If you went to college in a town of 15,000 or less, or have spent time around one of the many affluent small towns that dot the East Coast, then the Arlington neighborhood of Westover will look eerily familiar. Seemingly removed from the encroaching urbanization that defines the broader community, Westover’s short commercial stripa small, independent grocery, a hardware/variety store, a post office, and a barbershopcould easily pass for Main Street, U.S.A. Not only are most of the basic needs accounted foras if these same services weren’t repeated a dozen times over a few miles awaybut even the pace of life seems slower. If only I could afford a weekend home there.
If Westover were what it seemsa college townthe idiosyncratic Gourmet Pizza Deli: Home of the Lost Dog Cafe, with its bright, airy atmosphere, gloriously bad paintings, and youthful customers, would fit in perfectly. Like many small-town joints, it seems designed to appeal to several different constituencies. Sandwich shop by day, the restaurant switches its emphasis to pizza as the sun goes down, and then, finally, to beerthe Lost Dog being one of those bars that stocks (according to my waitress) between 200 and 300 different brands (although the first three I try to order are MIA). This mix of basics (brewskies) and worldliness (brewskies from Scotland) surely has plenty of appeal to any college lads who should happen to be frequenting the place, and the three-drink maximum would no doubt make the dean happy.
The mind-numbing variety of beers speaks of a management that doesn’t know when to say when. Elsewhere on the menu, the Lost Dog has 62 sandwiches, most of the sort I refer to as “deal-breakers,” because of the way you choose one: “Hmmm, let’s see, the No. 12, New York Yankee: Genoa salami, corned beef, pastrami, provolone, um, lettuce? tomato? oniongood God, who would put mayonnaise on pastrami? OK, No. 13, the Arlington Club…”
I’ve only been able to bring myself to order five or six deal-breakers, and those have been fair at best. The BalboaGenoa salami, proscuittini, pepperoni, onions, and mozzarella with tomato saucewas about what one would expect: a blob of peppery lunch meats, neither particularly good nor strikingly bad. The sandwich’s one saving grace is that it’s a genuine oven grinder, with the characteristically delicate, toasty crunch that Italian rolls have after spending time in a pizza oven. The Cowgirlchar-grilled chicken breast and brie with sautéed onions, mushrooms, and green peppersis decidedly less successful. The “breast” turns out to be thinly sliced meat that is overwhelmed by the heavy-handed addition of thick, half-melted slices of brie, although its bread also benefits from time in the oven. Additionally, the mushrooms are served nearly raw, and the green pepper is nearly nonexistent.
Most Dog sandwiches, paradoxically, seem both random and formulaic, stuffed with mysteriously chosen combinations of beef, fowl, pork, and cheese that add up to a cacophony rather than a symphony of flavors. God forbid you should find out what the roast beef tastes like without six other piled-on toppings. The sides demonstrate similarly misguided initiative: The french fries are bland, mushy, and baked. Even a waffle cut, which arguably adds crispiness when fried, only guarantees that the fries are cold practically before leaving the kitchen. The onion ringsalso bakedare made in-house, but the coating has an unpleasant packaged-white-bread taste. And I disapprove of the addition of Tabasco. The classic onion ring is a recipe of Platonically perfect form; alterations only diminish it. And, speaking of screwing up a basic recipe, the coffee I order comes flavored with cinnamon, without warning from either the menu or my waitress.
If only the cooks would stick to the fundamentals, which for them means pizza. The Dog pie ranks a solid B+which places it among the best in our pizza-challenged region. Though it can’t quite qualify as pastry, the Lost Dog’s crust has a delicate, almost flaky quality and a buttery, croissantlike flavor. This shortening-rich effect is less noticeable on the traditional pie but vivifies the white pizza. The White Pizza I, with its oh-so-light additions of garlic butter and Parmesan, is aromatic and subtly flavored, almost an eggless quiche.
I’ve found myself eating a lot of white pizzas in the past few years, because, well, Washington sauce usually sucks. Not only is it frequently ketchupy sweet, but there is usually too much of it. Barely heated through, it glops out of the middle of the pie, turning the cheese layer into a floating island prone to be left behind when you pull out your sliceif it doesn’t actually slide into your lap. At the Lost Dog, I have come back to red pizza. The well-balanced sauce is not too sweet and not too acid, and the addition of oregano and basil lends it a refined herb-infused flavor. Used in relatively modest quantities, it sets up nicely, giving the pizza structural integrity.
As might be expected, pizza diners at the Dog will not suffer from a lack of topping choices, which range from traditional pepperoni and mushroom to new classics such as pineapple and pesto to avant-garde possibilities such as cheddar and zucchini. There are 30 in all, plus 22 preconfigured pies. The portions are generous, even with more expensive ingredients such as bacon, although the pesto could be a bit less generous: The pie is so green that it resembles a stagnant pond. Despite the strong color, the flavor is weak, with a trace amount of basil that makes me wonder exactly where the huge pools of nearly fluorescent color come from. And the double-cheese pie is wet and floppy, not having spent enough time in the oven to make up for its added density. However, most of the supporting ingredients do more than the job expected of them: The pepperoni has a mellow garlicky presence, the onions are as sweet and caramelized as if they had been sautéed, and the bacon is crisp and smoky.
In Arlington, the Lost Dog has quickly become the first place I think of for pizzaand it’s also where you’ll find me on nights when the cafeteria offers its famous cottage-cheese nut loaf. At lunchtime, though, this Dog intends to remain lost.
Gourmet Pizza Deli: Home of the Lost Dog Cafe, 5876 Washington Blvd., Arlington, (703) 237-1552. Jandos Rothstein
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100, x322.