DC was once a sleepy pizza town. We didn’t have much of an identity or an iconic pizza style. Sure, we had lots of pizza places serving decent pies — it’s almost impossible to make a truly bad pizza, unless you’re one of those lost souls who insist that pineapple is an acceptable pizza topping — but none that anyone would argue stood up to the best pies in New York or New Haven. Ledo’s may be the closest we had to a home-grown style, but its square pastry-like crust never really caught on and the brand eventually settled for one-step-above-Sbarro mediocrity.
That all changed in November 1991. That’s when Pizzeria Paradiso opened its doors just off Dupont Circle. It was a revelation. Paradiso’s wood-burning oven cranked out pies the likes of which we hadn’t seen before in these parts. While the ingredients were ostensibly similar to those used by all the other pizza joints in town — flour, water, tomatoes, cheese, and herbs — their freshness and quality, and the care and technique used to put them together, transformed them into a completely different experience.
Fast-forward twenty-five years. DC has become a first-class pizza town — partly, perhaps, because we don’t have a specific pizza orthodoxy we need to uphold. Our aspiring pizzaiolos can borrow from any or all of the pizza traditions and simply focus on making their pizzas delicious.
One of the surprises is that three of my top four pizzerias aren’t actually in DC — they’re in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs — and the DC entrant has been open in its bricks-and-mortar incarnation only a short while. The odds are pretty good that you haven’t been to at least one of them. Pizza Paradiso is still on the list, as is Two Amy’s, although neither is any longer leading the pack.
Without further ado, here is my list of the best pizzas (and one high-profile, most disappointing pizza) in DC.
#1 Pizza in DC — Frankly…Pizza, 10417 Armory Ave, Kensington MD
Pepperoni pizza, $12
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why I keep dreaming about these pies in Kensington. It starts with the pillowy, almost billowy, crust that owner Frank Linn developed first for a mobile brick oven business in 2011 before moving into brick-and-mortar digs in 2014. It has a softly tender mouthfeel while retaining enough char and spotting to provide a textural counterpoint. Frankly then adds a balanced alchemy of sauce, cheese and toppings under both Red and White headings — definitely try the house-made bacon whichever way you go — that makes the pie more than the sum of its parts. Add a cozy neighborhood vibe and comfy front patio and it’s easy to see why tables are hard to come by (don’t tell too many people but they’re open for Saturday and Sunday lunch when it’s much easier to get a table).
#2 Pizza in DC — Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana, 12207 Darnestown Rd, Darnestown MD
Pizza with shrimp sausage, corn and smoked parmesan, $16
It seemed odd when talented chef Tony Conte left his downtown perch at Oval Room to open a little pizza joint near his home in the Maryland ‘burbs. But nothing seemed odd when I sat down to the pie you see here with Conte in the kitchen. The crust was first-rate — crispy, spotted and blistered underneath rather than charred, almost pastry-like end crust. But it was the chef-y toppings that took this one over the top. An amazing corn that lived somewhere between creamed corn and corn pudding. Shrimp sausage. Smoked Parmesan. Basil, green onion (and a hint of tarragon?) rounded the whole thing out.
#3 Pizza in DC — Timber, 809 Upshur St NW, Washington DC
Pretty in Pepperoni with smoked prosciutto, $16
Thin crust with medium char/spotting on bottom. Center droops lightly but not wet or floppy. Very tender chew with plenty of cheese. Smoke flavor from wood-burning oven comes through more than most, particularly at ends. Tomato sauce less pronounced.
#4 Pizza in DC — Pupatella, 5104 Wilson Blvd, Arlington VA
Pizza with sausage, mushroom and red onion, $14
Pupatella is filled with a chaotic exuberance. You start by shuffling along a line that takes you in front of the skilled pizza makers stretching dough, ladling tomato sauce and dotting the mozzarella. Then you sit down and wait for them to bring you your pie. It doesn’t disappoint. The crust has good flavor and is more chewy and supple than crisp, with a light speckling of char underneath. The sauce is bright and tomatoey and the little dollops of fresh mozz are just right. [Note: In a foreboding sign for quality control, Pupatella recently announced they’d be opening new franchised locations going forward.]
#5 Pizza in DC — Ghibellina, 1610 14th St NW, Washington DC
Pizza with olives and artichokes, $18
Soft, supple crust, more speckled than charred, browned or crunchy. Thin and delicate with high quality toppings.
#6 Pizza in DC — Vin 909, 909 Bay Ridge Ave, Annapolis, MD
The Spotted Pig with spicy soppressata, wild boar meatballs, tomato sauce, mozzarella, basil, and provolone, $15
Some people might look at the thin, free-form crust and call it a flatbread. But top a flatbread like a pizza and it’s a pizza in my book. Semantics aside, if you’re a fan of thin and crispy pizza with absolutely no drooping, Vin 909’s “Eastport” style pies are for you. These babies are lightly topped with fresh tomato sauce and house-made mozzarella to keep the proportions perfect. The deeply tanned end crusts have some air bubbles that accentuate the cracker-like texture. For those looking for a similar style closer to DC, check out the Roman-style pizza at Stella Barra Pizzeria in North Bethesda.
