya were able to start franchising Pupatella and even partner with veteran restaurateurs who helped guide the growth of Elevation Burger.

You know how the story unfolds from here, right? A once-proud restaurant loses its way, and its consistency, as the founders accept the Faustian deal of investment capital and begin stamping out new locations that they, increasingly, have little control over. The Dupont restaurant is the third for Enzo and Anastasiya, not counting the franchisee in Richmond, with more outlets on the horizon, including one in Reston. I expected to see diminishment. I did not, especially with the soul of their pizzeria: the dough, which still follows a laborious, three-day process before it is stretched, topped and baked in a wood-fired oven.

Memory can be a con artist, convincing you of things that never really happened. My memories of those pizzas from the Pupatella cart in Ballston are like golden little orbs surrounded by halos and radiating majestic light. I know I’m kidding myself. Just one look at the pale, undercooked pies from back then reminds me that I’m romanticizing the past, like the kids who used to say R.E.M. sold out when the band moved to Warner Bros. (They did, by the way.) I’ve bought many pizzas from the Dupont location in the past few weeks, and I can say, without hesitation, that the crusts have never tasted better: I love the chew, the yeastiness, the hint of crackle around the edges, the char and the complex flavors that only come from a long, controlled fermentation.

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Better yet, the crust is consistent, which is perhaps the one argument in favor of the chain model. Enzo has settled on a dough recipe rather than endlessly tinkering with it, and management has devised a multistation approach to pizza-making, sort of like the bowl assembly line at Cava. The pizza base, warm and delicious, is the constant across the menu. It stands up to an array of toppings, whether the austere pleasures of the margherita or the barely restrained hedonism of the pesto, with its browned flow of smoked mozzarella that conceals a dense layer of the walnut-laced sauce. The crust works with red (the chorizo, with dry-cured sausage and roasted red peppers, is a standout) or white pies (the spectacular onion tart is a flammkuchen that’s summered in Naples).

For the most part, I found the panini options too bready and out of balance, but I will swear by anything that emerges from the fryer at Pupatella. Eggplant arancini. Sausage arancini. Regular old arancini. Mozzarella balls. Especially the panzarotti, these bronzed croquette-like logs filled with a mash of potatoes, prosciutto cotto and fresh mozzarella. Whatever fried nuggets you select, the fillings are almost secondary to your first bite: a deep, pliable crunch that shoots sound and vibration up and down your spine. Chase it with a crisp Pupatella-branded lager, produced by Devils Backbone, or a Pupatella pinot grigio, an acid trip developed by Impero Wine. You will find the joy you seek.

A few years back, Pupatella rolled out a new logo, featuring a guy in a Pulcinella costume driving a scooter, with a woman in a short black dress holding on for dear life. The couple represents Enzo and Anastasiya, of course, but the vehicle is a reminder of their roots: on the streets in Ballston, where their small dream has grown into this small chain, which seems to be getting better by the day.

If you go

Pupatella Neapolitan Pizza

1801 18th St. NW, 202-506-1999;

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

Nearest Metro: Dupont Circle, with a .4-mile walk to the restaurant.

Prices: $6 to $22 for salads and appetizers; $12.50 to $18.50 for panini and pizza.