It sounds like the kind of thing you’d be more likely to find at a state fair than at a neighborhood restaurant in the District’s 14th Street Heights. The deep-fried pizza at Little Coco’s is one of those foods, along with rainbow bagels and candied bacon doughnut sliders, that are so decadent and over the top, they must be American. Except this hedonistic dish is actually a traditional Italian street food, says chef Adam Harvey.
“It’s a big thing in Naples,” he says. “I had it in a couple of different shapes and forms and fillings. I had never seen it anywhere here” in the United States.
To make it, he rolls out a thin round of pizza dough, stuffs it with mozzarella, basil and marinara sauce, twists it into a circle and deep-fries it. Then it’s topped with arugula, which adds some lightness to a heavy dish. Think of it as a pizza doughnut. Or, in the words of a fellow diner, it’s a “classed-up” mozzarella stick, complete with more marinara sauce for dipping.
“It’s like a Reese’s peanut butter cup: Everybody eats it a different way,” said our server. His method: Cut off pieces and dip them in the sauce. Once he has eaten about half of it, he spreads the rest of the sauce on top. Our only letdown was the discovery that the cheese wasn’t evenly distributed the whole way around.
Deep-fried pizza isn’t the only draw at Little Coco’s, which is named for Harvey’s wife, Eva Cocozzella. The friendly neighborhood restaurant turns out plates of pasta and thick slices of bruschetta, as well as hearty, individually sized pizzas. Harvey uses 00 Caputo flour and semolina, as well as honey and Pale Fire Brewing’s Salad Days saison, which he says “has a really nice, mild flavor, but enough yeastiness and sugar level that it adds something to the dough.”
When Harvey makes the dough, he rests it for 24 hours, then rolls it out and rests it another day. He par-bakes the crust, cools it, adds toppings and bakes it for about 2½ minutes. The result is a dough that’s chewy and durable. Depending on how devoted you are to limp, charred slices of Neapolitan pizza, it may or may not be your thing.
“I like more structure. I like to be able to pick up a piece of pizza and it holds stiff, it doesn’t droop down like a tongue,” Harvey says. “It should have a nice crispness and a nice chew to it.”
Harvey’s pies include the Goddess, a bright and verdant pizza with broccoli rabe, ricotta, coppa and pecorino. Another favorite was the punny ’Ndjua Really Want to Hurt Me, with its titular spreadable salami, sweet caramelized onions and arugula. The pizzas pair well with a glass of lambrusco and a charred Caesar salad with capers, heat-kissed romaine and a dressing infused with caraway seeds for added interest.
Finish your meal with the restaurant’s take on tiramisu, which has a surprise. Your server presents you with a chocolate dome and pours hot caramel on top, melting it away to reveal the tiramisu hidden beneath. “This is chocolate magic,” said our server.
Not everything hit the spot at Little Coco’s. A ricotta ravioli with hazelnuts and apple butter was sweet enough to be a dessert. And a grilled sardine appetizer had far more potatoes than it did its signature ingredient. Overall, the mustard-toned restaurant with pizza-and-music-themed paintings on the wall suits a wide variety of desires: a place for a relatively inexpensive pizza and a beer, or a casual date over Negronis at the bar (they serve three riffs on the drink), or a hearty dinner of duck and polenta, one of the larger, shareable plates.
But one of the greatest needs this restaurant fulfills is that it’s a kid-friendly place that doesn’t serve chicken fingers. Little Coco’s is for families, and not just in the sense that they merely tolerate the presence of young diners. Our server seemed to delight in my friends’ two children — they are adorable, after all — which set their parents at ease.
“If you come in early, around 5 o’clock, it’s like Chuck E. Cheese in there. There are strollers everywhere,” Harvey says.
It was something he might have bristled at in his previous jobs at Jackie’s in Silver Spring and at Volt in Frederick.
“Five years ago, I’d be like, ‘What are all of these kids doing in here?’ ” he says. What softened him up? In a few weeks, he and the restaurant name’s inspiration are expecting their first child.
Little Coco’s, 3907 14th St. NW. littlecocos.com. 202-853-9889. Entrees, $12 to $32. Tom Sietsema will return next week.