Besides, "I felt that I put myself in a box at Oval Room," the chef adds about the restaurant that peaked at three-and-a-half stars in 2011. "I was trying to achieve something there. I wanted certain things to kind of happen and evolve and one day I said, ‘You know, this is not fun anymore. I need to do something different.’ And usually those are words for something drastic."
Few, perhaps, could have guessed how drastic: With one small decision, Conte made one giant move away from fine dining. His next restaurant will be a pizzeria, one that returns him to his roots both in Italy (his family hails from Pontelatone, north of Naples) and New Haven, Conn. (where Conte was born and raised).
Not that Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana will produce replicas of pies you can obtain in either Naples or New Haven. The pizzeria, set to open on Tuesday, Oct. 13, near Gaithersburg, will feature Conte's personalized spins on Neapolitan pizza. The fine-dining-chef-turned-pizzaiolo would like to get his marinara and margherita pizzas certified by VPN Americas as authentic Neapolitan, which would place him in rare company: Only 2 Amys, Il Canale, Pupatella and several others in Virginia have received such certification in the region.
But Conte is walking a fine line with the VPN rules: He wants to follow them, but he also wants to find his own expression within their limits. The chef turns semi-coy when talking about how he approaches authentic Neapolitan pizza, but one of his tricks will be to blend highly refined, so-called "00" flours to create his dough. He won't, in other words, rely on Caputo, the self-described "flour of Naples."
"To go Caputo, that’s easy," says Conte as he stands in his 40-seat pizzeria. "There’s a lot more stuff that comes from overseas. There’s a lot of stuff that’s grown in the States that’s 00. . . We’ll see what’s available and what’s out there and how we can create our own.”
You get the sense VPN certification is a kind of validation to Conte, proof the chef hasn't forsaken his Italian heritage in the pursuit of four stars during his nine years at the Oval Room. Pontelatone, in fact, will play a role in the design of Inferno, maybe even in the production of its pizza: Photos of the Italian comune will hang on the walls, and Conte hopes to secure a source for fresh buffalo mozzarella from the family hometown.
Authentic Neapolitan pizza is "still a part of who we are and what we do," Conte says. He clearly wants in the club.
But before he fills out the VPN paperwork, Conte wants to get his pizzeria up and running. He'll open with a limited menu of seven pizzas. Aside from the marinara and margherita, Conte will offer rounds as diverse as a white pie with roasted fairytale squash and 'nduja and a red pie with organic egg, San Marzano tomatoes, fontina cheese and freshly shaved truffles.
"We're not even weighing" the truffles, Conte promises. "We're going to let it rain."
Inferno will also offer a small handful of salads and appetizers, prepared with vegetables sourced from local farms. The apps will include shaved fall vegetables with Asian pears and a charred hot-pepper vinaigrette as well as ember-roasted beets with Calabrian chili, kefir, pecans and maple vinegar.
Those beets, not to mention the seven pizzas, will be prepared in a wood-burning oven custom-made by Marra Forni in Beltsville. The firebrick oven, covered in gorgeous white-pearl tile, doesn't sport the name of the pizzeria on its exterior, as so many of these wood-burning behemoths do. Instead, it includes a few dragonflies made from Murano glass.
“The dragonflies represent, essentially, my mother-in-law. She passed away from lung cancer" in 2010, Conte says. As the family lore goes, mother-in-law Mary Russo had said that whenever she dies, she would like to come back as a dragonfly. The chef didn't tell his wife, Kim, that he was paying tribute to Mary with the centerpiece of his pizzeria. He just unveiled the oven to her at Inferno.
"Tears," says Conte.
Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana, 12207 Darnestown Road, Darnestown, 301-963-0115. The pizzeria opens Tuesday, Oct. 13. Opening hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Sunday. After a few weeks, Inferno will expand its weekend hours to noon to 10 p.m. Friday, Saturday and Sunday.