The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

When a girl meets a guy and they make pizza pie, that’s amore

Daniela Moreira and Andrew Dana in their meeting area — two folding chairs — in the back of Call Your Mother deli in Washington. (Deb Lindsey/for The Washington Post)

Survey the literature on workplace romances, and you’ll find broad consensus: It’s risky, messy and possibly unethical. But for Daniela Moreira and Andrew Dana, co-owners of the District’s Timber Pizza and the “Jew-ish” deli Call Your Mother, getting together was best for business. Denying their feelings simply didn’t work. And trust them, they tried.

You could say it was meant to be. But that conjures up visions of epic romances. Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy. Ilsa and Rick. Bella and Edward. In contrast, Moreira and Dana’s love story follows the plot points of a romantic comedy — as directed by Judd Apatow. Dana is the bro-ishly charming dude, and Moreira is the no-nonsense beauty determined not to fall for him. From their first meeting (at a farmers market, of course) through two years of misunderstandings and out-of-sync love declarations, they finally found a happy ending.

Why fluffy, sweet and nostalgic American buttercream is better than its fancier friends

Our tale begins in September 2015. Moreira was shopping at the Friday market next to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, where she noticed a mobile wood-burning pizza oven. She was 25 and a recent graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America with a soft spot for wood-fire cooking. It reminded her of how her mother made empanadas and pastries at the family’s campground in her native Argentina.

The stand, Timber Pizza, was not open yet. So she headed to another vendor to buy eggs. There was only one carton left, and she had to negotiate for it with a young, doe-eyed man with a shaved head who wanted the eggs to make himself breakfast. After some good-natured banter, they split the dozen. The man — yep, Dana — headed back to the pizza oven and told his partner, “That’s what I want my wife to look like.”

You can’t make this up.

Dana, a 29-year-old Washington native, had started Timber with a friend the previous year. In the movie version of this story, Dana’s decision to go in on a $32,000 wood-burning oven would probably be cast as the fulfillment of a lifelong passion. But in truth it was more about desperation. “I was always rudderless,” Dana said. “I was the guy in college who, second semester junior year, was told he had to declare a major and said: ‘What do I have the most credits in?’” (Answer: political science.) After graduation, he sold windows. He went to business school and worked at an educational software start-up. He hoped the combination of making good pizza and working for himself would stick.

A few minutes after their egg encounter, Moreira approached Dana at the Timber stand. “I was like, ‘Yeah, I still got it,’ ” Dana remembers thinking. In fact, Moreira was looking for work to tide her over until a new job started. Dana took her contact information and followed up with an offer: $12 an hour, a T-shirt and all the pizza she could eat.

Moreira had neglected to mention her culinary training when she asked for a job. So when she showed up to help out at a jazz fest in Petworth, Dana assigned her the relatively simple task of chopping zucchini.

“Where’s a cutting board?” Moreira asked.

“We don’t have one. We just cut on the table,” Dana answered.

Moreira raised an eyebrow. “I had assumed they were pros; that I would be learning from them,” she remembers. In fact, Dana admits, they were winging it. At that point, they had one handwritten recipe for pizza dough, which didn’t even include formal measurements. (“It was two yellow scoops of yeast, because we had a yellow tablespoon, and a blue scoop of salt,” says Dana. “If we had ever lost those measuring utensils, we would have been screwed.”)

Nevertheless, Moreira got to work. Swiftly and precisely, she sliced the zucchini into thin rounds. When she looked up, Dana was staring, gobsmacked. “It would have taken us an hour to do what she did in 30 seconds,” Dana said.

Valentine’s Day diners just want to celebrate love, so stop calling it ‘Amateur Night’

Moreira explained that she had graduated recently from culinary school and had staged at the prestigious New York restaurant Eleven Madison Park. Dana immediately began trying to persuade her to join Timber full time.

It took her three months to agree. After all, she had come to the United States to learn English, a prerequisite to work in the top kitchens she aspired to join. Now fluent and a CIA graduate to boot, Moreira was waiting to start a job at the Shaw Bijou, then Washington’s most anticipated (and most delayed) restaurant.

