There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
When bars close on a Saturday night in Adams Morgan, cops usually can gauge the impending mayhem by the length of the line at Pizza Mart.
On a night in mid-October, the unruly column forms in front of the pizzeria right on cue, at 2:45 a.m., just after most bartenders have shouted their last call. Never mind that it’s the first cold weekend of the season, or that the nightlife district along 18th Street NW seems filled to only half-capacity tonight. Just about everyone on the strip has come here to bump elbows and jostle himself one step closer to a single slice. It’s so tight that served customers have to make their exit with their slices over their heads, negotiating them like clumsy waiters.
Amid the catcalls and the laughter come the night’s first genuine fighting words.
And the rejoinder: “You ho!”
The crowd forms a circle. A formidable young woman in a blue tank top lunges at her braided foe, and the pair go tumbling onto a sidewalk strewn with greasy paper plates and leftover pizza crusts. Some patrons break out of the line altogether to get a better view, and ecstatic men shout whatever catfight clichés pop into their heads.
“Rip her shirt off!” screeches an overjoyed meathead, his right hand pumping the air in a fist, his left forearm cradling a slice of pizza.
As the swaying throng bumps up against cars parked along the sidewalk, a man in a teal Mitsubishi decides it’s time to get his sporty ride out of harm’s way. He is blocked by revelers who are hanging out in the street. First, he nudges the riffraff with his front bumper. Then, unwisely, he decides to lay on his horn. Someone cocks a slice of pizza back to his shoulder and hurls it, like a circus clown in a pie fight, clipping the rear wheel well on the driver’s side. The driver brakes hard, thinks better of it, and then moves along.
Back on the sidewalk, a volunteer referee has managed to tear the women apart. But the circle hasn’t broken up just yet; now two dudes are swapping unintelligible insults and throwing wild haymakers. It’s not even 3 a.m.
There are two easy ways to find yourself in the middle of an early-morning slugfest at Pizza Mart: Hit on someone else’s significant other, or try to cut in line for pizza.
After all, owner Chris Chishti’s crew isn’t serving up just any kind of slice. His renowned “jumbo slice,” a greasy slab that requires two paper plates to handle, runs nearly a foot-and-a-half long, and weighs in just shy of a pound. Novices at the counter often have to ask how to go about eating such a beast. As any jumbo-slice veteran will tell them, you just fold it like the morning newspaper and go to work.
In the five or so years Chishti’s been dishing out his trademark, it’s become a staple for late-night bargoers who are looking to coat their stomachs before the long cab ride back to the ’burbs. As for the Tijuana-cockfight atmosphere, one can’t help but notice that the excess commotion merely reflects the excess of Chishti’s slices.
But they weren’t always so monstrous. In fact, when the Pakistan native opened his modest carryout in 1997, he had no intention of stretching his pies far beyond their initial 18-inch diameter. That is, until one of his neophyte cooks left behind a mangled dough ball after a busy night in 1999.
When Chishti strolled into his shop the next morning, he figured the misshapen mound was unusable. But then he took a fresh dough ball from another tray. “What I did, I took that dough ball and put it with the other dough ball,” says the mustachioed Chishti, clapping together his cupped hands to illustrate the epiphany. He kneaded the oversized ball, dropped it on a baking screen, and sent it through his conveyer oven dressed with cheese and sauce.
What came out the other end was jumbo indeed, and its creator saw no reason to stop there: “I said, ‘Let’s go bigger.’”
Three different pizza shops on the main drag of 18th Street now serve the city’s famous jumbo slice. Each proprietor asserts his own form of jumbo-slice originality:
•Chishti, owner of Pizza Mart: “I’m a pizza maker. I was calling mine the jumbo slice. Then he went over there and starting calling his the jumbo slice.” “He” refers to Jawed Khan, owner of Pizza Napoli.
•Khan: “We came in with the biggest slice.”
•John Nasir, owner of Pizza Boli’s: “I don’t know how you can ‘invent’ something….Maybe [Chishti] took the idea from one of our stores.”
As the first cook on the block, Chishti stakes the only legitimate claim. He was the first pizza maker on the block to widen his pie beyond 20 inches, and he also bestowed the now-famous moniker on his peculiar slice. But his brainchild has been hijacked over the years—by his former pizza associates, no less—so the genial Chishti gets a bit prickly over the issue of jumbo-slice legitimacy.
