To all of you transients who are forever carping about the dearth of good proletarian pizza in D.C., I say: You just haven’t been here long enough. Either that or you’ve given up too soon and succumbed too easily to the charms of our city’s yupscale boutique pizzas. Fact is, few foodstuffs in town inspire greater devotion than our region’s two wonderfully idiosyncratic, unfancified pies, which can be found, fittingly enough, one on each side of the river. In Maryland, the pizza of legend is served at the Ledo Restaurant in Adelphi, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this week. In Virginia, Mario’s Pizza has been at it almost as long, dishing out slices to Arlingtonians since 1957.
That these have remained largely parochial passions speaks more to the hopelessly fractured metropolis we live in than to the pies themselves. Most Marylanders, sad to say, have probably never even heard of Mario’s. Many Virginians, though they can perhaps identify the name, have probably never tasted an actual Ledo Restaurant pie. Those who come late in life to Ledo and Mario’s are often perplexed by the fascination these pizzas exert over their legions of fans. (Only recently, for instance, has my non-native wife come around to an appreciation of the nearby Ledo: “I think they’ve gotten better,” she says, in all seriousness.)
The two legendary joints are united by this phenomenon, and by a whole lot more: their intensely loyal employees, their misguided franchising efforts, and, not least, their unapologetically nontraditional pies. To paraphrase a certain pizza-loving paisano: Their differences are similar.
Pie Statistics: Ledo Restaurant vs. Mario’s Pizza
[ Shape of the pie ]
Rectangular; the 14-by-18-inch large is made up of 30 pieces.
Square; the 12-by-12-inch large is made up of nine pieces.
[ Crust ]
Biscuity and blond; neither thick nor thin. “It’s made like a pie crust” (without butter) and rolled out with the same wooden rollers Ledo has been using for 27 years.
Thick and crispy, like French-bread pizza, and slightly brown around the edges.
[ Sauce ]
Tomatoey and sweet
Garlicky and herby
[ Cheese ]
A smoked provolone high in butterfat, “which tends to get a little greasy,” says Tommy Jr.
A smoked provolone high in butterfat. All pies are sent out with a finishing shake of Parmesan.
[ Distinguishing features ]
Baked in brick ovens and served on cafeteria-style trays with a knife and fork as well as a plate. “You’re not just eating a pizza,” says Tommy Jr. “You’re eating a meal.”
The crust is baked in a gas oven three times—once before assembly, once after assembly, and a final time right before serving.
Other Vital Statistics: Ledo Restaurant vs. Mario’s Pizza
[ Owner(s) ]
Tommy Marcus Sr., 80
Tommy Marcus Jr., 48
Alan Levine, 47.
Levine inherited the business from his parents, who founded the restaurant.
[ The space ]
A dark, wood-paneled restaurant whose only change in 50 years has been an updating of upholstery: The original carpet and booths have been replaced by hunter-green carpet and booths.
A hot, bustling carryout joint, with outdoor tables on the patio and an indoor Ms. Pac-Man that pings and gurgles 24 hours a day.
[ Longest-tenured employee ]
Fran Wolfe, waitress, 34 years.
Joe Williams, manager, 40 years.
[ What the pizza-snob detractors say ]
Too sweet. Too doughy. Strays too far from the New York, Philly, or even Chicago model.
Too crunchy. Too dense. Too greasy.
[ Devotees’ oft-repeated defense ]
“You have to go to the original.”
“You have to have grown up with it.”
[ Franchising history ]
The restaurant sold the name in the early ’80s—a decision that spawned nearly a dozen Ledo Pizzas. But Ledo Restaurant is no longer associated with those outlets. Indeed, a manager speaks with scorn about the commercial-style conveyor belts used by the Ledo Pizzas to bake their pies.
Mario’s opened 30 “Marino’s” in the late ’80s, from here to Hawaii, before deciding that the quality was slipping too much; the restaurant subsequently cut ties with the franchising company.
[ (Second) Claim to fame ]
Every time Bruce Springsteen or the Rolling Stones are in town, they “send one of their crew guys out” for 10 to 20 pizzas.
T-shirts depicting a large pepperoni pizza with a bikini-clad woman sitting atop it: “Mario’s Pizza, Where I Got My First Piece.”
[ Nostalgic bon mot ]
“Life is constantly coming at you. But you walk in here and it stops a little bit.” —Tommy Jr.
“It’s not just the food. It’s the atmosphere. It’s the history.” —Tony Simon, manager
Ledo Restaurant, 2420 University Blvd. E., Adelphi. (301) 422-8622.
Mario’s Pizza & Subs, 3322 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. (703) 525-0200.