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Pete's Apizza: New Haven Inspired Pies


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(I believe the old rule of thumb in journalism is that one occurrence in a phenomenon, two equals a trend…)

Way back in the day, a pizza shop looking to assert authenticity would claim the mantle “New York-style pizzeria.” Then, here in Washington, anyway, that doughy stuff Chicagoans pretend to like -- the same way they pretend to like the eternally-lame Chicago Cubs -- was all the rage, kind of like hair bands. Sometime in the 90s, it was decreed that no pie was worthy unless it was cooked in a wood-fired oven by someone called a "pizzaiolo" who bowed thrice daily in the direction of Naples – excuse me, Napoli – and produced a pie that was as simple and/or boring as possible. Fortunately, though, pizza seems to be coming home, back to the New World: New York and, far hipper than that, New Haven. And, even hipper, in my opinion (especially since we’re talking East of the Park) East Haven.

MT. Pleasant/Columbia Heights/Petworth: get ready for Pete’s Apizza.

First thing: it’s pronounced “uh-BEETS.” If you say the name of this place and you sound like a Little Caesar’s commercial from 1993, you’re saying it wrong, and you will likely annoy – both for the pronunciation and for the allusion -- front man Mike Wilkinson, with whom I spoke yesterday. Mike’s day job gives him enough insight into the ways of developers, DC inspectors and other bureaucrats and profiteers that the power trio behind the restaurant have given him a little slice of the pie in return for his helping them move the restaurant from the drawing board to opening day and taking calls from curious neighbors and foodboarders. The power trio are locals: Mike’s sister Alicia and brother-in-law Joel Mehr, who live in Petworth, and Tom Marr, of Fairfax. Their restaurant experience includes everything “from hauling the trash down the back stairs” to Joel and Tom’s most recent gig, running the kitchen at the National Gallery. And, together, they’re trying to open a 50 seat place that will eventually serve Italian wine, domestic and Italian beers, pannini, soup, pasta (what, no grinders?) and, most of all, New Haven pizza.

Mike -- who speaks with a heartening passion about the finer points of a proper New Haven crust -- points out that you can’t really duplicate the more famous of the New Haven joints, like Pepe’s or Sally’s, because you can’t put a coal oven in a DC apartment building. But, regardless of what the gastrotourists who never get far from Wooster Street might believe, New Haven has a lot of great apizzarias that use a more environmentally friendly heat sources and which are as esteemed by the locals as the ones in the guidebooks. The PA crew is channeling memories from two such spots from Mike and Alicia's idyllic youth off the Long Island Sound: Apizza Grande in East Haven and Rossini’s, in Cheshire. Mike also name-checked Totonno’s, in Brooklyn, which is a good sign, and Joel both managed a pizza place and drove a cab in New York City, which makes him an expert himself. I’ll ask him which Patsy’s he prefers if I see him. Rather than selling the now popular personal-sized pies, Pete’s will sell family size apizzas at a family-friendly price – and slices, too.

Given that I’ll practically be able to smell the ovens when the wind is right, or have my daughter call in an order and pick it up on the way home from school (if she ever finds her cell phone) I’m a pretty happy guy.

The location is right next to the metro escalator on the SW corner of 14th and Irving, hours are yet to be determined and, although things are moving forward as planned, I won’t jinx the place by predicting an opening date. The space has, however, been roughed out and Mike hopes that the ovens will arrive in March. Between now and then, the chefly-types will spend time up in Connecticut learning the secrets from the guy running Apizza Grande, no doubt trading free labor for a promise not to open up within 400 miles of his place. And then, in the time between the ovens’ installation and the granting of the C of O by the wise ones of the District Government, they’ll be perfecting their craft on their home ovens, making practice pizzas by the gross. Might be a good spring to be a homeless guy in Columbia Heights.

Oh, and there is a Pete. There are two, in fact, (which means they could have called the place “2 Petes” and gone toe-to-toe with Pastan’s place, which would have been fun), Mike and Alicia's dad, who's still munching the original pies up in New Haven, and his grandson, who attends elementary school in the same building where Fugazi made its bones (if I remember my punk history correctly).

Nothing against 2 Amy’s or Red Rocks or Bebo (well, something against Bebo), but if I had to chose between Naples and New Haven for a pizza dinner, I’d take the latter, in a New York minute.

I’m psyched.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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  • 1 month later...

I just got an e-mail from Mike and -- and this is truly amazing, given the speed with which the DC government and restaurant contractors usually move -- Pete's is scheduled to open more or less on schedule: 11AM Monday, April 28th. I pledge a full report by midnight.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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Ducked into the soft opening for a few free slices and a long chat with Mike. Of course it's too early to Render Judgment but I was pretty pleased with the place - easily the best slice this side of the park. In his manifesto, , Mike suggests that the true test of New Haven-style apizza is the crust -- "without divulging any secrets, it turns out PERFECTLY CRISPY on the OUTSIDE and PERFECTLY CHEWY on the INSIDE, with the perfect amount of black on the bottom." I would have gone for a touch more char but the crisp/chewy thing was exactly right; it was an excellent crust. Toppings were understated without being stingy and the slices we had went down most excellently. I am looking forward to a more substantial tasting (they had been mobbed and were running out by the time we got in) later this week, but I'm pretty sure this place is going to be a player in the pizza wars once it hits its stride -- if it's not already.

No liquor license yet, but beer and wine are coming. I can't imagine the smallish room not being filled most of the time, so a carry-out might be in order (or showing up late, after the Target closes).

Menu here.

I'm on the pavement

Thinking about the government.

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  • 3 weeks later...

I haven't been to Pete's myself yet, but I had dinner last night with friends whom I consider to be serious devotees of New Haven style pizza. Dan grew up near new Haven and waxes poetic about the great pizzerias there (He's a Sally's person, although he acknowledges that Pepe's is good too).

They were very happy with Pete's, so it got a New Haven stamp of approval. Said they talked to the owners and they said it had been hectic when they first opened, but they're getting settled in now. I look forward to trying it. I also like that they sell slices.

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