#7 Pizza in DC — Pizza CS, 1596 Rockville PikeB, Rockville MD
CS Sausage with Buffalo mozzarella, roasted peppers, sausage and basil, $16
Unpretentious Neapolitan pizza place just off Rockville Pike. Crust has very good flavor although I prefer slightly less flop in the center.
#8 Pizza in DC — 2 Amys, 3715 Macomb St NW, Washington DC
Pizza with pepperoni, red onion and mushroom, $13.45
Fifteen years and going strong. The dining room at 2 Amys still buzzes with the happy hum of couples and families. Pizza is still the focal point, although there is much else to appreciate here (try the deviled eggs with green sauce and the ice cream). The pizza’s thin crust has good spotting and some minor char. The end crust eats like chewy baguette roll. Tomato sauce a bit faint and watery.
#9 Pizza in DC — Alta Strada, 465 K St NW, Washington DC
Spicy ‘Nduja, pickled chiles and red onion pizza, $14
Crust thin and relatively crispy. Judicious amount of toppings that play well off one another. The ‘Nduja and pickled peppers bring just enough heat to keep things interesting.
#10 Pizza in DC — Etto, 1541 14th St NW, Washington DC
Pizza with roasted cauliflower, capers, pine nuts, anchovy and bread crumbs, $17
Owned by the 2 Amys people but a very different pizza. They mill their own wheat in-house and add spelt, which results in a crisper, more artisanal crust. Toppings tend to be flavor-forward.
#11 Pizza in DC — Pete’s Apizza, (Various Locations) Washington DC (#1 for Take-Out)
Pizza with pepperoni, mushrooms and red onion, $20.50
Pete’s became a success by bucking the Neapolitan model and going with a full-on homage to New Haven-style pizza. Sturdy crust from deck ovens that gets crisper as you eat your way out from the softer center to the bronzed ends. Good tomato sauce and solid toppings. If you’re looking for good DC carry-out pizza, this may be your best bet; it travels much better than the more fragile Neapolitan-style pies.
#12 Pizza in DC — Pizzeria Vetri, 2221 14th St NW, Washington DC
Pepperoni pizza, $17
Philadelphia import from Chef Marc Vetri set up shop in an industrial space on 14th Street. Ultra-thin, crisp crust goes down easy. Tomato sauce more herbal than sweet. Solid choice in the neighborhood.
#13 Pizza in DC — Pizzeria Paradiso, (Various Locations) Washington DC
Pizza with sausage, red onion and hot peppers, $16
What once set the standard is now merely standard. Still decent char and fine ingredients. 12-inch pies come out better than 9-inch pies, which tend to come out with all of the ingredients congealed in the center.
#14 Pizza in DC — Al Dente, 3201 New Mexico Ave NW, Washington DC
Salsiccia e Rapini pizza, $13.95
More than respectable pizza in a restaurant that is more wide-ranging than any others on the list. Chef Roberto Donna still turning out some terrific food in upper Northwest. Great option if not everyone in your party feels like pizza.
#15 Pizza in DC — Mia’s Pizza, 4926 Cordell Ave, Bethesda MD
Salsiccia pizza with red onions, $16
Best pizza option in Bethesda now that Pizzeria Da Marco has faded. Nice char on crust. Good quality toppings are judiciously applied. Big news is that Chef-Owner Melissa Ballinger has sold Mia’s to the folks who run Olazzo and Gringos & Mariachis. That may not bode well, given that Ballinger was usually in the house helping assure quality control.
#16 Pizza in DC — We the Pizza, 305 Pennsylvania Ave SE, Washington DC
Pepperoni pizza, $20
Bready crust browned, not charred or spotted. Cheesier, less sauce than most. Classic carry-out pizza, what Domino’s aspires to be.
Most Disappointing Pizza in DC — All-Purpose Pizzeria, 1250 9th St NW, Washington DC
Pepperoni pizza with chili honey, $18
This thing is a mess. A soupy center gives way to a couple of inches of decent pie, ending in a massive end crust virtually devoid of toppings. It’s rare that I don’t finish what’s in front of me but those end-crust bread bombs were too much to choke down. And while putting honey on a pizza must have seemed trendy, it sweetens the tomato sauce into a dead ringer for the SpaghettiOs of my youth. It takes the title of “Most Disappointing” because of the chasm between reality and the high expectations of a pizzeria by the folks behind Red Hen and Boundary Stone. I know Tom Sietsema recently gave these pies a big thumbs up, but I stand by my assessment. (On the other hand, I hear that the other food at AP is excellent, so look forward to another visit sans pizza.)