By Elana Schor - 06/19/08 07:24 PM EDT
Sooner or later, everyone who eats out in Washington confronts certain baffling food mysteries: Why do most street pushcarts sell nothing but bad hot dogs? How has the Spanish concept of tapas been translated into every other ethnic cuisine?
The food custom that keeps me up at night, however, is the jumbo slice. Slung onto paper plates in neon-drenched dishonor, barely tasty even at 2 a.m., it is too disappointing to truly count as pizza.
Now that Pete’s has opened next to the Columbia Heights Metro, urbanites have one more reason to resist the call of the jumbo.
Pete’s technically serves not pizza but apizza — pronounced “a-beets” — a charred, thin-crust tomato pie perfected before World War II by Italian immigrants in New Haven, Conn.
Purists in search of the perfect Chicago deep-dish or New York pepperoni may be disappointed with a crust that snaps instead of yielding upon first bite.
But to try Pete’s is to appreciate the value of a pie that uses nothing but flour and yeast, its only sweetness coming from a deliriously light mozzarella and fresh toppings.
The apizzeria was opened by veteran caterer Alicia Mehr, her husband Joel, and business partner Tom Marr, formerly in charge of the National Gallery’s kitchen. The trio eschewed the coal and wood that fire some New Haven ovens in favor of gas power, keeping their slices a bit under-cooked to ensure that every order emerges fresh.
The method is a smashing success. Sausage apizza manages to feel delicate on the palate in the hands of Pete’s cooks, with the herbs on the meat teased out by the addition of velvety wild mushrooms. Artichokes added appealing sourness to a light spinach pie, and the sorbillo is an interesting twist on the traditional filled calzone.
Underwhelming was the white clam pie, a New Haven staple that is a point of pride at Pete’s. The absence of sauce heightens the drama of the pie’s heavy garlic, but the lost moisture makes for a dry bite dominated by burnt aromas. The arugula apizza suffers a similar fate, coming out all bread and bitter greens.
For those more partial to Domino’s than a charred New Haven slice, the menu at Pete’s offers more to like.
Salads are simple but deeply satisfying, thanks to locally sourced ingredients such as creamy gorgonzola and toasted pine nuts. The juicy oven-dried tomatoes that crown the Olivada salad are not to be missed.
The panini sandwiches are also tasty and unexpectedly refined, served on a fluffy focaccia bread made in-house. Pete’s has mastered the secret to a grilled Italian sandwich, scrimping on the cheese to let the ingredients sing.
Carnivores won’t miss the meat in the “Little Pete” panini, which uses just enough silky green olive oil to bring out the earthy flavors of thinly sliced fried eggplant and roasted bell peppers.
Thick mortadella cold cuts and buffalo mozzarella make the “Big Pete” sandwich almost too stomach-coating to finish in one serving.
In truth, the menu is perfect for sharing, with each apizza pie sized to suit groups of four or more and a clever antipasto plate that features a rotating cast of four seasonal salads.
On a sweltering summer day, the antipasto is liable to upstage the hot slices of apizza. Roasted beets in grapefruit vinaigrette with ricotta salata and grilled shrimp with delicate Tuscan white beans are worthy picks.
No discussion of Pete’s would be complete without dessert, where quirky sorbets and gelati from local provider Dolcezza are the biggest draws.
True, a cup of Caribbean red papaya or Virginia peanut butter is an excellent way to put out the gustatory fires of apizza — but please consider the cupcake.
Made from pistachio brown-butter dough, topped with strawberry-mascarpone icing, and filled with a dollop of decadent chocolate ganache, the cupcake’s looks are deceiving.
With microbrews on tap and unfailingly friendly service, Pete’s already has the makings of a neighborhood hit.
But if you prefer to mount a search for other compelling alternatives to the disgraceful jumbo slice, here are suggestions for the best pizza pie in the capital.
- Ella’s Wood-Fired Pizza, 901 F St. NW, (202) 638-3434. The pies at this Penn Quarter spot user lighter and less gooey cheese, leaving more room to appreciate the fresh toppings. To counteract the abundance of overly sweet diced tomatoes in the sauce, try the salty kick of the Verdura, loaded with black olives, artichokes and basil. The best part: A small costs only $5 before 7 p.m.
- Pizzeria Paradiso, 2029 P St. NW, (202) 223-1245. The Dupont Circle location of this mini-chain tends to give its fresh crusts more TLC than its bustling Georgetown twin. And attention must be paid to the palate-tingling spice of the Atomica, topped with smoky salami, black olives and a smattering of hot pepper flakes.
- Two Amys, 3715 Macomb St. NW, (202) 885-5700. This is the temple of Washington pizza, founded by a former Paradiso cook and packed with boisterous families every night of the week. It’s not the place for a romantic rendezvous, but here you’ll find the only pie in the city that also counts as a salad. The Santa Brigida is topped with cherry tomatoes and an impressive mountain of fresh arugula. Drizzle some balsamic on it to bring out the bitter, nutty tang.
- Comet, 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 364-0404. Three words: soft shell crab. When the crustaceans are in season, this parlor coats them in sweet warmed leeks and plants them in the center of a truly unforgettable pie. They don’t keep well in the fridge, but you probably won’t leave a single bite.