Ruth Gresser moves at a deliberate pace.
“Obviously, I do things slowly,” said the owner of Pizzeria Paradiso. “It’s been 23 years, and I only have three restaurants.”
“Only” three might sound strange, except in this day and age, restaurateurs are prone to much quicker empire-building. But Gresser is about to pick up the pace: Her newest venture — seven years in the making — centers on the premise of speed.
When it opens Monday at 1828 L St. NW, Veloce (Italian for “fast”) will aim to fill your pizza order in three to five minutes. Pies will cook in two minutes. Diners will be able to customize a pizza or choose one of the restaurant’s signature combinations.
A new concept? Hardly. The Chipotle-fication of dining has led to a proliferation of build-your-own, quick-service restaurants in almost every genre of food, from Asian (ShopHouse) and Mediterranean (Cava Grill) to Indian (Merzi) and, yes, pizza (most notably, the continuously expanding &Pizza).
In fact, Gresser cites Chipotle as the inspiration for Veloce. Her aha moment came while sitting on a beach during a vacation in 2008: The model works for burritos and taco bowls. Why couldn’t she do the same thing for pizza?
“It just seemed like a natural marriage,” she said.
So natural, in fact, that Veloce’s competition continues to grow even as Gresser prepares to open. After the honeymoon period is over, how will it stand apart? And can there be such a thing as too much pizza?
In 1991, pizza had long been a player in the American diet. But no one back then was doing locally what Gresser and then-business partner Peter Pastan proposed: Neapolitan-style pies, cooked in a wood-burning oven.
When a space opened up next to Obelisk, Pastan’s Italian restaurant on P Street NW where Gresser had served as sous-chef, the two went in 50-50 on Paradiso.
“We thought we’d try it out, see what happened,” said Pastan, who sold his share of Paradiso to Gresser about 15 years ago, after which he moved on to open 2 Amys pizzeria in Cleveland Park and, later, Etto in Logan Circle.
Paradiso introduced a kind of pizza that confused some diners. “A lot of people thought it was burnt,” Pastan recalled of the crusts’ characteristic char.
But that didn’t keep crowds away. In fact, they flocked to the restaurant, especially after a rave review in January 1992 by The Post’s Phyllis Richman. They followed Gresser to two subsequent locations, Georgetown in 2002 and Alexandria in 2010. A Hyattsville branch is scheduled to open next year.
When Gresser worked in fine-dining restaurants, including Obelisk and Le Pavillon, “All young chefs had the idea that they wanted their own place,” she said.
It was practically expected of her, as her father was an entrepreneur and her mother owned a catering business. Gresser, who grew up in Baltimore and trained at Madeleine Kamman’s cooking school in New Hampshire, had worked in the food business since a gig at McDonald’s in 1976.
The Paradiso idea was especially appealing, given that she wanted to work in a more informal restaurant. And five years later, she and Pastan took the idea even further when they opened Blue Plate, serving what Gresser described as “chef-driven comfort food that was ahead of its time.”
Gresser struggled to keep up with the demands of being the chef at Blue Plate and running Paradiso. Pastan called her focused and hardworking, and at the time, that might have worked to her detriment.
“What I learned is . . . I can’t do everything,” she said. “It was more than I can do.” Blue Plate closed after about two years.
Shane Mayson, who worked with Gresser at Blue Plate and Paradiso, said she has an analytical mind that takes into account all sides of a conversation before coming to a decision. “Ruth has a vision, and she executes her vision,” said Mayson, now the marketing director at Hank’s Oyster Bar. “She is not a shrinking flower.”
While Blue Plate was struggling, Paradiso was flourishing. “Ruth was pretty open about wanting to create a space that was friendly and open and fun and welcoming,” Mayson said. “I think she did a good job with that.”
Gresser said part of the reason Paradiso is fun is that pizza is fun. “The first line in my book is, ‘Everybody loves pizza,’” she said.
That would include her competitors.
First of all, more fine-dining chefs are getting in on the action. Bertrand Chemel, executive chef of 2941 in Falls Church, recently took over the kitchen at Pizzeria Orso, teaching himself how to make pizza in a quest to earn the coveted VPN (Verace Pizza Napoletana) certification for authentic Neapolitan pizza. Michael Friedman, chef of the Red Hen in Bloomingdale, recently announced he’s entering the scene with a New Jersey-style pizzeria set to open in Shaw later this year.
At the same time, there has been a proliferation of customized, quick-cooking pizza spots that follow a model similar to the one Gresser is planning for Veloce. In addition to the ubiquitous &Pizza, there’s Blaze in Laurel, Bethesda and College Park; Spinfire in Rosslyn and Ashburn; and Custom Fuel downtown and in Shaw. DC Pizza sits on 19th Street NW, around the corner from Veloce, as does Pizza Studio.
“There are a lot of them,” Gresser acknowledged. “It’s a good idea. No idea is in a vacuum.”
Had Gresser, 55, acted on that good idea when it first occurred to her, she would have been at the forefront of the scene she is now trying to break into.
But she has had plenty of other things to work on, including Paradiso’s newest branches and her 2014 cookbook, “Kitchen Workshop: Pizza.” Figuring out what kind of oven to use at Veloce and what she would make in it took time. Finding a high-traffic location was also paramount, and when the storefront on L Street became available, she jumped at the opportunity, setting aside work on the Hyattsville Paradiso for the time being.
