Upper Crusts

Upper Crusts

With several new pizza restaurants around, our food critic goes in search of the perfect pie

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Everybody loves pizza, so little wonder that Bethesda and the surrounding towns have always had lots of pizza chains and carryout joints. Within the last couple of years, though, several swankier places have joined their ranks.

Just as the hamburger has been elevated in recent years (think BGR The Burger Joint), “the same thing is happening with pizza,” says Spiro Gioldasis, owner of Pacci’s Neapolitan Pizzeria in Silver Spring.

Cooked in oak- or coal-fired ovens, these artisan pies—their handmade crusts blistered with leopard-like spots and topped with high-quality mozzarella and zesty sauce—bear little resemblance to their mass-produced counterparts.

So which are the real winners among this mushrooming pie population? I decided to find out.

I limited my sampling to places that have opened within the last two years, compared the pizzas by style, and ate a Margherita plus one of the most popular specialty pies at each establishment.

Some overall impressions: We definitely have better pizza options, though not all of them are great. Pizza is made with few ingredients, but there are myriad variations in the dough, cheese and sauce—any of which can make a difference, as can the heat source and cooking time. And since this is a handcrafted product, pizzas can vary from day to day within the same restaurant, depending on who’s making them.

Defining pizza styles is tricky; it depends whom you ask. Similarly, everybody has opinions about what makes a pleasing pie.

Here are mine.

New Haven Style

Inspired by Old World New York pizzas, this style was popularized by two New Haven institutions, Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana, opened in 1925, and Sally’s Apizza, opened by Pepe’s nephew in 1938. Both serve irregular-shaped, coal-fired pizzas that have been altered by others through the years. The common thread is that the crusts are relatively thin, crunchy on the outside and chewy in the middle. Clam pizza is a New Haven signature.

Haven Pizzeria Napoletana

The people: Rockville resident Tiger Mullen has fond childhood memories of stopping at Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana on the way to visit his grandparents in New Haven. As an adult, he became obsessed with opening a pizzeria of his own. He partnered with Mark Bergami, a New Haven native who managed a number of pizzerias, including Pepe’s. After months of delay, their place opened in February.

The particulars: Two 100,000-pound brick ovens with 18-inch-thick walls fire the pizzas using anthracite coal that burns at about 2,000 degrees. The sauce is made from canned tomatoes that are less sweet than the San Marzanos used in Neapolitan pizzas, and the whole milk mozzarella comes from the family-owned Calabro Cheese Corp. in East Haven, Conn.  

The pizza: Haven Fresh ($11.50 for 10-inch; $22 for 16-inch): Topped with mozzarella, grated pecorino Romano, fresh tomatoes, olive oil and basil, the Haven Fresh is the closest thing to a Margherita. I had this pizza twice: Once, the crust was crisp on the outside with a somewhat airy interior; another time, it was thinner and cracker-like. I preferred the airier version, but both provided terrific bases for the full-flavored cheeses. However, the out-of-season tomatoes were pretty tasteless.  

Haven White Clam Pie ($15 for 10-inch; $30 for 16-inch): With freshly shucked top neck clams, grated pecorino Romano and lots of garlic and oregano atop a blistered crust, this distinctive and pungent pie will have you making a return visit. Just remember to bring a breath mint. Or better yet, order one of the OMG gelatos for dessert. 

The place: A handsome spot, with large, brown leather booths and some history: a wood floor reclaimed from an old Maker’s Mark whiskey house in Kentucky; and a white marble bar that was part of the floor at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall about 100 years ago.

7137 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda, 301-664-9412, www.havenpizzeria.com

Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza

The people: A group of family and friends own three area Pete’s pizza places, including a twin brother and sister who—not surprisingly—hail from New Haven. The Friendship Heights location opened in June 2010.

The particulars: Pete’s pies are cooked in gas deck ovens, as co-owner Joel Mehr doesn’t believe that coal cooking is a prerequisite for the New Haven style. Pete’s uses all-purpose flour for its crust, Grande whole milk mozzarella from Wisconsin, and Stanislaus canned tomatoes from California for its sauce.  

The pizza: Margherita ($20 for 14-inch; $25.95 for 18-inch): My previous pies at Pete’s have been quite good, with a terrific crunchy-on-the-outside, chewy-in-the-middle crust and toppings added in a thoughtful ratio. But on this visit, the Margherita’s crust was thin, flat and crisp with a monsoon of mozzarella that made it top-heavy.

New Haven ($20 for 14-inch; $25.95 for 18-inch): The crust was a problem (see Margherita above), and the whole thing was so greasy that my fingers left splotches on my notepad. I liked the garlicky kick, but the chopped Chesapeake clam population was sparse.

The place: Not much going for it in the way of atmosphere and service. You order at the counter, get a number, sit down at a table (if one is available) and wait for your food to be delivered. If you want another drink, dessert or a carryout box, you have to shimmy your way between the tables and get it yourself. My friend calls it “takeout food with tables.”

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

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