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Sorry to bring up a bad memory at such an optimistic time, but I suspect Roger Marmet learned something important when he resigned as the head of TLC in 2005, the victim of a cable channel that had relied way, way too much on the perky, re-paint your neighbor’s pad program, Trading Spaces. I suspect he learned never to gamble his future on a single, highly perishable product again.
Marmet doesn’t have that problem with Ripple, his first foray into the hospitality industry. This Cleveland Park restaurant, carved out of the old Aroma lounge space on Connecticut Avenue, offers nearly 50 wines by the glass, a fair number of them for a mere $6. Just as important, executive chef Teddy Diggs places his faith in those twin deities of local and seasonal, producing a concise menu that believes in something far more practical to recession-strapped diners, namely value. You can order one (or three) of the more than 20 modestly sized plates and snacks, each for under $20, including a selection of desserts from one of my favorite pastry chefs, David Guas, formerly of Passion Food.
Ripple, in other words, is no like-it-or-lump-it concept, a restaurant that relies on a single charm to sell it.
There are a number of ways to approach the place. You can sit at the long, colorful tile bar and order a glass from wine consultant Brian Cook’s wide-ranging list, like a cool pour of the Charles & Charles rosé, all sweet summer fruit and dry minerals. You can then pair that superior sip with Diggs’ house-made charcuterie, like his pork rillettes, which he serves without its trough of cooking fat. The result makes for a meatier, less decadent “pig jam,” almost like pork pot roast, which I liked with a passion—a surprise, since I typically loathe pot roast. This meat-and-vino combination, in and off itself, can endear Ripple to you.
But you can also take a more standard dining approach to the eatery. There’s a small room in the back, arty but still casual, where the noise level is not Reagan National-esque and where the servers can linger at your table. It’s also easier to spread out back there, an important point if you plan to order deeply from the menu.
By and large, it’s safe to wander into the deep end the menu. Diggs, former chef at Blue Ridge and lead saucier at Maestro, likes to dance along the razor’s edge when it comes to salt. Personally, I can eat the stuff straight from the shaker. But my dining companion one evening found Diggs’ chicken and oyster ballotine—deboned white and dark meat stuffed with braised greens and wrapped in crisped skin—to be approaching Brazilian churrascaria levels of salt. I tended to side with her assessment, but only because the sodium content was masking some flavors, not because it marred my pleasure altogether. (I ordered the dish a second time and thought it seasoned perfectly.)
The charcuterie board of “rolled pig’s head,” offal meats cooked down into papery slices resembling Vietnamese head cheese, also toyed with sodium overload: The strong seasoning fought with the more delicate coriander, which was relegated to the background. On the other hand, the Tennessee hackleback caviar could not provide the levels of salt necessary to bring the bland summer squash custard to life. Diggs, I think, may need to recalibrate his salt receptors.
I’ve probably sampled about half of Diggs’ current menu at this point, and I can wholeheartedly endorse the saba-glazed pork belly paired with albacore tuna, a combination of land and sea that could be the next steak and lobster.
I also savored the blood sausage with egg ravioli and black truffle, a weirdly wintry plate as luxuriant as it sounds. And whatever you do, don’t overlook the “snack” of bacon-roasted pecans, so smoky you’d swear they were prepared in a barbecue pit.
With some small fine tuning, I have to think Ripple will be a friend to Cleveland Park for years to come, long after episodes of Trading Spaces has been relegated to TV Land.
Ripple, 3417 Connecticut Ave. NW, (202) 244-7995
The DOC-tOr Is In
As soon as the pie hit the table at Pizzeria Orso, I knew I was in the presence of Edan MacQuaid, the pizzaiolo who has worked the wood-burning ovens at 2Amys, Pizzeria Paradiso, and RedRocks. I’d recognize his Margherita pizza anywhere.
It’s not just the puffy crust, mottled with char and radiating a wood-smoke aroma as enticing as freshly baked bread. It’s the careful arrangement of colors: the rosy splashes of tomato sauce, the white eggshell dollops of fresh mozzarella, the wilted myrtle-colored leaves of basil, and the pale green rivulets of olive oil. Which, in turn, tint the exposed crust to the most delectable shade of yellow.
This is pizza-making as art.
The flavors are even more intoxicating than the colors. There’s a balance to MacQuaid’s Margherita that I don’t find with many other interpretations. The fresh acid sweetness of the tomatoes, the cool creaminess of the mozz, the salty smokiness of the cornicione, the cleansing licorice of the basil, and the incomprehensible sourness of the crust.
I keep thinking that I’m imagining the sourness, so I keep eating more crust to find out, even long after I’m full. The sourness is always present.
It’s not until I speak with MacQuaid a few days later that it all makes sense. The pizzaiolo says he puts a little sourdough starter into his pizza dough, which I think is a ballsy move. It not only adds flavor, but it’s a small razz to the Neapolitan polizia who want to dictate exactly how their pies should be produced, right down to the hydration level in the dough.
But then I remember that MacQuaid has affixed the letters “DOC” next to his Margherita pizza on the menu. The letters stand for “Denominazione di Origine Controllata,” and they imply that MacQuaid follows the rules, set down by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture in 2004, for a genuine Margherita pizza from Naples.
Now, I’m no authority on these Neapolitan pizza rules. Every time I think I understand them, someone tells me I don’t. But from what I’ve read, I’m pretty damn sure sourdough is not allowed in a DOC Margherita pizza.
I ask MacQuaid about the addition. And he has a ready answer: Back before the invention of commercial yeasts, MacQuaid tells me, pizza makers used sourdough starters to facilitate fermentation in their dough.
There is a strong argument among pizzaioli that such a method doesn’t violate the spirit of the Italian government’s Neapolitan pizza laws. I floated this theory by the notoriously scrupulous baker and occasional pizza maker, Mark Furstenberg, and he agreed that it makes sense.
So I asked MacQuaid the obvious question: Did he secure official certification from the pizza authorities for his Margherita pie?
“All that I’m stating there [with the DOC on his menu] is that the Margherita is authentic,” MacQuaid tells me. “Is it certified DOC? No…But it meets the standards of the DOC certification.”
You know what? I’ve come to the point where I don’t care much about this whole authentic, by-the-book Neapolitan pizza certification puffery.
At least not here in the States, where we have a culture of freewheeling experimentation. When I travel to Italy, then I’ll care about authentic Neapolitan pizza. Back here, I just want a full-flavored pie. If it’s merely based on tradition, that’s good enough for me.
Here’s the bottom line: Authentic or not, legal or not by Italian agriculture rules, MacQuaid’s Margherita pizza is the best pie I’ve eaten in a long time. 2Amys, you’ve been officially put on notice.
Pizzeria Orso, 400 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church (703) 226-3460