“You don’t need a coat and a tie to make pizzas,” says Chishti, arguing that his competitors are businessmen rather than cooks. He says a secret recipe for his jumbo slice accounts for a taste superior to the other pizzas on 18th Street. “I’ve been doing this for 23 years—that’s my experience.”
The most visible spat unfolded last year, when Nasir, owner of the 75-store Pizza Boli’s chain and a former business partner of Chishti’s, greenlighted one of his franchises to open just three doors up the street from Pizza Mart. The franchisee, Kerry Guneri, made the jumbo slice his featured product. He and Chishti quickly found themselves in the middle of a neon-sign war:
•March 2003: Guneri opens his Pizza Boli’s. He installs a neon “Jumbo Slice” sign in the window on the southern side of his store. It’s facing the Pizza Mart, where Chishti’s window holds a mere plastic “Jumbo Slice” sign.
•July 2003: Guneri compounds the insult by installing two additional neon signs. These read “Original Jumbo Slice.” Chishti decides to respond the very same day Guneri’s new signs go up. He calls Xin Guan Signs near Chinatown, Guneri’s supplier, and orders a neon sign that reads “Real Original Jumbo Slice.”
•July 2003: Guneri tells the Washington City Paper (“Pie Fight,” 7/25/03) he’s through installing the neon signs, which cost about $700 apiece. “This place is lit up like a whorehouse as it is,” he says.
•August 2003: Chishti installs a final neon sign, designed by one of his regular customers on a piece of scrap paper. It reads “First Oldest Original Jumbo Slice.”
Anyone who bothers to parse the vying shops’ respective strings of adjectives surely would see that Chishti invented the jumbo slice. But what escaped both proprietors was the fact that nobody cares. In reality, many self-proclaimed jumbo fans couldn’t tell you whether they’d eaten a slice from Pizza Mart or Pizza Boli’s the night before. It’s like trying to remember whether you stopped at an Arby’s or a Hardee’s on a road trip.
When Khan, once an employee of Chishti’s, opened up the rival Pizza Napoli just down the street from Pizza Mart in late 1999, he knew the game wasn’t about creating a special sauce or even serving a marginally better pizza. It was about making a bigger slice.
“They had an 18-inch pie and then went to a 22-inch,” Khan says of Pizza Mart. “[But] we came in here and started with a 30-inch. That was the biggest.” Chishti disputes that Khan’s pie was ever larger, but the point is clear: Size trumps everything else.
In spite of Chishti’s talk of a secret recipe for his jumbo slice, the customer demands only that his belly be full in the end. The gluttony imperative was lost on Bill Thomas, owner of the Blue Room club on 18th Street, and proprietor of the now-defunct Kung Fu Pizza, which once occupied a portion of the same building. When he opened his kitschy, martial-arts-themed pizzeria in 2000, Thomas and his team had spent months working on recipes for gourmet pies, even experimenting with spring water in their dough.
“We actually thought quality would sell, and we were stupid,” says Thomas. Kung Fu Pizza shut its doors after a four-month run. The eatery stayed open late and attracted a small following from the wait staffs of surrounding bars, but the Adams Morgan party crowd never took to the Asian finger food and modestly sized pizza. “At the end of the day, it was all about the big slice,” he says.
When your slice’s supremacy is predicated entirely on size, the only way to improve it is to make it larger. So Chishti has expanded the diameter of his pie at least five times since he opened, finally arriving at the 32-incher he cooks today.
The pies on 18th Street have stopped expanding only because there’s no larger pizza oven on the market. Khan has considered buying an oven designed primarily for large cakes; Chishti, who’s already upgraded his oven once, has started cheating with the one he has, sending his pies over the burners stretched in one dimension. This method results in slightly larger, if oval, pizzas.
Such evolution has made the slices unwieldy—and not just for the customer. Both Chishti and Khan grew their slices right out of the delivery business. Chishti decided years ago that he wouldn’t even try to bring his No. 1 product to your front door. “You put it in the box and send it, by the time it gets to the customer it’s soggy,” he says. “We don’t want that to happen to our jumbo.”
Khan, however, was more determined. He ordered custom cardboard boxes that measured nearly 3 feet across, just so he could deliver the entire jumbo pie in its original form, rather than stack the slices on top of one another in a single box. When the boxes buckled under the sheer weight of the pies, sending all the grease to the center, he looked into heavy-duty cardboard boxes that cost three times as much as the pizza itself. He even special-ordered an insulated, jumbo-size delivery sheath; it could have doubled as a toddler’s sleeping bag.
