When former New Yorkers say they miss the city’s slice shops, they don’t mean they just miss the thin, foldable wedges of pizza, available at $3 a pop.
They also miss the convenience of stepping onto the sidewalk, anywhere in Manhattan, and following their nose to the nearest walk-up window, accessorized in neon and garlic. They miss the inconvenience of standing in line, perhaps with umbrella in hand, and grumbling with their fellow travelers in the perpetual shadows of Gotham’s skyscrapers. They miss standing on the curb, their pizza oozing grease onto a pair of flimsy, overlapping paper plates, and chomping on a gooey slice amid the horns, jackhammers and hard grinding gears of delivery trucks, the music of New York.
They, in short, miss the town’s whole pizza culture.
No city, no matter how hard it tries, can re-create this atmosphere. But that doesn’t stop folks from trying to summon up that magnetic combination of cheese, dough and the benign crustiness of several generations of Italian Americans. The latest to take on the impossible task is a trio of Washington natives who, in March, opened Sonny’s Pizza, a Park View shop named after a general contractor.
You gotta admit, that’s a good start.
The pizzeria feels right, which is not to say that Sonny’s looks like a window in the West Village, but that it feels rooted in place. The space is outfitted with benches repurposed from a bowling alley and tables fashioned from old high school bleachers. The decor balances nostalgia with kitsch, a mix of photos from the owners’ personal collections and random bits of cultural detritus, such as the paint-by-numbers portrait from “Goodfellas.” The place has a good sense of humor, which goes a long way with me in this button-down town. Let’s call Sonny’s a D.C.-style slice shop, inspired by its Manhattan cousins but with the ambition and spirit necessary to succeed in Washington.
Sonny’s is the work of Max Zuckerman, Ben Heller and Cody Hochheiser, the same three partners responsible for No Kisses, the sister bar next door. Dark, intimate and trippy, No Kisses is a ’70s-era bachelor pad to Sonny’s retro-cool greasy spoon. You can order a pie, a meatball sandwich or whatever at Sonny’s and have it delivered to a private back patio shared by both businesses.
Heller is the one responsible for developing the recipes. He comes from a family that knows its way around a kitchen. Heller’s father worked as a chef, and his mother grew up in New York amid the Italian American bakeries, butchers and, of course, slice shops. After his parents met in Boston, they moved to Washington and opened a bakery and deli called Ciao (which they listed twice in the D.C. phone book, one under the spelling of “Chow,” because some didn’t understand the place was named after the Italian word, Heller tells me).
As Heller was testing doughs, he frequently leaned on his sister, Kate Heller, a baker who last year opened a pizzeria in New Orleans. Kate, incidentally, first learned her bread-baking craft from Peter Pastan, the multiple James Beard Award nominee behind Two Amys pizzeria. “My sister is a very, very good resource,” Ben says. “I pretty much talked to her constantly.”
The dough at Sonny’s isn’t baked into a classic New York slice. It’s more aligned with the Sicilian branch of the pizza family. It combines two flours — including an extra-fine durum flour from Central Milling in Utah — and is cold fermented for 24 hours before being proofed and stretched onto sheet pans with a small amount of olive oil. The dough is par-baked and then fired a second time in a deck oven when ordered. The process leads to a semi-thick crust with a crisp bottom and an interior crumb that boasts the kind of air pockets more often seen in artisanal French baguettes. It makes for an excellent base for almost any toppings.
The Sonny’s menu isn’t built for fashion. Its pizza toppings, sourced carefully, don’t wander into any territory foreign to old-school Italian American cooking. Think: mozzarella, basil, pepperoni, garlic, tomato, oregano. Rapini and Calabrian chiles are about as wild as it gets; the pair can be found atop the Pesky Mario, a whole, pedal-to-the-metal pie that looks to stretch your tolerance for heat and bitterness. Make sure to have a beer within reach, maybe Transmitter Brewing’s NY1, which the Sonny’s crew has to haul down from New York on its own because there’s no local distributor for the rye saison.
Slices are limited to four options, my favorite of which is the mushroom, a dark relief-map of a pizza topped with roasted creminis and portobellos and complemented by a sauce at once sweet and tart. I might have had a better impression of the sausage slice if it had included its advertised peppers.
One issue you may confront is the kitchen’s tendency to leave par-baked slices in the oven a beat too long, turning the bottom of their crusts into blackboards. Such a blackened base put a bitter edge on my otherwise colorful cheese slice topped with torn basil. You won’t encounter this problem with the whole pies, whose crusts are better protected from the high heat of the oven floor by a sheet pan (although the pan may rim the edge of your rectangular pie with char, which I don’t mind in the least). One night, we had a black ring around our Pizza Don, this giant doormat of a pie covered in arugula, whose bitter personality is countered by the sweet woodsy perfume of fresh oregano.
The kitchen uses the same pizza dough for every dish requiring bread, whether a sandwich or garlic knot (which, I should point out, is so smothered in cheese and sauce that garlic is the last thing you taste). The dimpled, focaccia-style loaf, unfortunately, cannot stand up to wetter fillings, such as the chicken parm with tomato sauce, and begins to disintegrate before you can finish the sandwich. I’d recommend ordering the supple, garlic-scented pork-and beef meatballs as a side dish, paired with a cool-and-creamy scoop of ricotta. This way, you can use the accompanying bread as it is intended: as a mop for the sauce and olive oil. I think Sonny would agree on this point.
3120 Georgia Ave. NW, 202-601-7701, sonnyspizzadc.com.
Hours: 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Columbia Heights or Georgia Avenue-Petworth, with a half-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: $3.75 to $32 for salads, sandwiches and pizza.