If you had the desire, and the stomach capacity to handle all the dough, you could eat pizza daily for a month, and still not darken the doorway of every quality pizzeria in the D.C. area. But the thing is, even if you could visit every one, you’d still miss a lot a seriously inventive pies. I mean, chefs don’t limit themselves to one great pizza per storefront.
So this was my task: Eat more slices than humanly possible and identify the 10 best individual pizzas in Washington. The competition was stiff. I wasn’t just searching for novelty. I was searching for craft. I was searching for a good story and maybe even a pizza that said something about Washington.
The inspiration behind the 10 pizzas I ultimately picked is as varied as the pies themselves. One pizzaiolo was inspired by the work of a respected peer in New York City. Another leaned on an Italian tradition that dates back centuries. One just wanted to create a pizza to match the punny portmanteau floating around his brain: octopie.
If there’s a common element among the pizzas on this list, it’s the perfectionist nature of their creators. Consider Frank Linn, the chef and namesake behind Frankly … Pizza! in Kensington. His spinach pie was inspired by the Popeye once served at the now-shuttered Co., baker Jim Lahey’s much-beloved pizzeria in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood.
“It was an interesting pizza, but it just was not balanced,” Linn says about Co.’s pepper-heavy pie. “It needed some work. … Spinach doesn’t really have much flavor anyway, but it’s good for you.”
Boasting three types of cheese, including a nutty Gruyere, Linn’s spinach pie probably won’t qualify as health food anytime soon. But like the other nine pizzas on this list, his creation demands more than deliciousness. It demands originality. It demands quality. It demands an attention to detail, down to the last half-teaspoon of fresh lemon juice drizzled on the round. It demands perfection in a bustling, high-volume environment that doesn’t exactly encourage it.
Nothing in life is perfect. But it’s not an exaggeration to say a few of the pizzas here come so very close.
Original pepperoni Detroit pizza at Red Light Bar
One key to great Detroit pizza, says chef Naomi Gallego, is to use Wisconsin brick cheese, which releases oil as it cooks. That oil, in turn, finds its way to the edges of the pan, putting a crispy edge on the focaccia-like pizza. The crackle is vital. It provides a necessary contrast to the crust’s light and airy interior, a duality that makes Detroit pizza so utterly seductive. A Michigan native, Gallego wanted to stay true to the roots of this workingman’s dish, so she refused to chef it up. You know, sub in fancy ingredients, cut down on the cheese or do anything that might imply the original was somehow inferior. Your order will be served on a baking rack, looking like the best Stouffer’s French-bread pizza you’ve ever seen. The cheese is browned. The edges of the pepperoni are charred. The thick sauce, fortified with herbs and tomato paste, is ladled down the middle, like a racing strip. Gallego, a partner at Red Light, says it’s nearly impossible to eat an entire Detroit pizza by yourself. But, believe me, you will try.
$15. 1401 R St. NW; 202-234-0400;redlightbardc.com.
Calabrese at 2 Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria
It’s true, says owner Peter Pastan: 2 Amys is no longer a card-carrying member of the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana, the organization that determines whether kitchens are following the strict rules for preparing Neapolitan pizza. An inspector apparently didn’t like that Pastan’s crew was forming pizzas on a peel, not on the counter. In the 2000s, the VPN designation helped 2 Amys separate from the pack and tell the story of Neapolitan pizzamaking traditions, but “I don’t think it makes a difference anymore,” Pastan says, “and actually it’s kind of nice not to explain things to people all the time.” Besides, Pastan doesn’t need the pizza police to verify that he has standards. Take his calabrese, a riff on an Italian classic. Pastan sources anchovies from Spain and kalamata olives from Italy. “I’ve tasted pretty much every anchovy out there,” Pastan says. “The vast majority of anchovies are terrible.” The kitchen doesn’t rinse or soak the fish, either, which can turn them mushy. These meaty fillets are fleshy, firm and full of clean anchovy flavor. They’re also not too salty, which is important. The sodium levels on this pie are assertive but not bloodthirsty.
$14.45. 3715 Macomb St. NW; 202-885-5700; 2amyspizza.com.
