A Love Affair with Pizza

Falling In Love with Washington Pizza

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Stellina Pizzeria owners Antonio Matarazzo and Chef Matteo Venini serve it up Neo-Neopolitan during a celebration of Capri with pizza expert Chef Amy Riolo, Executive Chef Pasquale Rinaldo and Pizzaiolo Antonio Fusco. Photo: Nandor Nagy

I love pizza. Truly, truly love pizza. I have not, however, always loved Washington, DC pizza. When I moved to town 17 years ago from New England, I found the pizza scene more than a bit lacking. But over the last few years. I have discovered DC pizza worthy of my love and this past Valentine’s Day I discovered one of the reasons why.

I spent Valentine’s Day at Stellina Pizzeria for their From Capri with Love event. My friend and fellow cookbook author Amy Riolo organized the event with owners Antonio Matarazzo and Chef Matteo Venini along with Ristorante D’Amore Capri’s Executive Chef Pasquale Rinaldo and Pizzaiolo Antonio Fusco who had just arrived in the US to cook at the James Beard House a few days prior.

Riolo is an expert on all things pizza. As a Brand Ambassador for the Pizza University and Culinary Arts Center (pizzauniversity.org) in Beltsville, MD, she also writes blog posts and teaches classes on the subject.

When choosing great pizza, Riolo says, you have to first figure your “pizza personality,” or at a minimum, what you’re in the mood for. Today in the DC area there are as many styles of pizza as there are toppings, and some pizzerie actually identify themselves by the style they prefer – which makes the selection process easier. For example, if you know you like super-crunchy crust, then try Neo- Neapolitan. If you like traditional, go for Neapolitan, or if you prefer your pie filled with lots of toppings, then go for Chicago or Detroit. (Want to know the details behind the differences in style? Check out Amy’s blog post on pizza styles at pizzauniversity.org.

Until recently, says Riolo, DC was not known as a pizza-lover’s dream destination. “But that has changed thanks to many passionate consumers, restaurateurs, and the Marra Family.”  The Marra family, originally from Naples, Italy, founded Marra Forni (marraforni.com) in Maryland. The leading US manufacturer of custom brick ovens, their ovens provide local pizza restaurants with the tools they need for success.

In 2018, the Marra Family also opened The Pizza University and Culinary Arts Center to teach not only the art of pizza making, but also integral knowledge about the pizza-business to anyone looking to open a successful pizzeria.

“Our mission is to offer the most comprehensive pizza-making and business operation information in the industry. Authentic, artisan pizza-making combines science, artistry, technique, knowledge, passion, operational skills, and a commitment to centuries-old traditions,” says Riolo. Nowadays the DMV boasts many restaurants with certified Pizzaioli as well as Marra Forni ovens, both of which ensure authenticity and quality.

So, seated next to an expert, enjoying a hot, crisp-crusted slice of pizza I asked Riolo for her DMV favorites:

Amy’s Top Choices

 Stellina

Here you can enjoy Neo-Neapolitan at its brightest and best in an atmosphere that takes you to modern Naples. It’s no accident that Stellina is on the Washingtonian’s 100 Very Best Restaurant list and was named a “Best New Restaurant” in 2019 by many. Chef Matteo Venini cranks out hundreds of classic and new pizza interpretations daily in his Marra Forni oven. Stellina has  also earned much deserved press for their fried items – just like off the streets of Italy – sometimes better. Don’t miss the fried artichokes, cauliflower, and arancini! Riolo says, “If I had to pick a pizzeria to eat at daily, it would be Stellina, and I would be happy doing it!” (stellinapizzeria.com, 399 Morse St NE)

Il Canale

Owner Joe Farruggio, opened the restaurant in 2010 after decades of making pizza in New York. He has become a pillar of the Italian-American community in DC and many local charity events are hosted there. His traditional wood-fired pizzas are tried and true. If you happen to go there when the Italian team is playing in the World Cup (soccer), you might just find Riolo, and her Italian guests eating there. (ilcanale.com, 1065 31st Street, NW)

Pizzeria Paradiso

The restaurant was founded in 1991  to “make the kind of pizza we longed for but couldn’t find in the DC area; the kind of pizza where the crust was the most important part.” To create that pizza, like Il Canale, they also start with a wood-burning oven.  Riolo told me, “I have had the opportunity to collaborate with award-winning owner Ruth Gresser on several occasions. Her commitment to quality ingredients and making a difference in the community are exemplary.  If you’re looking for creative toppings and global influences in your pies and are interested in pairing them with craft beer, this is the place for you.” (eatyourpizza.com, multiple locations in and around DC)

Maggis Pizza Damascus MD

I know many of you might be thinking “who would go to Damascus, MD just for pizza, right?” Well, the answer is, to taste the U.S. Pizza Cup champion’s pizza, that’s why. The competition is organized by the US Pizza Team at the Pizza University and Culinary Arts Center. According to Riolo, “Competition at the Pizza Cup was stiff – and I was a judge. What made Patrick Maggi’s pizza shine was his usage of locally grown–as in, his garden–tomatoes and locally produced mozzarella to create The Maryland Margherita.” Maggi’s Pizza’s combination of truly local ingredients with Italian inspiration makes for a unique pizza that locals can be proud to call their own.

Of course, this is just the tip of the iceberg with 2 Amy’s Menomale, Declaration, All Purpose, and many other pizzerias earning my love as the list of  praise-worthy pizza restaurants in the DMV continues to grow!

Pizza At Home

While your home oven is not going to reach the 700-900 F plus temperatures of these restaurant ovens, you can still make darn good pizza at home. Below is the recipe for my basic crust.

Homemade Pizza Crust

makes 2 10” pizza crusts

This takes an hour to proof the dough and pre-heat the oven, so start your dinner prep early and have plenty of wine on hand while you wait.

Ingredients:

  • 1 1/4 cup warm water\
  • 2 1/2 tsp active dry yeast (about 1 packet)
  • 3 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 2 tbs olive oil

Directions:

Place pizza stone in oven and preheat to 500F while dough proofs. You want the oven good and hot so I pre-heat for at least an hour.

In a large mixing bowl, sprinkle yeast over warm water. If it doesn’t begin to foam within 5 minutes, sprinkle in a pinch of sugar. If it still doesn’t foam then order a pizza for delivery and plan to buy new yeast.

When yeast starts to foam, stir in the flour and salt to make a slightly tacky dough. Knead in the mixer with a dough hook or on a floured surface with your hands until it springs back to the touch, about 3 minutes in the mixer or 6 minutes by hand.

Pour oil into a large, clean mixing bowl. Add dough and turn to coat with oil. Cover with plastic wrap and set somewhere warm, about 75-80F, for an hour to rise.

Divide dough in half and, using your fingers, press out from the center to form a roughly round, thin crust. Top lightly and bake for 8-10 minutes until crisp and beginning to brown.

Last fall Amy and topped the crust with fresh roasted pumpkin, Merguez sausage and feta cheese from Mike Bowers at Eastern Market for my upcoming, new TV show Jonathan’s Kitchen.

Jonathan Bardzik is a Washington, DC-based storyteller, cook and author. Jonathan got his start offering weekly, live cooking demos at Eastern Market and can be found today at more than 10 markets in the DC area. He has written three cook books and his new television series, Jonathan’s Kitchen, will be available this spring on Amazon Prime Video and HereTV. For more information follow Jonathan on Instagram @JonathanBardzik and visit JonathanBardzik.com.