Still, something about the idea of fine dining bothered her. It was so precious, so serious. And the truth was, she had never been so happy in a job as she was at Timber. “Here were these two cool guys making pizza and playing music all the time,” she remembers. “It was not that they didn’t care. They did care — a lot. But they weren’t being so serious about everything. I fell in love with that. And slowly I started falling in love with Andrew. But I was married at the time.”

Record scratch. Married?

Moreira had married one of her culinary school classmates in a courtroom service after graduation. In the summer of 2016, they had planned a ceremony for friends and family in Rock Creek Park. This despite the palpable tension between her and Dana. (In the film, this will be portrayed in a montage of flirty kitchen scenes, hilarious banter and winsome glances.) A few weeks before the wedding, Dana turned to her in the kitchen and said: “I think I love you, and I don’t think you should get married.”

“I think I love you too,” she replied, then added that it probably wasn’t real love but actually the result of the pressure they were under to open the bricks-and-mortar Timber Pizza in Petworth.

How to pick a Valentine’s Day wine that’s as romantic as your mood

“This will pass,” she said.

But it didn’t. At the wedding, Moreira wore a white dress. Dana attended, but he left halfway through to work a shift at Timber. “All I could think is that this is not the way it’s supposed to be going,” he says. “We just had such a connection. I just knew it wasn’t right. But I had spoken my piece, and she had made her decision.”

Six months later, Moreira and her husband separated.

If you’re ready for a happy ending now, think again. This is where our millennial dude hero gets cold feet; he didn’t want to be the rebound. And after all, they were business partners. Moreira was crushed. But really, what could she say?

And so for a year they plowed ahead as “friends,” working together, socializing together, even, for a period of time, living together in Dana’s apartment — but in separate rooms. (Moreira was baking bagels in Timber’s oven overnight for the soon-to-open Call Your Mother, and Dana’s apartment, right across the street, made it easy to catch some sleep between shifts.) The businesses thrived: Timber Pizza hit Bon Appétit magazine’s Top 50 list of best new restaurants in 2017; two years later, Call Your Mother made the cut too.

It took Dana attending a magical wedding in 2018 in Big Sur, Calif. — and getting incredibly drunk — to realize how idiotic the whole situation was. In true Apatow style, he FaceTimed Moreira to tell her, and she was justifiably skeptical. Once home, “I told her, this is for real. And we haven’t looked back since.”

Last fall, four years after they met, Dana surprised Moreira with a ring on the dock of his family’s summer home on New York’s Lake George.

A good love story doesn’t require a moral. But if there’s a lesson here, it’s that romance can, under the right circumstances, make working together easier. “There wasn’t all this tension,” Dana said. “We used to fight and get into arguments over things that may or may not have had to do with business. So things got much smoother.”

Now publicly together, Dana and Moreira have eschewed the usual division of labor — one person running the front of house while the other runs the kitchen. They both work on everything. He’s the dreamer, coming up on the fly with recipe ideas, like a nectarine cream cheese studded with jalapeño and bacon, or a pizza topped with roast lamb and almonds. She makes them taste delicious. He’s inclined to go big and bright on colors — he picked the garish flamingo pink that is Call Your Mother’s signature hue — while she urges restraint.

“It’s rare you find an entrepreneur who brings everything together: vision, product, creativity, execution,” said Jeff Zients, an investor in Call Your Mother, which, like Timber, has drawn national accolades. “As a couple in business, the two of them are the full package.”

Their nontraditional perspective also has helped create a company that bucks some of the restaurant industry’s less savory trends. Unlike many restaurants, they offer health insurance, a 401(k) plan, free gym and yoga memberships and English-as-second-language classes. And most important, they do not pay a tipped wage, in which staff get less than minimum wage with the difference made up by tips. Instead, everyone gets at least minimum wage and tips are divided equally among front-of-house cashiers and servers, who are usually paid more, and back-of-house cooks and dishwashers.

Of course, being in love and in business together still has its pitfalls. “The upside is that you are in a relationship with the only person in the world who can understand the hustle and the grit that it takes to launch and run restaurants,” Dana said. “Then there are the times when we’re driving and Dani is yelling, ‘I’m talking to my fiance now, not my business partner.’ We’re working on making that switch faster.”

They still have a little time to figure it out. The wedding is scheduled for Oct. 24.

Black is a former Food staff writer.

More from Food:

Have questions about cooking? Join our live chat Wednesdays at 12.