More important, Mia's understood the primacy of ingredients, manipulated just enough to tease out their desired flavors. Flour, oil, salt, wood, tomatoes and water. Elemental stuff that made for rustic trattoria dining, the kind of unfussy food that calls to you when your spirit needs rejuvenation. You felt you had a friend in Mia's.
But after a decade of tending fires and attending to regulars, chef and owner Melissa Ballinger was ready to hang up her pizza peel. She didn't have to look far for someone to take over her spot: Brothers Roberto and Riccardo Pietrobono, owners of the neighboring taqueria and watering hole Gringos & Mariachis, had occasionally entertained the thought of erecting their own pizzeria. Now a fully operational one had been gift-wrapped and dropped in their laps.
The negotiations were sitcom-simple: The Pietrobono family owns the building that houses both Gringos and Mia's. The brothers just sort of absorbed Mia's and most of its staff, including a couple of veteran pizzaiolos. Riccardo Pietrobono, the one charged with overseeing the rebranded pizzeria, now spends part of his time learning how to stretch dough and maintain a proper fire. This fall, he plans to introduce his own Roman-style pies, but until then he's carved out an unusual niche for himself as both boss and pupil, the guy who signs the checks and studies how to make pizza in his own restaurant.
That Alatri Bros. is, in some ways, an improvement over Mia's should not be surprising. Even though their neighboring restaurant is Mexican, the Pietrobono brothers have for more than 15 years specialized in Italian-American red-sauce fare at their Olazzo restaurant in Bethesda (and later at a second location in Silver Spring). They have treated this cuisine of necessity — one cobbled together by southern Italian immigrants who didn't have access to their native ingredients — with more respect than many, serving up the kind of comfort food once beloved by Americans before they embraced a more authentic Italian experience.
But Alatri Bros. has given the brothers immediate access to a style of Italian pizza that took root in Washington in the early 1990s, starting with Pizzeria Paradiso near Dupont Circle. Based on the pies of Naples, these pizzas stripped away decades of cheesy American excess to emphasize their crusts, a handmade bread that was beautifully blistered in a blazing-hot wood-burning oven. But these were often personalized pies, too, beholden more to the chef in the kitchen than the strict rules of Neapolitan pizza.
Whether the brothers know it or not, their pizzaiolos, Gerber Menjivar and Wilber Melendez, can trace a lineage back to those first heady days of Neapolitan pies in the District. Menjivar and Melendez were tutored by Ballinger, who once worked at the Pizzeria Paradiso in Georgetown under Ruth Gresser, one of the founders of the original outpost, in Dupont. There's a lot of acquired wisdom in the hands that work the dough at Alatri Bros.
You can taste it in the pizzas. The dough, developed over a 24-hour period, transforms into a lusty round in the oven, its base crispier than traditional a Neapolitan pie but its lip often charred and bubbly just like in the mother country. Sometimes salty, always bready, the crust serves as a reliable base for whatever pie you prefer.
The pizza menu still looks much like the one Ballinger left with the brothers, and there's nothing wrong with that. Jorge's Inferno still detonates into a mushroom cloud whenever you trip upon a ringlet of Fresno chile pepper. The Alsace still hangs on its delicate balance of sweet and savory flavors. The Margherita still needs more time next to the fire to add a better counterpoint of char. Among the new additions, the Artichoke piles on milky mozzarella at the expense of the star ingredient, which is a problem only if you're a thistle pig.
Alatri Bros. carries on Mia's tradition of forming some fine meatballs. The beef rounds make for a seductive trio when perched atop spaghetti, each meatball practically painted with marinara, but I'm surprised to find that I prefer them in slider form, their richness intensified by the eggy brioche bun. Other surprises can be found among the small plates, like the Buffalo-style Brussels sprouts, whose mild cabbage funk benefits from a light application of heat and acid. Even the Mission fig flatbread, accented with Gorgonzola, prosciutto and reduced balsamic, manages to pump new life into this cliched combination.
To date, the Pietrobono brothers have invested more energy in renovating the space than the menus: They've shifted the spiritual home of the pizzeria from a rustic trattoria to a chic farmhouse, even though the name of the place refers to the siblings' ancestral home about an hour outside Rome. The brothers have also expanded the drink offerings to include craft cocktails, which are still finding their level.
One night, I ordered a Manhattan, which the bartender prepared with rye on request. I must have made a face on first sip because, within minutes, a second Manhattan appeared unannounced, this one prepared with a different vermouth. Did she know I was a critic? When I asked why the second drink, the bartender said she sensed that I disliked the first. The alternate was an improvement, though still more diluted than I prefer. Regardless, I applauded her ability to read a diner, a skill harder to master, I think, than mixing a drink.
As I sipped my rejiggered Manhattan, I felt this wave of comfort rush over me. I sensed I was in the presence of people who take such pride in their work they're committed to it no matter what may come — including a change of ownership.
If you go
4926 Cordell Ave., Bethesda, 301-718-6427, alatribros.com.
Hours: 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday; 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Bethesda, with a .4-mile walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $5 to $12 for small plates, salads and crostini; $8 to $22 for sandwiches, entrees and pizza.