The call came first thing the next morning: “Hey, listen, thanks again for dinner last night. We can’t stop talking about it. And those anchovies—my God. I can’t get them out of my mind.”
My friend Bill is prone to exaggeration—I’ve lost count of the times he’s deemed something “mind-blowing” or “un-fucking-believable”—but in this case, I knew he wasn’t overreaching. Those anchovies really do belong in that category usually reserved for religious experiences or really good sex.
I’m anything but an anchovy lover, but after three trips to 2 Amys, I find myself actually pining for those glistening fresh fishes, which bear so little resemblance to the superbriny variety most of us are used to (less salty, but also more intensely flavored) that they’re like a slab of seared tuna compared with tuna-fish salad.
Most pizza places wouldn’t go to all the bother of importing their anchovies from Sicily, but then, 2 Amys isn’t like most pizza places. In fact, it’s probably a misnomer to call it a pizza place at all. Even saying it serves up “designer pizza” or “boutique pizza” is missing the point. It’s better to think of 2 Amys as an authentic Italian restaurant that just happens to serve the best pizza in the city.
The comparisons with Pizzeria Paradiso are inevitable. They’re also instructive—if only to point up the difference between the two operations, which is reflective of chef/owner Peter Pastan’s evolution of thought. Ten years ago, when Pastan opened Paradiso, the city had seen nothing like his small, wood-fired pizzas. The place was an instant hit: long lines, steady buzz. In the decade since, Pastan has mostly kept himself busy with the upscale but unpretentious Obelisk. (He sold Paradiso not long ago.) But even as he was winning raves for his elegant but unaffected brand of rustic Italian cooking, he apparently couldn’t stop thinking about pizza.
What Pastan has done with 2 Amys (the name pays tribute to the wives of Pastan and financial partner Tim Giamette) is to marry the refinements of a serious restaurant with the no-frills approach of a pizza parlor. Customers and critics alike have grumbled plenty about the Spartan decor—black-and-white tile floor, wood tables, bare walls—but to my mind, it focuses the attention where it belongs: on the quality and freshness of the food. 2 Amys, like Obelisk, is committed to serving only locally grown produce and turning out dishes that are no less complex for being so simple. At the same time, it recognizes, as does Pizzeria Paradiso, the benefits of a limited menu, one that frees up the kitchen to devote its attention to the all-important matter of crust.
So serious is Pastan about his crust that he applied for a certification of authenticity from the Verace Pizza Napoletana, a trade association in Naples that sets the standards for the industry. Authentication is dependent on strict adherence to time-honored codes, from the temperature of the ovens to the mixing of the dough to the length of time the dough is allowed to rise. Only five restaurants in the country have been deemed worthy of the board’s sanction.
Dig into the pizza margherita and you’ll be grateful that Pastan is subjecting himself to the scrutiny. The crust is an architectural marvel, both impossibly thin and crispy—in the center of the pie, a waferlike 1/16th of an inch—and chewy—particularly at the perimeter, which puffs up like a perfectly turned souffle. And the tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil are as fresh and sweet and fragrant as you could hope for.
You can customize your pizza by mix-and-matching ingredients (among the more interesting choices: prosciutto, pancetta, gorgonzola, rapini, and eggplant confit) or you can stick with the eight preset combinations. (I’d pass on the three kinds of ripieno, or calzone, which, though lighter than most and boasting a wonderful homemade sheep ricotta, are simply not the equal of the pizza.) One of the best of the kitchen’s own creations is the vongole, a white pizza topped with cockles, the juices of which, spilling from the tiny green-and-gold shells, provide an unexpected, briny kick in every bite. The puttanesca is a palate-awakener, a heady blend of salty (anchovy), bitter (garlic), and sweet (the tomato sauce, the fresh mozzarella). The rapini, being a bit watery, makes for a messy job of cutting, especially because you’re expected to slice up the pizzas yourself with what amounts to a steak knife.
The do-it-yourself divvying may not be practical, but if you’re sharing, it does tend to bring a table together, both figuratively (communal laughter at the clumsiness of the endeavor) and literally (one person to steady the plate, one to cut, one to coach, one to lift away the first slice). At a lot of tables, I saw people taking a personal-pizza sort of approach, ordering one pie per person. Resist this impulse if you can. The pizzas may not be large by American standards—they average about 10 inches in diameter—but they’re so intensely flavorful that you don’t need a lot. An order of two for a table of four is probably plenty.
Besides, it’d be a shame to miss out on the wealth of “little things”—the small plates that, thanks to executive chef Philip Stevens’ bold but judicious touches, are more than mere starters. Those madeleinelike anchovies, for instance. They turn up twice—in a dish with oven-roasted peppers and also as a dressing that does what dressings only rarely do: bring together the component parts of the salad (in this case, a plate of escarole hearts and hard-boiled eggs) in a single, cohesive dish. My wife said she’d gladly make a return trip for it—”with or without the pizza.”
Almost all of the appetizers are in this vein: They are aggressively, unapologetically themselves. The assorted oven-roasted olives are both more intense and more subtle than you’d expect, their flavors concentrated by prolonged exposure to heat. The salt-cod croquettes are anything but oily, a reminder that frying, done right—at terrifically high temperatures—can produce an almost cottony-fine texture. The deviled eggs may look as if they were snatched from somebody’s potluck, but the accompanying green sauce, made from pine nuts, herbs, and olive oil, transforms them from a mild, meant-to-please, thoroughly American item into something assertively Mediterranean. Likewise, the polpettini, or meatballs, will be a surprise to anyone weaned on the too-large, too-dense domestic variety. They’re small and almost spongy in texture, lightened by homemade bread crumbs and a blend of veal, beef, and pork.
The other reason to go easy on the pizzas is to leave room for a final course. I have never really believed that less is more; I believe—as did the late Stanley Elkin—that more is more (and less is less), and so I found myself, on my third visit, ordering a dessert I’d already tried just to experience the pleasure of tasting it yet again. As good as pastry chef Henry McEntee’s cannoli are—that same wonderful sheep ricotta, here spiked with orange peel and orange liqueur, spilling from a shell that’s so delicately thin and crispy it might as well be a pirouline—his almond cake is even better. Most cakes, even sometimes very good ones, are rich and densely textured; it’s much harder to pull off a cake that is airy and fine-grained yet retains its richness. The key ingredient here is almond paste, which magnifies the flavor of the almond flour and leaves the internal structure of the cake essentially unchanged. And I love that McEntee, along with adding a small scoop of his homemade vanilla ice cream, mutes the sweetness of the cherries on top by macerating them beforehand in grappa.
It was during this second go-round with the almond cake, just as I’d slipped from one consciousness to another, more private kind, that my wife nudged me to look up: My friend Bill, on his own second go-round, was strolling through the dining room of 2 Amys with his arms stretched wide as if he owned the place.
“What can I say?” he laughed. “We like the food.”
2 Amys, 3715 Macomb St. NW. (202) 885-5700. —Todd Kliman
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.