Dream Come True
Chef Manuel Ruiz, 39, and his wife, Kelly Habig, 36, didn’t plan to realize their dream, opening Ema Rossi Pizzeria Napoletana, in the middle of a pandemic. They signed the lease on a space that was formerly a Pizza Hut in Rockville’s Rock Creek Village Center in June 2019, planning to open in November. Permitting and construction delays—including importing an Acunto Mario wood-burning oven from Naples, Italy, to San Francisco, where it was tiled and sent to Rockville—set that back until April, when COVID-19 was setting in. “At first, we put everything on hold and stayed home [in Kensington] with the kids [Luca, 1, and Liliana, 4],” Habig says. “When things looked better in June, we decided to move ahead. Plus, there was pressure from the landlord.” They opened on July 1.
As a new venture, Ema Rossi, named in honor of Ruiz’s late mother, Emanuela Rossi Santini, a Venezuelan-born artist and Ruiz’s cooking mentor, didn’t have to pivot from a pre-pandemic business model. Ruiz developed the menu’s offerings of appetizers, salads, small plates and red sauce-based and white pizzas (five each) with takeout in mind. He eschewed indoor seating from the start, sticking to outdoor seating for 20 under the center’s covered portico. “Our restaurant is a bit small, so we don’t want to seat anyone inside until we have turned the corner of this crisis. We believe it’s the right thing to do for our staff and our guests. We’ll have heaters outside in colder weather,” he says.
Ruiz has pizzerias in his blood. After World War II, Emanuela’s parents and other family members emigrated from Italy’s Umbria region to Venezuela, where Ruiz’s uncle opened pizzerias. “Growing up, I was obsessed with the dough-making process and would help make it sometimes,” Ruiz says. He came to Washington, D.C.’s Catholic University of America in 2001 to study architecture, his Colombian father’s profession, and worked in restaurants part-time.
Realizing that’s where his heart was, Ruiz left school and worked his way through the management ranks in several D.C. restaurants, among them Lauriol Plaza and Guapo’s, and at the D.C. and Bethesda locations of Cafe Deluxe. Along the way, he earned a degree in hospitality and culinary arts from Montgomery College. He and Habig met while working as servers at D.C.’s Cactus Cantina in 2005 and married in 2014. Habig worked for 2Amys Neapolitan Pizzeria and Le Pain Quotidien in Washington as a server and manager but left the business in 2007 to work for nonprofits.
Ruiz developed recipes based on knowledge handed down from his mother and her mother. The pizza is Neapolitan style. It has a thin center and thick crust and is baked for roughly 90 seconds in an 850-degree wood-burning oven.
My experience at Ema Rossi proved that hospitality and quality drive the business. Phoning in the order was easy, and they brought the food right to my car, parked in a drop-off zone steps away from their front door. All the dishes I sampled were excellent: delicate Wagyu beef and veal meatballs in marinara sauce; deviled eggs with a bold sauce flavored with anchovies, capers, chives and pickles; rigatoni with Bolognese sauce; white pizza with roasted cremini, shiitake and oyster mushrooms, fontina and smoked mozzarella cheeses and balsamic truffle glaze; and red pizza with spicy sausage, broccoli rabe, roasted red peppers and fresh mozzarella. Desserts include housemade gelato and an off-menu item that you now know to ask for: Nutella pizza.
Ruiz says Ema Rossi is doing great business. “We already have a ton of regulars. We are in a shopping center—they’re not coming for the view. We make people feel at home and special. There was a niche in this neighborhood for what we are doing. Once this freaking pandemic is over, we will have a beautiful restaurant.”
Ema Rossi Pizzeria Napoletana, 5556 Norbeck Road, Rockville, 240-669-9900, emarossipizzeria.com
Moved By Spirits
Sometimes you just want a good cocktail, but what to do when you can’t quite find what pleases you? In the case of Bethesda residents Alyssa and Joshua Ammerman, both 46, you cofound Butterfly Spirits and create your own product. The company’s two items, Butterfly Floral Flavored Vodka (70 proof, 35% ABV, $28.99) and amethyst-hued Butterfly Botanical Liqueur (50 proof, 25% ABV, $21.99), hit the market in February and May, respectively. The brand is currently available at 40 locations in D.C. and Maryland, including Wagshal’s Delicatessen in D.C.’s Spring Valley neighborhood and 11 spots in Montgomery County, among them Montgomery County Liquor and Wine stores in Bethesda, Gaithersburg and Germantown.
Alyssa serves as the owner and head of the company; Joshua offers input but concentrates on his day job as a neurosurgeon and chairman of the department of surgery at Sibley Hospital in D.C. “Pre-COVID, we loved having cocktail parties and going out to the bars at PassionFish, Mon Ami Gabi and Morton’s [in Bethesda]. We’d go to Barrel + Crow every Friday night,” Alyssa says. But she couldn’t find spirits with the herbaceous profiles she prefers, so she thought, “Why not make our own?” After extensive research, the Ammermans, who have two teenagers, hooked up with Dragon Distillery in Frederick in 2018. For the liqueur, it took nine months and 90 iterations, paring down from 26 botanicals to 13, to arrive at the flavor and color combination they wanted. The resultant liqueur, which turns from lavender-blue to light pink when exposed to citrus, has hints of rose, lavender, lemongrass and fennel. Alyssa’s favorite cocktail (their website contains many recipes) is The Monarch, made with Butterfly Botanical Liqueur, gin, Luxardo maraschino liqueur and lime juice.
The couple doesn’t share what is used to flavor the vodka, but we detect herb and berry tones. Joshua maintains that it’s eminently sippable without mixers, or with just some tonic or club soda, in the way Hendrick’s gin is.
Butterfly Spirits’ purple branding was as important to the Ammermans as its taste. The vodka bottle is clear with purple wax wrapping the neck. The liqueur is vividly purple in a clear bottle. The hue pops in bars and stores among a sea of green, brown and clear bottles, says Joshua, in the way that colorful butterflies stand out in nature.
Launching a new product in a pandemic presented obstacles. “Label approval by the taxation and trade bureau was delayed. Printing companies overwhelmed by coronavirus printing delayed us another month or two,” Alyssa says. “All the rollout activities we were planning with [Bethesda-based strategy and design collective] Streetsense got put on hold.”
The Ammermans have hired a salesperson and a director of sales and are seeking a distributor to grow the company into a national brand, noting that few liqueurs are American made; most are made in Europe. Through self-distribution, they had sold about 1,000 units as of mid-September. “Not bad for five months in corona times,” Alyssa says.
Comings & Goings
D.C.-based HalfSmoke, a fast-casual concept specializing in sausages, will open in Rockville Town Center this fall.
CAVA founders and Montgomery County natives Ike Grigoropoulos, Dimitri Moshovitis and Ted Xenohristos announced plans to open a Greek restaurant named Melina in North Bethesda’s Pike & Rose development, where they own the French bistro Julii. No opening date was given.
Fast-casual Italian restaurant Gusto Farm to Street closed both of its Bethesda locations in August. (Its Silver Spring location remains open.)
Chevy Chase’s Little Beet Table, a gluten-free restaurant, closed for the foreseeable future in August.
Bethesda mainstay Flanagan’s Harp & Fiddle closed in September after a 35-year run.
Eggspectation shuttered its Silver Spring location in September.
Sergio Toni, owner of Sergio Ristorante Italiano, confirmed in September that the downtown Silver Spring restaurant, which had been in business for 37 years, would not reopen following its closure for the pandemic in March.