In a previous era — by which I mean February — delivery pizza was the stuff you ordered on a Friday, after a train wreck of a week, after your brain had fired its last neuron and the best you could do was vegetate in front of the television, order Domino’s from your phone and wait for the doorbell to ring. This has never been an act of desperation exactly, but it isn’t self-nurturing either. It’s something in between. Nurturation. We’ve all been there.
Before we were trapped in our homes, we had this category known as delivery and takeout pizza. It was traditionally reserved for the big boys — Papa John’s, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, the chains with their own fleet of drivers or at least a dude with a secondhand Subaru who didn’t mind affixing a portable marquee to his car roof, like a police-cruiser lightbar for cheap, corporate pizza. Carpetbaggers such as DoorDash and Uber Eats had made it possible for specialty pizza to arrive lukewarm at our front doors, too, at least for those chefs willing to pay the price, whether the outrageous third-party delivery fees or the diminished quality of their pies.
But now that dining rooms are off-limits to the public, every pizzeria still open for business specializes in takeout and delivery, no matter its pedigree. We no longer have to wait for the Subaru to pull up next to our house, with its illuminated Papa John’s sign radiating our humiliation all over the neighborhood. We have some of the finest pizzas available anywhere to enjoy in the privacy of our own homes. If there’s such a thing as a win during a global pandemic — and I’m not arguing there is — this is it.
This hard pivot to takeout and delivery has been easier for some pizzerias than others. Timber Pizza Co. (809 Upshur St. NW, 202-853-9746; timberpizza.com), the neighborhood spot in Petworth, used to do about 30 to 40 percent of its business via pickup or Caviar, the delivery service. Now 100 percent of Timber’s sales come from its website or Caviar; early on, with no way to regulate the number of orders hitting the system, this new model created serious issues for the skeleton kitchen crew, says founder and co-owner Andrew Dana.
“There’s no way to limit the funnel. You’ll have no pizzas for half an hour and then you’ll have 60 pizzas in 20 minutes,” Dana tells me. “It’s really hard to fill those orders.”
To manage the madness, Dana and chef, co-owner and life partner Daniela Moreira not only whittled down their menu to four pizzas, but also learned to shut down online orders when the volume starts to crest. Their menu, thank God, still includes the Green Monster, a life-affirming, pesto-based pie, and the Bentley, a red-sauce round with two meats, two cheeses and a singular use of honey infused with Little Red Fox hot sauce. When I pulled a slice of the latter from its box (adorably personified with “I am a Bentley” on the side) and gobbled it down, I felt this surge of heat, the kind you experience not just from chile peppers, but from familiarity. As if all the warmth and comfort of previous experiences came rushing back in one bite.
So many of my favorite pizzerias have managed the pandemic pivot: I’ve devoured the white pie, savoring how its garlic bite is muzzled by a three-cheese blend, at Andy’s Pizza (2016 Ninth St. NW, 202-506-2043; eatandyspizza.com). I’ve feasted on the Di Ettore, chef and owner Ettore Rusciano’s homage to Italian traditions at Menomale (2711 12th St. NE; 202-248-3946; menomale.us). I’ve recounted the Nationals’ World Series miracles with the Childish Bambino, the meat lover’s pie named for the team’s young slugger, available at All-Purpose Pizzeria (79 Potomac Ave. SE, 202-629-1894; 1250 Ninth St. NW, 202-849-6174; allpurposedc.com). I’ve even taken a short road trip to Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana (12207 Darnestown Rd., Darnestown; 301-963-0115; inferno-pizzeria.com.) for a rendezvous with my beloved, the marinara rustica, the one perfect pizza.
Some of these pizzas didn’t make it home before I popped their top and shoveled down a slice or two right in my vehicle. The impulse is understandable, right? Under optimal, pre-pandemic conditions, I would prefer these rounds fresh from the oven, their crusts still hot to the touch, their pools of mozzarella separating into long, elastic ropes. The only way to attack a pie in its prime now is to eat in your car, the most inhospitable of dining rooms. I can’t tell you how many toppings have disappeared into the crevices of my auto.
But eating in your car creates another tension: Thanks to a temporary relaxation of some alcohol laws in the D.C. area, you can order booze with your takeaway and delivery pizza, but you still can’t drink it in your vehicle. I can neither confirm nor deny that I popped the top of my Flensburger Pilsener while wolfing down a slice in front of Andy’s. But I can testify that one of the finest Negronis I’ve ever had was poured from a plastic tub. The bar at All-Purpose injects nitrogen into the three ingredients that compose the amaro-based drink, resulting in the creamiest Negroni you will ever taste.
The nitrogen “brings out the sweetness and softens some of that bitterness,” says Mike Friedman, chef and partner in All-Purpose. “And then it also has that voluptuousness to it.”
Joel Salamone, founder of Badd Pizza (346 W Broad St., Falls Church, 703-237-2233; 25150 Loudoun County Parkway, South Riding, 571-833-2233; baddpizza.com), has put a proprietary spin on the beer list at his budding chain of Buffalo-style pizzerias. He’s partnered with Lost Rhino, the Ashburn-based brewery, to develop an India pale ale that goes by the unironic, unintentionally comic name of Badd Beer, sort of like Billy Beer but drinkable. The Badd-Rhino IPA has a malty backbone, with a pleasant sweetness, which aligns well with the red sauce ladled onto the pies here.
Badd Pizza is not a descriptor. It’s the nickname of Steven Houck, who honed his skills for a quarter century at Bocce Club Pizza, the 74-year-old institution dedicated to Buffalo’s contribution to America’ regional pie chart. “Since high school, he’s been known as Stevie Badd,” says Salamone. “He’s a very mild-mannered person, and we came up with some nickname for him that was just kind of ridiculous.” Houck is the man responsible for all the recipes at Badd Pizza, a handle that provides him a kind of poetic armor against all attacks. No matter how you feel about Houck’s food, it’s always Badd.
The pizza at Badd, though, is quite good. The dough is the quick-rise variety, developed only a couple of hours or so, before being stretched, placed on a metal pan coated with shortening and run through a conveyor oven. The resulting crust is browned, oily and sometimes crisp, like miniature focaccia, sturdy enough to hold the thick slices of Margherita-brand pepperoni, which curl into cups and char around the edges. These meat cups fill with their own grease, a selling point in Western New York, if not Northern Virginia.
Per Buffalo tradition, Salamone says you should pair your cheese-and-pepperoni pizza with an order of spicy wings, pulled blisteringly hot and crisp from the fryer. One Saturday afternoon, I did just that, alternating between the vinegary jolt of chicken wings and the gooey rush of pepperoni pizza. Sitting alone in my car, I felt a million miles away from Western New York, and even further from any sense of normalcy. And yet, in that moment, as the spice lit up my system, everything seemed just right.