Sometime before the summer of 2011, Steve Salis sold the bars and restaurants he owned in New York City and began thinking about the pizza industry. He thought about the pizza moments in his life. About how he shared pies with his grandparents, about the food making him smile, and the neighborhood pizza joint “where everyone felt like they belonged.”
He didn’t see these things in the modern day pizza industry. He saw the opposite—pizzas lacking innovation, parlors with poor service—and believed there was an opportunity to “disrupt” it.
Today, Salis, 31, and business partner Michael Lastoria opened their fourth &pizza location on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda. Their other locations have been met with rave reviews on Yelp and a nod from The Washington Post. And they’re not done expanding. They have plans for two more locations in D.C. and another at Crown Farm in Germantown
So how did they get to this point? It started in the Big Apple, the home to some of the best slices in the world. After selling his properties in New York, Salis rented a 2,000-square-foot West Chelsea art studio and brought in Lastoria, who has a marketing background. At the studio, they began creating their new pizza concept—a Chipotle-style assembly line with a special oven at the center surrounded by choices of dough, toppings and sauces.
“All the technologies we use in our kitchen today, we figured it out then,” Salis said. The oven cooks the pizzas in about 90 seconds at 600 degrees, giving them a thin and crispy New York-style crust.
The partners brought in a chef to help them choose their unique stable of ingredients, ranging from dough (traditional, whole wheat, multigrain) to sauces and spreads (tomato, red chickpea, spicy tomato, tomato pesto, mushroom truffle, ricotta spread), to cheese (mozzarella, formaggio blend), to classic toppings (pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, peppers), and to the more adventurous (falafel crumbles, strawberry balsamic, tzatziki yogurt, pineapple salsa, and farm eggs).
With the idea developed, the partners then needed to decide where to start. They ruled out New York. “The cost of doing business is rich,” said Salis, who majored in economics at the University of New Hampshire and played for the school’s basketball team. So they began a nationwide tour. Over three weeks, the two partners visited Austin, Dallas, Denver, Boulder, Southern California, southern Florida, Philadelphia and Boston, before coming to Washington, D.C.
“We drove around D.C. for three hours, then I got out and did a couple of 360s and was sort of like, I think this makes sense,” Salis said.
Against advice from a real estate agent, Salis settled on an old building at 1118 H St. for the first &pizza location. “I liked the sense of edge, progression,” Salis said. He described the building as somewhat dilapidated with an uneven floor, a trashed second story, and shoddy beams. But over the summer of 2012, the partners put it back together.
“There was so much we took away from that,” Salis said. “That first store is a little more special to us because we put our blood, sweat and tears into that place.”
The H Street location officially opened on June 13, 2012. The Washington City Paper wrote that day, “Owners Steve Salis and Michael Lastoria proudly tout the fact that every pie is fired to order.”
A year later, the partners opened up their second location on U Street, followed by one on Monroe Street in D.C. last month.
Salis said the key to expanding is to maintain a connection to local communities and strict quality control. Before opening in Bethesda, Salis spoke at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School about entrepreneurship. Each location has artwork taken from community influences, and in Bethesda, photos of the B-CC Barons football team are displayed next to the menu.
The Bethesda location, hemmed into a tiny 700-square-foot commercial space at The Metropolitan building that used to be a dry cleaners, will be &pizza’s smallest. It seats about 15.
But with more restaurants on the way, and an idea that seems like it can be replicated nationally, just how long will &pizza be able to maintain its freshness?
“When you scale, you run the risk of dilution,” Salis said. “What happens is you start to stretch yourself in a lot of areas and it’s risky. Right now we’re focusing on building a definable brand in this area. That’s our sole focus right now.”
7614 Old Georgetown Road
SUN – THURS: 10am – 11pm
FRI & SAT 10am – 12am