But in the end, most of his drivers couldn’t even fit the pies into their cars.
Khan had to scrap the delivery venture after just a year. Which was fine with him, because all the action comes in off the street.
Like any overhead-conscious carryout proprietor in D.C., Chishti likes to keep the inside of his business spare. The eatery includes a handful of stools and a pair of steel counters, but there are no chairs and no tables. No customer bathrooms. No artwork. And certainly no nutritional-information charts.
Even though your average clubhopper loves to crack a joke about fat content as she paints her face with tomato sauce on 18th Street, she doesn’t really want to know just how much energy is stored in that jumbo slice.
The Washington City Paper sent three cheese jumbo slices, one from each of the jumbo-pizza makers, to the ABC Research Corp., a food-testing laboratory in Gainesville, Fla. Calculated on the basis of the lab’s calories-per-gram analysis, the single slices from both Pizza Mart and Pizza Boli’s soared over the 1,000-calorie threshold.
Pizza Boli’s trounced the field with a whopping 1,309 calories, and Pizza Mart settled for silver with a respectable 1,117. That’s roughly equivalent to two Big Macs, or, for active women and most men, about half the calories the U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends for an entire day’s intake, let alone as a Friday-evening nightcap. By comparison, Pizza Napoli’s slice made for light fare at a modest 917 calories, but it weighed significantly less than the competitors’.
None of the slices necessarily jibe with today’s low-carbohydrate diet fad, either. Each sample stored more than 115 grams of carbs alone, including the comparably dainty slice from Pizza Napoli, which had a disproportionately high carb rate. The slice from Pizza Boli’s again led the pack in fat content; its roughly 53 grams just edges out Pizza Mart’s 47.
The growth of the jumbo slice may have been foiled by the undersized ovens, but not before it became the city’s lone culinary icon, the District’s own take on the supersize phenomenon. It was an unlikely turn, given that the jumbo slice has nothing to do with America’s growing waistline. That petite, Bally’s-going little tart who comes pinballing out of the club, dying to get her hands on a slice of pizza that could probably be wrapped around her torso—she’s not the same woman buying the latest meal deal at McDonald’s four times a week.
No, the jumbo slice sprang from the very same beast that sustains it: drunkenness. Any jumbo-slice owner will tell you that the majority of his weekly sales are made over the course of about eight hours on the weekend.
“Sometimes people throw a slice on you,” says an exasperated Chishti, who tries to clock in exclusively during the daylight hours now. “They’re drunk, they fight with each other, they argue… Sometimes you’re serving pizza to guys who are so drunk they’re hard to handle.” In a painful show of irony, Chishti was once the target of a flying jumbo slice, hurled by a loaded patron who said the pizza was too large to eat.
There’s an old joke that says everybody’s eaten a jumbo slice but nobody remembers it. The joke gets told quite often, mainly because it’s true. Most people, when they consider the sheer size and uncontrollable grease, can’t stomach the thought of eating a jumbo slice during the day. Drop an open napkin on a jumbo slice and it disappears.
The sober and sensible tend to stay clear of the big slice and, for that matter, the 18th Street pizzerias altogether. Over the course of a weekday lunch hour in Adams Morgan, the staff at Pizza Mart might sell just a few slices. But once the bars close and everybody’s sauced, the jumbo becomes the centerpiece of 18th Street’s pre-dawn circus. And priced at $4 or less, it’s a perfectly affordable, even expendable, toy. That’s why so many slices wind up in the street, on top of cars, and, often, in people’s faces. It’s an insane spectacle for a neighborhood where many people still beg for change each day.
“The funny thing is, now people know about them,” says Adams Morgan resident Mindy Moretti, baffled by the jumbo’s popularity. “You see people taking pictures of other people eating them. They’re almost a…tourist attraction.”
And like any tourist magnet, these slices require their own police protection. Officers Andrew Zabavsky and Dustin Roeder, two D.C. bike cops assigned to Adams Morgan, have made the area in front of Pizza Mart something of a default post during their weekend-night shifts. Most cops would rather handle parking complaints all night than work a strip full of obnoxious, drunken brawlers, but Zabavsky and Roeder have staked it out as their beat. Riding mountain bikes, they spend much of their night dodging drunks who stagger out into the street.
