A pizzeria must look awfully tempting to chefs who were once on a fine-dining track, that one-way street to potential Michelin stars and prematurely gray hair: A pizza shop doesn’t tie up tens of thousands of dollars in wines that collect dust in a cellar. It doesn’t rely on special occasions to entice diners through the doors, and, perhaps most important, it doesn’t need to hire a sommelier and a maitre d’ or source wickedly expensive ingredients that can turn a profits-and-losses sheet into a river of red ink.
Still, despite the financial inducements, one question always seems to hover over fine-dining refugees who turn to pizza: Can a chef be satisfied with rolling out and baking dough for a living? The implication is that pizzamaking, unlike the artistry required of seasonal fine dining, demands all the creativity of a prep cook chopping onions. Yet pie shops from Seattle to the District , and many points between, continue to convince chefs to drop their tweezers and pick up a pizza paddle.
Logan Griffith is one of those chefs. The pizzaiolo and partner at Tino’s Pizzeria in Cleveland Park is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America who devoted five years of his life to chef-owner Patrick O’Connell’s Inn at Little Washington, the Stradivarius of fine dining in the greater Washington region. (Please, spare me the tired arguments that the Inn doesn’t belong on the D.C. dining map.) But one day, when Griffith worked at Kingbird inside the Watergate, he was tinkering with a naan recipe, and it hit him: He enjoys the minute, mathematical calculations required to produce flavorful flatbread dough. The hydration percentages. The flour ratios. The baking temperatures.
Based on my experiences at Tino’s, which debuted in early September in a former Chipotle outlet, Griffith is a relentless tinkerer of pizza dough. My first pie in late September was the Ham Man, which features translucent, melt-in-your-mouth slices of cured Surryano ham, the pride of Edwards Virginia Smokehouse. The sweetness and acidity of the pizza’s “shallot goo,” a nearly liquefied mass of the cooked-down bulbs with vinegar, may have stolen the spotlight from the ham, but I only half-noticed. I was focused on the crust. Darker, firmer and less airy than its Neapolitan peers, the base seemed, at best, a distant cousin of its advertised Italian ancestors.
“It’s pretty far from Neapolitan,” Griffith confesses about his pies, which include a percentage of rye flour. “It’s just a brick-oven pizza.”
I’d say it’s an extremely personal brick-oven pizza, one that varied, ever so slightly, every time I dined at Tino’s. You could call this inconsistency. But I’d call it a pizzaiolo still searching for his ideal. I’d call it a sign of a perfectionist not yet content with his creation. If his crusts had not improved with each of my meals, I might also call it a problem. But whatever changes Griffith keeps making to his pizza — adjusting flour ratios, oven temps, fermentation times — it’s working for me.
My last pie was perhaps my favorite: Called the Octopie, the pizza pairs sous-vide octopus, later charred in an oven, with so many supporting and saucy ingredients that I had trouble singling one out as the acknowledged leader. What’s more, the lip of the pie had noticeably more char than my previous ones. It had more rise, too, making for a chewy and semi-crackly bite. Individually, any one of these ingredients (octopus, pesto, preserved tomato, mozzarella, even crust ) could have been a star. Collectively, they made for the Bonnaroo of pizzas.
Borrowing from his fine-dining background, Griffith drops seasonal ingredients on a few of his offerings, which supplement his year-round pizzas. During the late summer and early fall, Griffith served up the Get Figgy Wit It (the chef will acknowledge, without prompting, the cringe-worthiness of his pizza names). It’s a pie topped with slices of fig and more of that shallot goo, which would be too sweet by half if not for the sopressata and the electric tang of Gorgonzola cheese, a pair of mighty counter punchers. As soon as this week, Griffith plans to roll out a seasonal pizza with braised beef cheeks, celery root, poached eggs and hollandaise sauce, a combo that should keep you warm all winter.
Griffith’s standard offerings run the gamut: There’s the labor-intensive Da Tino with pepperoni, tomato, smoked scamorza cheese, mornay and a spicy housemade sausage (worth every second of preparation), and then there’s the simple Maxwell, a tomato pie topped with ivory clusters of burrata, so ridiculously creamy against the toothsome crust. The smoked scamorza makes a return appearance on the Can I Smoke, this time paired with thin slices of fennel-scented finocchiona salami as well as spidery sections of softened fennel. It’s almost as good as the Da Tino.
The menu has precious few options outside the pizzas. The salads number exactly three, but pay special attention to the beets with whipped ricotta, a dining room cliche that Griffith treats with more respect than it, perhaps, deserves. The desserts include a requisite Nutella pie, which Griffith dresses up with figs, cocoa nibs, toasted hazelnuts and toasted coconut, all spread across a base that’s more crackerlike than the one for the chef’s regular pies. You’ll love everything about the dessert, save for its name: I’m Cocoa for Hazelnut. The sound you hear is the groan I released two weeks ago inside the restaurant.
Named for Constantino, the young son born to Griffith and his wife, Maria Galindo Camacho (who’s also a partner in the business), Tino’s is a neighborhood restaurant in the best sense of the term. Managing partner Joe McCarthy (whose wife, Lauren, is a partner, too) often wanders the room, checking on diners or striking up conversations where they are welcome. McCarthy is the grizzled veteran, a guy who has spent decades in the food business. He can seemingly do anything: cook, watch the bottom line, even read a table, sensing when a diner is ready for that second beer. Griffith and McCarthy are complementary players in a pizzeria that serves as a giant compliment to their talents.
3420 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-525-5311; tinospizzas.com.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Nearest Metro: Cleveland Park, with a short walk to the restaurant.
Prices: $3 to $17 for salads, pizzas and desserts.