Beyond the venerable jumbo slice, Washington has a wide variety of pizza options, from the kale-topped slices at Timber Pizza to the pies sprinkled with ’nduja and preserved truffle sauce at All-Purpose. You can even find a true version of a New York-style pie here: Wiseguy Pizza, a local order-at-the-counter chain with a new location opening in Navy Yard this summer, serves up the best version in town — without having a single New Yorker on staff.
In fact, as Turkish-born Wiseguy owner Nuri Erol discovered while making a cross-country pizza odyssey, you don’t have to be in the Big Apple to make a good New York-style pie, nor do you even have to use water imported from the Hudson River to provide the right flavor (yes, some people claim New York water is a necessary ingredient). “It’s not about the water,” Erol said. “It’s just about making good pizza.”
How do they make that happen?
Atop a Wiseguy pizza is its secret sauce — and it is actually pretty secret, because just one person on staff knows the recipe and makes it for all the Wiseguy locations. The shop slings classic cheese pizza with or without pepperoni, plus such atypical toppings as house-made meatballs, penne pasta in vodka sauce and chicken tikka masala. The mozzarella comes from the Wisconsin-based Grande Cheese Co., generally considered the gold standard by many commercial pizzamaking operations, where the cheese is washed in hot water to create a supple elasticity that allows for that lightly oily stretchiness in every bite.
The crust is thin, but not so thin that it crisps too much inside the 450-degree oven. That’s key, because, above all things, a true New York-style crust must have one characteristic: It must fold.
If you’re holding the real deal, you want to grasp it at the slightly thicker outside edge and gently squeeze the corners together, allowing all the cheese, sauce and other toppings to stay tucked inside so you can get a good bite — and, sorry, forks and knives need not apply. New Yorkers are always on the go, so a foldable pizza means it can be eaten even while navigating a crowded sidewalk or flagging down a cab.
You probably aren’t going to see anyone eating pizza like that in D.C. — we like to sit down with our pizza, often with a tie flung over one shoulder — but at Wiseguy, you can get the New York flavors, even without the full New York experience.
Erol is a stickler for the details that set his pizza apart. After owning and operating five pizza places around the Washington region for several years, he decided to scrap everything he already knew about pizza in 2011 and start over from scratch — literally. “I traveled all over New York, New Jersey and Italy, eating pizza, learning about pizza,” he said. “And then I traveled across the United States to California, Arizona, any place where I heard that there was really great pizza. What I really wanted to know is what is characteristic about New York-style pizza, and how are people making it outside of New York.”
The answer: It takes a lot of time. General manager Jack Drammeh said that getting the crust just right starts with fermentation. “Around 7 or 8 o’clock each night,” he said, “we’re making dough for the next day so that it can ferment for 12 to 24 hours. If you don’t give the dough time to develop, then it won’t cook right. That’s when you get big bubbles that can burn in the oven.”
Erol agreed: “A New York-style pizza is consistent — this isn’t like pizza in wood-fired ovens that you expect to have a lot of char and variations.”
Maintaining that consistency means that Wiseguy’s chefs have to intimately understand the quirks of the four Baker’s Pride pizza deck ovens, knowing where a cold spot might occasionally develop so that a pie can be moved to a hotter location. It also means hand-stretching the dough — don’t be looking for any fancy twirling of pizza dough in the air, which can lead to thin spots that can burn.
Before even opening the first Wiseguy near Chinatown in 2012, Erol gathered together “one hundred New York pizza snobs” to get their seal of approval. When the newly opened restaurant got slammed and struggled to keep up, Erol shut the place down for almost a week to get the kinks ironed out. “People thought I was crazy,” he said, “but it was better to take a few days off and get it right, because we have never stopped being busy since then.”
And, make no mistake, they are busy. From the time the Gallery Place location opens at 11 a.m. until it closes in the early morning hours (as late as 5 a.m. on weekends), a constant flow of customers — jurors and court clerks from nearby Judiciary Square, hockey fans and concertgoers heading home from Capital One Arena — grab slices at one of the handful of tables or order pies to go.
Just don’t look for delivery. “The last thing I want is for a customer to get a soggy pizza delivered to their door that’s been steaming inside a hot box while stuck in traffic,” Erol said. “Fresh is best.”
300 Massachusetts Ave. NW; 1735 North Lynn St., Arlington. A new location is opening at 202 M St. SE later this year. wiseguypizza.com.