Sitting at the counter at Frankly . . . Pizza! in Kensington, Md., I’m interrogating a margherita pie, my standard order whenever I first break flatbread at a pizzeria. This simple round can reveal more secrets than a detainee at a CIA black site.
Within seconds, my margherita starts spilling the goods about its creator, Frank Linn. The black blisters around the edge inform me that Linn isn’t afraid to push char on his diners, and for that alone, I want to give him a man-hug. But there are other signs to decode first: His pie isn’t soupy in the middle. His sauce, spread sparingly over the surface, imparts a shy sweetness to the round. His crust, at once soft and chewy, serves as more than a topping delivery system; it packs the flavor of a dough developed over days, not hours. His margherita sports both fresh mozzarella and sprinklings of hard romano.
Linn, in other words, doesn’t stand on tradition. He’s willing to flick his chin at the Neapolitan rules that cause so many piemakers to beat their heads against brick ovens, chasing after a Verace Pizza Napoletana certification to hang on the wall like a hunting trophy. Linn’s more interested in preparing wood-fired pizzas that meet his own standards, which appear to be sky high. Ask him about dough and he’ll mention that’s he’s “never happy” with it or that it’s “getting there,” as if he’s striving for perfection at the end of his pizza paddle.
Personally, I have a soft spot for perfectionists like Frank Ruta at the Grill Room and Mark Furstenberg at Bread Furst, chefs who are rarely satisfied with their work. They may drive everyone around them nuts, but they can produce food of extraordinary depth. I always know when I’m in the presence of such food. I go silent, as I did with my first slice of margherita at Frankly . . . Pizza! The interplay between the acrid char, the salty crust, the sweet sauce, the milky cheese . . . dare I say it was perfect? It was, at the very least, perfect for me.
Perhaps it’s easy to obsess when you essentially focus on one dish. As the name of his place suggests, Linn produces mostly pizzas. No pastas, no small plates — just Italian pies. His starters are limited to a bowl of olives and an arugula salad drizzled with a vinaigrette that coats the peppery leaves in a tart, lemon-drop sweetness. When I dined there, Linn also offered a special of spinach salad, tossed with mushrooms, romano, bacon and a garlic-caper vinaigrette that prevented the smoky pork belly from hogging all the attention.
If you can’t tell yet, Linn is not a chef who dumps ingredients from a bag. His bacon is smoked in-house. His meatballs are formed in the kitchen. His dough is, ideally, fermented over three days, although he’s been known to bake pies with younger dough when diners overrun the place. Linn’s only concession to convenience is the pepperoni, which he sources elsewhere. But, the chef adds, “I’m going to make a real pepperoni soon.”
His hands-on approach comes naturally. Linn’s worldview was formed on his family’s farm in Pennsylvania, where his parents grew vegetables, raised animals and canned much of what they produced. He later went to culinary school and worked the lines at such esteemed restaurants as 1789, Equinox and 2941. His pizza obsession occurred in a flash — while he and wife, Kate Diamond, were chewing on mediocre Trader Joe’s slices during an episode of “Lost” in the mid-2000s — but took years to ferment before he felt comfortable enough to launch his mobile pizzeria in 2011.
By the time Linn opened his brick-and-mortar restaurant last summer, he had developed his own personalized pizza, born of the Neapolitan tradition but not beholden to it. His style arguably works better with red pizzas, mostly because his sweet, cooked-down sauce nuzzles up better to the char. The oregano fragrance on his meatball pie can be suffocating, like one of those olfactory attacks as you walk by the perfume counter at Macy’s, but otherwise I salute this round in which the lush, fennel-scented beef practically melts into the sauce and softened onions. The toppings are almost geometrically spaced on Linn’s sausage-and-peppers pizza, the flavors aligned as carefully as the ingredients.
Even Linn’s white pies convinced me that heavy char could be successfully factored into sauceless rounds. Start with the Hot Mess!, which I submit should be renamed Hot Damn! The three-cheese pie smothers its other toppings — pickled jalapeños, caramelized onions, bacon — under a lava flow of mozzarella, romano and Gruyère; the thing so cudgels you with curds, and combustive counter flavors, that you practically beg for blackened crust to clear the palate. The same trio of cheeses resurfaces on the bacon and quail egg pizza as well as the crimini mushroom pie, both of which offer similarly rich rewards. Yet the arugula round, topped with a bushel of said leaves, may be the best engineered pie of the bunch: Its pepper bite is rendered toothless with lemon juice and a ricotta so creamy it tastes as if the milk had been acidified mere minutes earlier.
The word that pops to mind whenever I ponder Frankly . . . Pizza! is “sweet,” which certainly describes its cool, farmhouse decor, complete with reclaimed woods and Edison bulbs. But it also seems to describe Linn’s palate, which leans ever so slightly toward the sweet end of the spectrum. You can taste it in his house-made sodas, even spicy ones like the ginger beer, and in his pizzas, which tend to shy away from the overtly acidic and piquant. You definitely feel the sugar rush with Andi Chesser’s desserts, notably a margarita bundt cake whose agave frosting is lost among the sweetness.
In this context, Linn’s affection for char makes total sense. He uses it almost as a bittering agent for balance, which strikes me as a really sweet move.
10417 Armory Ave., Kensington, Md. www.franklypizza.com.
Hours: Wednesday-Friday, 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Nearest Metro: Grosvenor or Wheaton, with approximately a two-mile trip to the restaurant.
Prices: Pizzas, $9 to $17.