September-October 2010 | Reviews

Good Pizza, No Matter How You Slice It

Who knew pizza could be so complicated? Tracing the roots, authenticity and interpretations of the pizza at two new places-Pete's New Haven Style Apizza and Pacci's Neapolitan Pizzeria-got me as twisted as melted mozzarella.

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Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza

Upper Northwest D.C.

The people: Not surprisingly, the restaurant’s inspiration came from two New Haven natives, Michael Wilkinson and his twin sister, Alicia Wilkinson-Mehr. Alicia met her Potomac-raised husband, Joel Mehr, while both were working in catering in Washington, D.C. Mehr had worked in pizzerias in New York City and also at the National Gallery of Art, where he and Tom Marr oversaw the museum’s food operations. Michael, Alicia, Joel, Tom and Tom’s wife, Kerri, started their first location in Columbia Heights in 2008; they brought in an additional partner when they opened the Tenleytown branch.

As for the name: Pete refers to Alicia and Michael Wilkinson’s dad, who still lives in New Haven, as well as Alicia’s Michael Wilkinson, Pete Mehr and Alicia Wilkinson-Mehr, with a Pete's New Haven Style pizzason, an elementary school student who lives in Petworth. The “Apizza,” pronounced ah-BEETS, comes from the Neapolitan tendency to drop the first and last letters from words, according to Michael Wilkinson. New Haven’s Italian immigrant community shortened “la pizza” to “apizz.”

The pizza: So what exactly is New Haven-style pizza? It depends on whom you ask, what you read or where you eat it. Yalies and New Haven transplants will want to compare Pete’s to two well-known fixtures in that city: Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana (1925); and Sally’s Apizza (opened by Pepe’s nephew in 1938). Both serve irregularly shaped, coal-fired pizzas that have been copied and altered through the years. In addition to today’s typical pizza toppings, both still offer their original tomato pies, with a simple wash of tomato sauce, grated pecorino romano cheese and garlic.

Chef Tom Marr of Pete’s says the common thread in New Haven-style pizza is its crust: relatively thin, crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Made with high-moisture dough, it’s cooked longer than most pizzas. Marr says Pete’s actually models its pizzas after Apizza Grande, a newer New Haven-area shop.

Regardless of its inspiration, Pete’s has a terrific crust that is neither too doughy nor too crisp, and gets finished with a perfect ratio of toppings.

The simple Margarita pizza was a fine example of this balance, with its light wash of tomato sauce, gentle addition of mozzarella and pecorino romano cheeses, and slivers of fresh basil. The clam pizza, a variety made famous by Pepe’s, was chock full of garlic and clam bits and accented with pecorino romano and oregano. The combination and quantities worked well. The pepperoni was pretty standard, and the New Haven Green was heavy for a veggie pizza, leaving me wishing I’d satisfied my vegetable requirements with a salad instead.

Pete’s offers some pizzas by the slice, a fine idea since full pies are only available in 18 inches and most cost about $25. The restaurant admits to getting some flak about its prices, and goes to great (and humorous) lengths on its website to defend itself. Using a mathematical formula, Pete’s compares the surface area of its pizzas to the smaller competition, concluding its pies are a far better deal. That may be true, but many places that sell personal pies come with full table service and atmosphere. Pete’s has neither.

The place: Pretty basic, with yellow walls, wood tables and floors, and a nod to New Haven and Naples with clocks showing the time in each city. You order at the counter, get a number, sit down at a table and wait for your food to be delivered. That’s how it’s supposed to work. But on a crowded evening, you may end up waiting in two lines: one to place your order, another to be seated. It’s chaotic, but the lines go relatively quickly, and the staff is friendly. Just come in a good mood.

Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza

4940 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, D.C.
202-237-7383

www.petesapizza.com

HOURS
Open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday though Thursday and 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.