“Most of the fights tend to gravitate around the pizza joints,” says Zabavsky. “Some days it’s off the hook, one after another after another.” It doesn’t matter where a scuffle has its roots—out in the street, inside a club, or way back in childhood—the fuse often gets lit in the jumbo-slice line. Roeder talks about the pizza servers as if they have the most treacherous job in town: “With the bars, at least they can send a bouncer out to flag us down for help. But the pizza guys, they’re pinned in back there.”
The cops have collared many bruisers on 18th Street, but it’s often the less violent jumbo-slice incidents that stick out in their minds. “Craziest thing I ever saw with the jumbo slice,” starts Zabavsky: “This guy up near McDonald’s drops his slice right on the ground—cheese-down and everything. He picks it right up and starts eating it like nothing happened. He’s smiling.”
On a Friday night, the sauce on your Pizza Mart jumbo slice comes out of what’s commonly referred to as a “garbage can.” There’s nothing necessarily unsanitary about this storage method; it merely indicates the massive amount of pizza that will be moved in a single night.
The volume of cheese is similarly industrial. On a Friday afternoon in mid-October, Pizza Mart receives a shipment of roughly 900 pounds of a mozzarella-provolone mix. That’s nearly half a ton.
“And I’ll probably be back on Monday,” sighs 55-year-old Thomas Carroll, a deliveryman for Nino’s Pizza Dough, sweating as he schleps the 30 boxes with a handtruck. Asked if that’s an extraordinary amount of cheese, Carroll laughs. “You see all them boxes?” he asks, gesturing to about 1,500 stacked and bundled pizza boxes on his truck, each destined to hold just a single slice. “Those are for [Pizza Mart], too.” Of the 40 or so regular deliveries Carroll makes, only a Maryland pizzeria takes in more product than Pizza Mart. And right behind Pizza Mart on the list is the Naval Academy.
Inside the Pizza Mart kitchen, there are no chef hats, no high-flung dough, and no handlebar mustaches. The rush-hour spectacle is more a lesson in ergonomics than in Italian culinary tradition. This is where, on a busy weekend night, an assembly line of cooks will manufacture upward of 800 pounds of pizza in a matter of hours. There’s nothing romantic about the process:
One guy takes a gooey dough ball off a plastic tray. Tonight there are about 80 dough balls ready to go for the late-night blitz. He kneads and stretches the dough to its 32-inch diameter, drops it on a screen, and passes it to the next cook.
This guy dresses the dough. He ladles his sauce from the plastic can with what looks to be a family-size salad bowl, and he sprinkles mozzarella-provolone mix from packages pulled from 30-pound boxes. When the pie’s ready, it makes its slow crawl through the oven on a conveyer belt, out the other side to the last cook.
This guy cuts the pie, places the slices onto aluminum-foil-covered plates, and drops them onto a metal tray with a thud. He needs to fold the bottom third of each slice back onto its upper portion just to make sure it stays on the plate. “Sometimes, during the day, they’ll say, ‘Oh, I don’t want this. You folded it. That’s no good,’” says Munir Butt, working the register on a Friday night. “But not right now.”
Finally, the slices go under the heat lamp. From start to finish, the journey lasts less than 10 minutes. Pies ride on through the oven, shoulder to shoulder, throughout the night.
Out front, three workers serve the slices and man the register. They’ll handle the slices with metal tongs, in order to keep the grease off their hands and clothes, and they’ll bang the counter with their tongs when they’re ready for the next customer. They work three, four, sometimes five people deep in the line, just to keep up with the 2 a.m. rush. A tiny fraction of the slices—maybe 2 percent—are so mutilated that they don’t make the cut. Of the slices they do serve, some look as if they’ve been sat on. Regardless, every slice will be pounced on.
“The pizza guys really have cultivated this post-nocturnal feeding frenzy,” says Scott Bennett, owner of the newly opened Amsterdam Falafelshop on 18th Street. “The way I see it, when the tide comes in, all boats float. God bless the pizza guys.”
But no one in tonight’s kitchen, nor its owner, will be getting rich off the jumbo slice. In favorable weather, a jumbo joint might sell anywhere between 600 and 1,000 slices on a strong weekend night; priced between $3.50 and $4 a pop, that might bring in somewhere between $2,000 and $4,000 in an evening. But after covering rent, ingredients, and the pay for seven staffers or more on the busy shifts, the owners will be left with pocket change on each slice.
