Sitting at the bar one evening at Mount Pleasant’s Radius Pizza, I eavesdropped on a European woman ordering a pie to go—with no fewer than five toppings, not counting the double cheese. I pretended to read my copy of French Women Don’t Get Fat, fully aware of the perversion of it all, given the sugary cocktail in front of me and the Kleenex-box-sized portion of meat lasagna on its way. Then the woman leaned in to tell me why French women don’t get fat: They don’t eat as much, and they enjoy life more. It’s the same in Germany, she said, before disclosing that she gained 50 pounds when she first moved to the States. There’s little moderation here in anything, she said, shaking her head. There are too many choices.
I thought about her pizza, knowing its thin crust wouldn’t stand a chance under the weight of its adornments. And she seemed to read my thoughts: As she departed, she gestured toward her box and declared, “This isn’t moderate.” I shamefully regarded my newly arrived bubbling wad of cheese. “This isn’t either,” I replied.
Radius plays both sides of this conflict, a perfect capsule of the competing desires of an upscaling neighborhood: the austere authenticity of Continental culture vs. all-American overabundance. And to judge from the bustling business that Radius—opened last May by Tonic owners Jeremy Pollok and Eric Bernstrom, along with Ilias Nathanail—does, Mount Pleasantites are swallowing it whole. No surprise, buffered as it is by sleek environs that allow diners to disallow any gluttony.
The rag-painted beige walls, red-and-black accents, and photographs from Italy’s racing history convey old-world chic. The menu indicates “EVOO” in several places—a bit of foodie shorthand (for extra-virgin olive oil) that needs to be explained ad nauseam by the exceptionally friendly staff—and includes such bistro-ready starters as roasted red peppers with anchovies and a “simple salad” with grapes and Gorgonzola.
But Radius’ most ingratiating grasp at rustic-chic is chef Frank Healey’s crust, which—though the restaurant’s tagline is “A Slice of New York”—is more gourmet-style: thin, chewy, blistered. And it is good. It’s the rest of the pie that falls apart—literally.
Take the Ducati, one of the several motorcycle-named house specials. The pieces of hot Italian sausage, onion, and roasted red pepper aren’t the worst offenders, though there are too many of them. It’s the surfeit of cheese that overwhelms the crust, ghettoizing the other toppings into the middle of the pie. A sweet sauce—made thicker than you would expect from a crushed-tomato base—harks back to the post-soccer-game pizza of my youth. It’s by no means unpleasant, but along with all that other excess weight, it seems to demand a thicker, more Americanized base. And maybe a mechanical horsey over in the corner.
The simpler shrimp-pesto-and-mozzarella Laverda isn’t a much wiser choice, though blame must be shared by the orderer, who should regard with skepticism any seafood that comes nestled on a blanket of cheese. To be fair, those shrimp are large and juicy. But the pesto is typical of the sub-for-pizza-sauce variety—too oily and lacking any heft or green bite.
Delivering a similar problem is the tossed salad, its crisp romaine and flavorful roasted peppers swathed in a creamy-Italian dressing that is not much more than a milky, slightly sweet moistener. If required to eat creamy Italian—and I do mean required, because it’s the only choice—I at least expect some body and zest.
What I don’t expect is a restaurant that pushes creamy Italian to have such a thoughtful wine list: Several midrange reds and whites, most between $22 and $26 a bottle ($6 or $7 a glass), are on offer. Newcastle, Pilsner Urquell, and the scenester staple Pabst Blue Ribbon are on tap, and there are a handful of bottled beers, including Peroni. The smooth Italian lager would do well in washing down a slice of the Benelli, with sopressata, olives, mushrooms, and spinach—in this case, the earthiness of the toppings works quite well with the sweet sauce.
There are some pleasant surprises among the nonpizza selections, too. The spaghetti with meatballs is a fine choice, the meatballs rich and herby, the marinara a pleasantly acidic counterpoint. Likewise, the vodka pasta is nicely balanced, its light cream-tomato sauce, fresh tomato, olives, and parsley providing a clean, almost astringent, swaddle for perfectly cooked penne. The mussels starter is a bargain at $7.95: The plump and flavorful shellfish are doused in white wine and cooked with garlic, tomatoes, and scallions; with its accompanying bread slices, the dish is a meal in itself.
But there are a few misses here, too. That meat lasagna arrived swimming in an obscene amount of oil, and its saltiness went from bothersome to painful when I reheated it the next day. Meat and chicken entrees are of the breaded, cheesed-up variety. A side of broccoli rabe is a cold, chewy tangle—and overpriced at $3.95.
In fact, the main complaint I hear about Radius regards its prices ($12.95 for a small cheese pizza, $14.95 for a large), but the size of the pies actually makes them quite reasonable—a small easily feeds two, and the place now serves ample slices starting at $2.95. No, what’s most vexing about Radius—not quite boutique trattoria, not quite New York–style pizzeria, not quite American-style feeding trough—is that it stretches itself too thin.
Radius Pizza, 3155 Mount Pleasant St. NW, (202) 234-0808.—Anne Marson
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Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photograph by Charles Steck.