PRICES
Pizzas (all 18-inch) range from $23.95 to $25.95. Plain cheese, $18.95. Gluten-free available (12-inch for $13.95). Slices, $2.50 to $3.25.

RESERVATIONS
Not taken

WINE AND BEER LIST
All Italian wines—five reds, five whites—at $7 to $10 a glass or about $28 to $38 a bottle. About 13 different bottles of beer with eight on tap, most craft brewed; also, gluten-free beer.

FAVORITE PIZZAS
Margarita, New Haven

GOOD PLACE TO GO FOR
Families and friends, especially those from New Haven or Yale alumni

PARKING
Street parking. Tenleytown or Friendship Heights Metro.

Pacci’s Neapolitan Pizzeria

Silver Spring

The people: In the daytime, Spiro Gioldasis serves as wine director and general manager of Mrs. K’s Restaurant in Silver Spring, where he has worked for 12 years. In the evenings, he heads over to Pacci’s, the pizzeria he owns, designed and decorated himself. The name Pacci’s is a combination of his sons’ names: Pavlos, 9, and Zissis, 3½, nicknamed “Ciccis.” The executive chef is Rosario Granieri, a Naples native who most recently cooked at Oro Pomodoro in Rockville. Spiro Gioldasis with the La Saporita pizza at Pacci's

The pizza: Defining true Neapolitan pizza is easier than defining New Haven-style, since a Naples-based trade group, Verace Pizza Napoletana Association, certifies restaurants that produce pizzas according to its standards. Eleven pages of regulations detail everything from the type of flour, water, salt and yeast that must be used to how it must be cooked (wood-fired ovens only), at what temperature (905 degrees) and for how long (60 to 90 seconds). Pacci’s is in the process of seeking such approval.

As for the crust, the association says the “center should be particularly soft to the touch and taste,” and the “crust should deliver the flavor of well-prepared baked bread.”

Gioldasis says Pacci’s crusts are even softer than true Neapolitans, because unlike in Italy, American pizzas are sliced before they’re brought to the table. Once cut, moisture from the cheese and sauce seeps between the thin slices and into the center, making the crust soggy.

That’s what happened to the crust on the Margherita pizza at Pacci’s—it got mushy from its tomato topping early on in the meal. Ditto for the Quattro Stagioni, a pie with four different varieties in one (two slices of each). Conversely, La Saporita, a white pizza with fewer moisture-prone ingredients—smoked provolone, friarielli (a bitter green), homemade sausage and fresh basil—was almost burnt. But the char seemed to fit the smoky, earthy taste of the toppings, resulting in the best pizza of the night.

I like these pizzas well enough, but I had better luck with carryout. When I reheated the pizzas at home, I got uniformly crispy crusts. Not authentic Neapolitan, but really good by my book.

The place: Gioldasis designed a stylish space, a long, skinny room with an interior brick wall on one side and sunny yellow paint on the other. Wines are shelved vertically and horizontally above the bar, giving it the look of a wine library. There’s also a lovely outdoor patio with tile-topped tables. All in all, it has a hip, urban feel that somehow makes the pizza taste better.

Pacci’s Neapolitan Pizzeria

8113 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring
301-588-1011

www.paccispizzeria.com

HOURS
Open 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Sunday. Closed Monday.

PRICES
Pizzas (all 12-inch) range from $8 to $13.

RESERVATIONS
Not taken

WINE AND BEER LIST
All Italian, with eight by the glass, ranging from $6 to $7.25, and 18 by the bottle, ranging from $23 to $37. The restaurant also offers takeout wine at retail prices, a nice touch. Six beers, including two on tap.

FAVORITE PIZZA
La Saporita

GOOD PLACE TO GO FOR
A respite from Silver Spring chain restaurants and an unexpected touch of Naples on Georgia Avenue

PARKING
Street parking and public lot behind restaurant. Silver Spring Metro.

Carole Sugarman is Bethesda Magazine’s Food Editor.