So if you can’t pack more weekends into a year, you may as well pack more pizzerias into the city. Nasir, for one, says he may be serving his big boy out of a new Pizza Boli’s on U Street NW by the end of this month. Khan has already started dishing his own monstrosity out of his kebab house, also on U Street.
But Khan sees no reason to contain the jumbo slice within the District. Early next year, he expects to open a pizzeria in Florida. After researching locales in South Beach and Key West, he says he’s just about settled on the City Walk area of Orlando.
“It will be all about the jumbo,” he promises.
The mess left behind after the weekend pizza craze has put the jumbo slice and its purveyors at the very top of the Adams Morgan NIMBY list. Moretti, a member of the local advisory neighborhood commission, says an uncanny wind tunnel carries greasy paper plates up 18th Street, across Columbia Road, and all the way to her Adams Mill Road apartment building on gusty weekend mornings.
“Several of us have joked about going and collecting all the paper plates, putting them in a trash can, finding out where the [pizzeria] owners live, and dumping them in their yards,” says Moretti.
When bars and clubs become a nuisance, residents can force owners into line by threatening to withhold their support for a liquor-license renewal. But when it comes to the pizza joints, none of which serve liquor, the residents hold no bureaucratic aces up their sleeves. Essentially, the pizza places reap all the benefits of a nightlife business without being held to the same standards. “We can hold up against bars because of the [alcoholic-beverage] commission,” says Bryan Weaver, also a neighborhood commissioner. “But there’s no Shitty Sauce Commission where we can go and say, ‘Hey, these guys are making bad pizza.’”
The commission has supported a neighborhood liquor-license moratorium since it was introduced in 2000. Some members, resigned to fielding cheese-and-crust complaints at each monthly meeting, say they would be willing to place a similar moratorium on the jumbo, if only it were possible.
“Our hands are tied as far as the big slice goes,” says Moretti.
The public-health implications of the jumbo are on full display on a recent Sunday. In the hours before dawn, the mess on the sidewalk in front of Pizza Mart forces squeamish passers-by onto their tiptoes, hopping from one small patch of visible concrete to the next. Greasy plates and pizza boxes, too many to count, blanket the sidewalk. Maimed slices sit on top of cars and inside flowerpots. Fat pigeons peck their way through tomato sauce and cheese.
The inside of Pizza Mart looks the same as the outside, only no pigeons. At 4:30 a.m., cashier Butt shuts off the neon, locks the front door, and mouths an apology through the window to a few tardy stragglers hoping to get a slice.
The last jumbo customer of the night, now satiated, looks over both shoulders before dropping his empty pizza box between two cars parked at the curb. What’s one more bit of cardboard added to the mess? He takes a final sip from his soda, leans over, and places the empty cup on top of the box.
On the sidewalk, a bored bouncer gets his kicks by shining a flashlight on the rats that have come out to feast on more pizza than they can handle. These rats live a good life, and this is their prime feeding hour—a short window of time after the heavy foot traffic has died down but before the sprawling slices have been scooped up. Aside from the bouncer, their only company is a lonely sot dry-heaving beside a parking meter, his chin covered in spittle.
Butt says a homeless guy agreed to clean up the storefront after close tonight for 10 bucks, but by 5 a.m. it looks as if he’s a no-show. As usual, this morning’s pizza detail will fall to just one man: Anwar Tate, a 29-year-old Department of Public Works employee, who works his way up 18th Street every Saturday and Sunday morning armed with a metal rake, a heavy-duty shovel, and a ride-on vacuum. Tate’s chipper today, and he’ll need to be. He’s got only two hours to knock off the entire block before Adams Morgan’s early risers come out expecting a pizza-free street.
“You try to get it off the sidewalk as quick as you can,” he says, handling the slices with either the shovel or his gloved hands. “It’s just part of the job.”
There’s plenty of pizza refuse beyond Tate’s jurisdiction. Slices have been flung into the yards of residents along Euclid Street NW and throughout Adams Morgan. Paper plates and napkins dot a path all the way over the Duke Ellington Bridge and up to the Woodley Park Metro station, over half a mile away. And because plenty of slices found their way into cabs, surely some of the 800 jumbos dished out at Pizza Mart have traveled over the Potomac into Virginia by now.
Butt says Pizza Mart, despite brisk business, didn’t have a single fight last night. But when he turned his back for just a second during the blitz, some asshole made off with the tip jar. It was only $15 or $20, to be split among the staff at close. “Not much,” he acknowledges. “But you work hard for it.”CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Darrow Montgomery.