There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
The story behind what are some of the most remarkably large pizza slices around—slices so big that a friend refers to them as “blankets,” so big that the throng of people waiting to get their paws on one of the curiosities at 3 in the morning often resembles a ’70s-era Who concert mob—begins with a perfectly humble pie. When Chris Chishti opened Pizza Mart in 1997, his pizzas were miniatures of what they are today. “Eighteen inches,” he says, holding up the thumb and forefinger on each of his hands to illustrate the pies’ modest size.
Chishti has run a variety of pizza joints in Baltimore and Washington over the past 19 years. He knows the pickup-and-delivery business, but he’s relatively new to the slice racket. At Pizza Mart, which deals in all of the above but makes rent with its wedges, he’s given himself a crash course in the single-portion trade. “It’s crazy,” he sighs.
The amazing growth of Pizza Mart’s slices began a couple of years ago, the day Chishti discovered that dough warmed by the summer heat stretched much farther than the cooler stuff. The resulting pie was bigger than 18 inches. He took note of his customers’ reactions to the larger slices. “Oh man! That’s a big slice!” Chishti remembers them saying, prompting him to ask himself, Well, why not try a little more bigger then?
A cycle ensued. Chishti would make a bigger pie and register his customers’ satisfaction: “That big slice! I’ve never seen better!” One day, after stretching his pizzas by yet another 2 inches, he ran into a problem: His oven wasn’t big enough. So he bought a machine that accommodates 32-inchers. If not for the imposed limits of economics and technology, Chishti would’ve pushed even further: Customized ovens cost upward of $40,000, and Pizza Mart’s gargantuan cheese slices—nearly as long from tip to crust as the joint’s original pies were all the way across—go for just $2.50 a pop.
Regardless of whether Chishti can afford the monster oven of his dreams, he’s got enough to worry about with what he’s producing now. The flagship Pizza Mart (there’s one other on Rhode Island Avenue NE, and two more outside the city) sits smack in the heart of Adams Morgan’s cocktail corridor. The tiny, ramshackle counter takeout stays open all day, and during nonwitching hours, it does decent business shipping out whole pies and hawking slices with various toppings to passers-by. But when the weekend comes, the weather is right, and the clock strikes a certain hour—say, 1:30 a.m.—the crowd starts to roil. All of a sudden, slices start selling like nickel beers at a desert cockfight.
On a good Friday or Saturday night, Chishti says, he goes through 50 to 60 pizzas, each yielding eight mammoth slices, between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. alone. At those peak hours, Chishti offers only cheese slices; the extra time needed to add requested toppings would only lengthen waits that can already be as long as 45 minutes.
Such popularity can be treacherous. Chishti, who commutes to Pizza Mart from outside Baltimore every day, says his biggest headache is dealing with the inebriates who’ve made his little takeout the must-stop munch-spot of 18th Street NW. The combination of booze, hormones, and the irritation caused by long waits can turn Pizza Mart’s line into a combustible affair right around last call. Having played some organized football can be helpful if you want to keep your place in the crush of bodies; I’ve seen the Mart’s inside turn into a popcorn popper of fists and torsos after one sloshed diner tried to bypass the wait and sneak to the counter.
For his part, Chishti has seen rogue customers throw slices at his employees, and in response to his discovery that someone had been stealing juices and selling them on the street outside, he’s been forced to move the drink cooler closer to the register during the late-night rush. Being the victim of such disrespect has, at best, drained his enthusiasm for working late (a night manager usually takes the helm in the wee hours); at worst, it’s caused Chishti, who’s Pakistani, to look for scapegoats on which to reflect the disrespect right back.
“The black people, I don’t know what’s wrong with them,” he spits, between detailing a series of late-night imbroglios. “[They] don’t have patience, don’t want to follow the rules, don’t want to stay in line.” To illustrate, he tells me of one late-night customer who butted to the front of the line and, when refused service, “took his penis out and said, ‘I’m gonna piss in your place if you don’t give me a slice.’”
For what it’s worth, on a recent visit, the fight I witness in the Pizza Mart line hardly confirms Chishti’s stereotypes: It’s a bunch of overserved white guys with smart haircuts throwing punches.
Such is life, I suppose, when you produce slices of such peculiar and undeniable charms. They’re hot, cheesy, unwieldy beasts; staffers need to fold the pointy ends back to fit them on their foil-and-paper-plate platforms. No crust is strong enough to hold tight at these dimensions, but despite their drooping all over the place, there’s some crispness beneath the simple oily topping of cheese and sauce. And there’s enough crust at the ridge to slice up and serve as finger food with some tapenade.
At 1 a.m. on a recent Saturday, I hear someone announce, “These are the biggest pieces of pizza I’ve seen in my life.” By the time the night’s out, five similar remarks will have been recorded into my notebook. I don’t find much drama to report—no fights or flaunted penises—but I can’t help but notice that, by 12:30 a.m., there are people munching on Pizza Mart slices as far away as 15th and U Streets NW. In the wee hours of the weekend, this pizza simply permeates. On 18th Street, the slices are more common than cigarettes. I see people in cabs dangling the messy points above their mouths, oblivious to the grease dripping onto their shirts. People are eating them on the patio of the Toledo Lounge, at tables inside McDonald’s, in the middle of the street. By 2 o’clock, I can smell the cheese and the sauce at the corner of 18th and Belmont—a half-block from the Pizza Mart’s jumbo oven.
And the line’s not bad. Chishti’s beefed up the late-night staff so that there are now three people behind the counter who do nothing but dole out slices. I get in line at 2:30 a.m., and just before 3 o’clock, I’m at the condiment counter sprinkling garlic salt over my blistering hot cheese. The guy next to me is struggling in vain to fold his slice into something more manageable. “This is ridiculous,” he barks, before licking some sauce from his elbow. His friend replies, “Hey, it’s cheap.”
Pizza Mart, 2445 18th St. NW, (202) 234-9700.
Hand-held pleasures aren’t any more sure-fire than at Five Guys. At the Old Town outpost, the bulletin boards are whitewashed with customer comments that echo those of the reader who likens his frequent FG runs to trips to see his priest—if only he had one. The burgers are about as close to perfect as they come around here—thick, perfectly imperfect patty, crisp iceberg, mayo, grilled onions, and whatever else you want (jalapenos?) squished between a soft, unobtrusive bun. I, like the reader, “damn the day that [Five Guys] closed in Arlington.”
Five Guys, 107 N. Fayette St., Alexandria, (703) 549-7991.—Brett Anderson
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.