She said Veloce will not so much reinvent the wheel as capitalize on Paradiso’s reputation, which includes its bready crust. “It’s going to be basically the Paradiso dough,” Gresser said, though rolled a little bit thinner. Her pizza’s primary characteristic is a softer, chewier texture — more like a country bread.
That will set it apart from a number of its competitors, whose crusts are much closer to the thin end of the spectrum. Gresser also says Veloce will differ from the pack because of its emphasis on “curated” pies. The 8-inch curated and custom pizzas will cost $9, compared with the 9-inch Paradiso pies, which range from $12 to $15.
The venture has forced Gresser to rethink a lot of what she has learned in more than two decades of slinging pies.
Take the oven. Paradiso employs wood-burning stone models that get up to around 650 degrees and cook pizzas in roughly five minutes. That’s lower than the 900-degree VPN standard, which also requires that pizzas cook in 90 seconds or less. Gresser said her dough is not as wet as the traditional Neapolitan, meaning it would burn at higher temperatures.
At Veloce, Gresser decided to go with a gas-powered brick oven. It will be easier to vent, and there will be a steady, hands-off supply of fuel that will allow for the consistency to produce a lot of pizzas (it can hold up to 25 at once) in a short time.
She also worked with Maryland-based oven makers Marra Forni to customize the oven. Standard gas ovens have two jets that flank the center, but to mirror the concentrated flames in the wood burners she is used to, she had both jets placed together on one side.
The Veloce oven will burn at about the same temperature as Paradiso’s. Its “incredible heat retention,” and the pizzas’ thinner crust, will help the pies cook faster. Veloce will impose a four-topping limit (“cheese plus three,” as Gresser put it) on custom pizzas to keep flavors from getting muddled and to ensure that the pies can cook in such a short time.
Thanks to Veloce — and last year’s cookbook — Gresser has been developing new recipes. For the first time, she will sell breakfast pizzas. The morning menu also will include calzones and one pocket sandwich featuring a lox-and-bagel-esque mix of smoked salmon and herbed mascarpone. In addition to the regular white, whole-wheat and gluten-free crusts available at Paradiso, Veloce will offer a new “grains and seeds” dough that includes oats, rye, spelt and 00 flour.
Veloce prompted other practical considerations, such as finding smaller pizza boxes and figuring out how to manage the queue. Gresser designed an open kitchen so that “there’s going to be stuff to watch while you’re waiting.”
And then there are all those other little details. During a walk-through a little more than a month before opening, Gresser consulted with her architect and contractors about such potential sticking points as the size of the outdoor seating area and the depth of a prep station counter in relation to the oven. And when she brushed against a still-wet wall, she swooped in to smooth over the spackling.
“There’s so much that I’ve learned over the years that has nothing to do with food, nothing to do with cooking,” she said.
One food-related thing Gresser has learned: She has an insatiable appetite for pizza. Even now, after a pizza-heavy few years of testing for Veloce and the cookbook, she never gets tired of it.
But will diners? Gresser and others don’t think so.
“As long as someone’s doing pizza better and different, there’s going to be a market for it,” said Taylor Gourmet co-founder Casey Patten, who ran Pizza Parts and Service for less than a year before investors suggested the focus remain on the sandwich chain. Patten compared the pizza bubble to where burgers were several years ago. Their popularity has not ebbed yet.
While the fast-pizza model seems to be catching fire, though, it’s not for everyone.
“I guess it serves a purpose, and it’s fine,” 2 Amys’ Pastan said of the new generation of shops. “I think they sell a niche for people.”
Pastan said their growing ubiquity might be due to the fact that proprietors think it’s an easy way to make a lot of money because fewer people are cooking at home.
As for Gresser, she said one of her motivations “is to just kind of make a nice place.” She doesn’t even know if there will be more Veloces.
Gresser did not set out to go after a new market of younger diners, though she might attract them anyway. And she rejected the notion that she’s late to the fast-casual scene, mostly because she said she’s not fixated on comparing herself with everyone else. As she put it, she’s doing what she does.
Neither is she preoccupied with figuring out how to stay relevant in the face of her longevity and the changing area restaurant scene. She said that’s partially because she believes Paradiso has been ahead of the curve on any number of now-familiar concepts: Neapolitan-style pizza, an in-house and from-scratch mentality, a robust beer program, whole-wheat and gluten-free doughs, and local ingredient sourcing.
Mayson, her former employee, said Gresser doesn’t get the recognition she deserves and might be ever-so-slightly moving in the direction of wanting it. A little.
“I’m not a celebrity chef,” Gresser said. “But I’m okay with that.” One of her biggest thrills: Being a clue in a crossword puzzle in Washingtonian magazine.
What satisfies her most? Her restaurants. Those are her tangible accomplishments. The fact that her signature dish is so humble doesn’t bother her.
“It is just pizza,” she said, “and it is enough.”
Veloce, 1828 L St. NW, 202-290-1910. www.eatatveloce.com. 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.
Ruth Gresser will join our Free Range online chat with readers at noon Wednesday: live.washingtonpost.com.
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