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It’s late on a Tuesday night—or at least late for Roscoe’s Neapolitan Pizzeria in Takoma Park. The owners are thinking about shutting it down around 8:30, so they can let their employees go home before the worst of the snowstorm hits, but they agree to keep the doors open long enough for Carrie and me to dine.
When we arrive, just a few minutes after Carrie places the call, I am surprised to find the pizzeria packed. I was expecting to see a couple of stern-faced dudes standing around the wood-burning oven, picking their nails impatiently, just itching to slop together our pies so they could split. But no one is marking time here; they’re all busy with table after table crowded with neighbors hoping for one last hurrah before the snow entombs their cars and homes the next morning.
Our waiter towers over our four-top by the front picture window, where we have this painfully gorgeous view of the snow falling on the sidewalks, the trees, and the gazebo just across the street. It’s the kind of view that makes you think Rockwell wasn’t such a sentimental drip after all. Our waiter, by contrast, is all 21st-century bluntness, which, I have to admit, provides a necessary balance. He’s straight-up about the kitchen replacing the rapini in my cafone pizza with baby broccoli.
As we wait for our pizzas, co-owner Murat Uzuntepe pulls up a chair and starts chatting us up, as if we’re old friends. I don’t mind; his impromptu visit allows me to ask him how he’s been keeping the pizzeria supplied during the blizzards. He admits to making a trip to the co-op just down the street to buy produce that he can’t get his hands on now. His suppliers simply can’t navigate the streets. Then he tells us about a woman who walked into his restaurant and wanted to buy eggs and bread. She apparently couldn’t find them elsewhere.
Uzuntepe sold her the eggs and bread. Actually, he just gave them to her. “I’m not a grocery store,” he tells us.
His stories remind me of a truism about major, drift-bearing snowstorms: They turn us all into locavores.
Well, let me clarify: We’re not locavores in the definition that Michael Pollan might wish upon us. Snow doesn’t exert the kind of influence to make us buy food grown and raised within a 60-mile radius of home, but it does force us to draw our boundaries tighter. Our preferred restaurant is suddenly the one down the street. Our preferred liquor store is the corner 7-Eleven with the bulk wine. Our preferred grocery store is the neighboring pizzeria with an extra few eggs and bread.
It’s a matter of resources, and blizzards have a way of making us realize that our supply chains, the ones we take for granted daily, can quickly run dry. So we stock up at the local Safeway, as if outfitting a fallout shelter, or when we can’t find the necessary supplies at Target or Safeway, we find substitutes. Or we just do without—until the supply chains can be re-established. How many improvised shoveling and/or scraping devices did you use last week?
These options are as true for restaurants as they are for us. I spoke with restaurateurs during the storms last week who had to improvise, like Uzuntepe, and I spoke with restaurateurs who had to do without, sometimes to the point of doing without customers period.
Mark Bucher, the founder and co-owner of BGR: The Burger Joint, was in the latter camp. His suppliers wouldn’t risk their employees’ safety just to deliver hamburger patties and buns, so he had to shut down operations, which was a killer on the Saturday of the massive Dupont Circle snowball fight. Bucher enviously listened to his competitors brag about doubling their usual sales.
Impassable streets: They’re the major downside of the fresh-ingredient trend.
Taylor Gourmet owners Casey Patten and David Mazza, on the other hand, found an unlikely supplier when they ran out of prosciutto, chicken, and other items. They discovered that their buds, the owners of Matchbox in Chinatown and Capitol Hill, buy the same ingredients and had plenty to share. If only their Matchbox connection had some extra red peppers, too: Patten and Mazza were forced to 86 about 15 percent of their menu when they ran out of the sporty bell peppers.
Restaurant Eve chef/owner Cathal Armstrong could have been a passenger on the 86 train, too. But fate was on his side: His produce source delivers on Tuesdays and Fridays, which meant that the supply truck neatly sidestepped storms on two separate occasions. “We got lucky there with the way the weather fell,” Armstrong says.
His luck ran dry, though, when it came to oysters, which might not sound like a hardship for a place like Eve, where the menu changes daily depending on the available ingredients. I mean, how hard is it to live without oysters for a few days? But when I spoke to Armstrong, it was a Thursday, just a few days before Valentine’s Day, and the chef knew diners would demand their bivalves on Sunday, a little aphrodisiac jump-start to a holiday that demands instant romance. The chef was feeling a little heartbroken about his lack of oysters.
In this case, the supply line stops at FedEx, Armstrong says. The oystermen can’t deliver their products without the overnight behemoth, and FedEx was grounded. “That’s really the one that’s most difficult [to get],” Armstrong says. He was still hopeful that he could secure mollusks in time.
Hope is a strange thing during snowstorms. It fuels chefs like Armstrong, who will aggressively work the phones until he finds a supplier who has what he needs. (Case in point: He got some Kusshis in time.) But a foolish optimism also fuels the slacker who strolls into Harris Teeter, well after the masses have picked the place clean, hoping to still buy a gallon of milk and a carton of eggs. And hope fuels my own form of insanity during blizzards: I’ll get an idea to cook something, like chili, even if I don’t have the required ingredients on hand. I figure I can simply walk our snow-covered sidewalks to the local co-op and pick up the necessary supplies.
Which is why the chili I made the other day relied not on fresh chiles and ground chuck but on pickled jalapeños and sliced-up strip loin.
But the hope borne of blizzards can also lead to a kind of snow-blindness. Take our friendly pizza maker back at Roscoe’s in Takoma Park. My cafone pie was missing not only rapini but also the advertised Italian sausage. The clumps of meat on my pizza were definitely sausage, but the heat and the paprika told me these links were far closer to chorizo than Italian sausages. There was not a hint of fennel within 200 feet of my pizza.
I believe the owner was hoping I wouldn’t notice.
Roscoe’s Neapolitan Pizzeria, 7040 Carroll Ave., Takoma Park, (301) 920-0804