Cheese pizza at Vace Italian Delicatessen
The pizza at Vace, General Manager Diana Calcagno likes to remind people, is not New York-style, and it’s not Neapolitan-style. It’s Vace-style. The recipe came from Calcagno’s father, the late Valerio Calcagno, who mixed high-gluten flour into the dough so that when his rounds came out of the oven, they were hot, sturdy and crisp. You can hold a slice in your hand, and it remains almost parallel to the ground, defying the laws of gravity and the rules of foldable New York pizza. To sink your teeth into a Vace slice is to recall the thrill of the crunch, a pleasure nearly lost in a city beholden to ultrafine 00 flours and the soft, chewy crusts they produce. Many Washingtonians swear by Vace’s pepperoni or its white pie with onions, but I love the cheese pizza, its perfection buried in its simplicity and its engineering. As every regular knows, a Vace pie comes with the tomato sauce on top of the mozzarella, as if it were a thin-crust variation on Chicago deep dish. The approach allows you to savor the sweetness and acidity of the sauce, built with two tomatoes, and appreciate the woody perfume of the oregano. Forget the Jumbo slice. The Vace cheese slice is Washington’s iconic pizza.
$11 for medium, $13 for large.
3315 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-363-1999. 4705 Miller Ave., Bethesda, Md.; 301-654-6367; vaceitaliandeli.com.
Chicago meatball at Della Barba
Who knew that Washington’s most versatile pizzamaker had spent the first two decades of his career disguised as a lawyer? Before he launched his Della Barba start-up, Joey Barber was a corporate defense attorney. He was probably very good at his job, but he’s a spectacular pizzaiolo. Exhibit A is his Chicago deep dish with meatballs, a five-pound beauty constructed with layers of dough, mozzarella, provolone, chunky tomato sauce and 16 ounces of housemade beef meatballs. The secret to Barber’s Chicago pie is the crust. He incorporates high-gluten flour into the dough, along with coarse cornmeal, to give the base a decided crunch. It transforms a style of pizza that’s too often described as a casserole into something crispy and extremely satisfying. Oh, he also bakes the dense round in butter, which doesn’t hurt. “I’m not even a big fan of Chicago pies. I just wanted to do one,” says Barber, a New Jersey native. “I figured D.C. needed it, because everybody is from somewhere else.” Fortunately for all of us, Barber has a small storefront coming this year on Capitol Hill because it can be a real pain picking up a pie from the Union Kitchen location.
$34. Union Kitchen, 1369 New York Ave. NE, 202-845-3033; dellabarbapizza.com.
Cacio e pepe at Stellina Pizzeria
The first time I heard about the cacio e pepe pizza at Stellina, I dismissed it as disposable fashion, a trendy construction that would con a few customers just because it played off the wildly popular pasta dish. By adding this pizza to my list, I will officially kick off my apology tour. I’ve tasted Stellina’s cacio e pepe pizza several times now, and I have come to the conclusion that it’s genius. If you ask chef Matteo Venini, it was also one tough pizza to engineer. “My concern was using 100 percent hard cheeses, like the black pepper pecorino or the pecorino Romano, on a pizza when you bake it at 700 degrees,” Venini says. “My concern was that the cheese was going to break at some point because the heat is too high,” which would lead to a pie with an oily, off-putting appearance. Venini’s solution was to combine the pasta’s traditional hard cheeses with softer ones, such as cacio de Roma and shredded mozzarella. The other key was the black pepper, which Venini’s team first toasts, low and slow, in an oven and then grinds by hand in a mortar. The process gives the peppercorns a smoky, almost balsalmic-like quality, Venini says. “Those flavors give a different dimension to the pizza,” he adds. One hundred percent, chef. One hundred percent.
$14. 399 Morse St. NE; 202-851-3995; stellinapizzeria.com .
Octopie at Tino’s Pizzeria
The beauty of the Octopie is that every component speaks with equal voice, which, when you think about it, is the antithesis of a pizza-making tradition that promotes the attributes of only one or two ingredients. This most democratic pie did not come about by accident. A former sous chef at the Inn at Little Washington, Logan Griffith tinkered with his toppings, and their portions, until he engineered a pizza in which every ingredient had its say: the tomato sauce, pesto, olives, preserved tomatoes, browned onions, parsley, crust and charred octopus, each one no more dominant than the other. To give you a sense of how architecturally balanced this pizza is, one day I ordered the Octopie and noticed that the preserved tomato was pushing around the other toppings, its tartness swelling into something almost authoritarian. I mentioned this to Griffith, who acknowledged the flaw. He said his supplier was out of the regular ingredient, and he had to sub in an inferior one, which had thrown off the pie’s delicate equilibrium.
$17. 3420 Connecticut Ave. NW, 202-525-5311; tinospizzas.com.
Spinach pizza at Frankly … Pizza!
Frank Linn is almost apologetic about the name of his pizza, which tells you next to nothing about what will land on your table. The namesake ingredient isn’t a salad of greens piled high atop dough, sauce and cheese. The spinach leaves here are wilted and locked into place with a flow of hot, melted curds, a dizzying swirl of mozzarella and Gruyere dotted with microscopic sprinkles of hard Romano. The rest of the ingredients are nearly invisible to the eye, if not the palate: the caramelized onions, fresh garlic, lemon juice and a final flourish of fine Kosher salt right before serving. “You don’t really realize what you’re getting when you order that pizza,” Linn says. But then you bite into a slice, and this stealth pie reveals its full character. The sweetness, the acid, the char, the nuttiness, the creaminess, the saltiness, wave after wave of flavor until you suddenly understand that Linn has concocted a spinach pizza for those who don’t care all that much for spinach. Like him.
$13.50. 10417 Armory Ave., Kensington, Md., 301-832-1065; franklypizza.com.
Margherita DOC at Pupatella Neapolitan Pizza
A couple of years ago, Enzo Algarme took some time away from his small pizza chain, the one with the multimillion-dollar expansion plans. He was overworked and overwhelmed. He used the time wisely. He rested, and he spent time with family. He also rejuvenated his love for Neapolitan pizza, with its history that dates from the 18th century. “I started making pizza at home more, and that’s, I think, where my knowledge grew more,” says the native of Naples. “During my time off, I was able to do more research and travel to Italy a lot more.” The chef is back in the kitchen full-time, and he’s incorporated some of his recent research into his pizza. He’s mixing a natural levain, or starter, into his dough and letting it ferment longer, almost three days in total, by the chef’s accounting. The results are apparent on first taste of Algarme’s Margherita pizza, one that had already ranked among the very best in market: The pillowy, salty and light crust has a slight tang, which informs every bite of a pie fashioned with the finest ingredients Naples has to offer.
$13. 5104 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va.; 571-312-7230; 1621 S. Walter Reed Dr., Arlington, Va.; pupatella.com.
The Bentley at Timber Pizza
This honey of a pizza — a turn of phrase that’s more literal than you might realize — began life as the 809, a meaty pie that borrowed its name from the address for the Petworth pizzeria. The original invention — a white pie with crispy mortadella, prosciutto, mozzarella and Peruvian sweet peppers — “was really gross,” says chef Daniela Moreira. Moreira inherited this mess from Timber’s owners when they hired her to take over the kitchen. She quickly dismantled the 809 and rebuilt it into the Bentley, keeping only the crust, mozzarella and peppers. She replaced the mortadella and prosciutto with cured chorizo and spicy sopressata. She also added tomato sauce, a secondary cheese (provolone) and even infused Little Red Fox hot sauce into a honey, which glazes the surface of the pie like a wax shine on, well, a Bentley. If Moreira’s pizza misses a taste receptor, I’m not aware of it. The overhauled pie was named after Bentley’s Vintage Furniture and Collectibles, once located across the street from Timber. The shop is no more, but its name lives on in this superb pizza.
$16. 809 Upshur St. NW, 202-853-9746; timberpizza.com .
Marinara rustica at Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana
If you could scanTony Conte’s brain, you’d see that 99 percent of it is dedicated to building the perfect pizza dough. Every time I talk to the chef, he’s doing something slightly different. At present, he’s blending three kinds of flour, of varying types and grinds, which come together into a crust that almost defies description. Yes, it’s soft and puffy, with trapped pockets of charred, yeasty air. But the crust also has a teasing quality, as if its flavors and textures sweet talk you for a couple of tantalizing seconds, then disappear forever. The crust’s ghosting nature is cruel, and yet you willingly accept its cruelty for those few seconds of sheer pleasure. This base is so unique that I never want to bury it in toppings, which is why I turn to the marinara rustica. It features a thin layer of sauce, built with Bianco DiNapoli tomatoes as well as slow-roasted garlic, basil and an almost-invisible dusting of Parmesan. Conte has turned two of my favorite things — bread and garlic — into one of the best pizzas anywhere. And I do mean anywhere.
$10.12207 Darnestown Rd.,Darnestown, Md.; 301-963-0115; inferno-pizzeria.com.
Design and development by Joanne Lee; Photo editing by Jennifer Beeson Gregory; Photos by Laura Chase de Formigny; Copy editing by Missy Khamvongsa; Produced by Camille Kilgore