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Just when Americans seem to have approached an understanding about pizza history, one that gives more or less equal slices of the pie to Naples and New York, with slivers left over for Philly, Baltimore, Chicago, and Boston, a British-Georgian partnership drops a pizza joint in Georgetown purporting to serve up the real deal. As if pizza didn’t give us Washingtonians a full-frontal headache already.
San Marzano, the restaurant in question, could be out to take over the world; PizzaExpress, the restaurant it spun off of, already has shops in seven other countries, Russia included. The good news is that Marzano is sexy and cheap and not all that bad. There’s also parking in the back. The bad news is that it doesn’t answer all of our pizza-related prayers.
The restaurant itself, sleek and fairly well-conceived, serves as a prime destination for Georgetown tourists who don’t want to get caught dining somewhere too touristy. And I wouldn’t blame a local for wanting to eat here more than once. The first-level dining room is all exposed brick and high ceilings, filled in with sturdy, marble-top tables. It’s the kind of room that in Europe would rely on young chain-smokers to flesh out its ambiance, but here, colder details suffice: An open kitchen underlined by a strip of cobalt-blue light. Cafe windows open to warm nights. Paper napkins thick enough to double as material for disposable dress shirts.
Indeed, Marzano’s primary appeal lies in its refusal to come off as cheap as its menu prices—an admittedly compelling disconnect that also leads to a critical conundrum: On the one hand, the pizza Margherita is a little disappointing, a classically simple pie that doesn’t excite saucewise and could stand more time in the oven. On the other hand, it’s $6.50—a dollar less than a single glass of Pio Cesare chardonnay.
Marzano’s pizzas hew faithfully to the Neapolitan style, which—good news to anyone who’s never bought into the idea that broccoli, barbecued chicken, or fried oysters could make a compelling topping—means that its pies stand apart nicely from those churned out by restaurants of a more American bent. Yet the ingredient options hardly seem pedestrian. Capricciosa, one of the best items in the house, comes with an egg cracked into its center, cooked and hardened around a heady, salty mix of ham, anchovies, capers, and olives.
Your odds of departing pleased actually ramp up considerably if you order with an eye toward pungency. Anchovies swim rampant on this menu, and they never fail to elevate the flavor value of their surroundings, whether on a cheeseless pie centered around chunks of tuna or competing against the bite of garlic on a Siciliana. As for the more ambitiously flavorful fare, I’d steer clear of the Cajun pizza if it turns up as a special. The sauce here could use a boost, but Tabasco isn’t the answer.
Notwithstanding a few ill-conceived ideas, Marzano’s pies come off the drawing board looking just fine. But they all lack…something. I like the way the spinach sits up above the cheese on the Fiorentina and the way the dry heat from the wood-fired oven burns out its liquid, turning the vegetable into something closer to an herb. But the crust doesn’t crackle, and the cheese has no blisters. A straight mushroom pie contains listless button ‘shrooms, and the sauce, trumpeted on the menu as a special potion derived from imported tomatoes, is just red; it’s not sweet or tart or acidic. No wonder I’m drawn to pies with stinky fish. If great pizzas are about alchemy, Marzano’s are about creating the illusion of a foreign pizza experience (Look! Sultanas!) just well enough to appease patrons for 45 minutes.
What’s worse, the pizzas come unsliced. Whether this represents a nod toward someone’s version of authenticity or is simply the result of a kitchen’s wanting to shepherd food out as quickly as possible, it’s annoying. Whoever decided to populate the dining room with big round tables apparently didn’t consider the possibility that the people sitting at them might be inclined to share.
Still, pizzas trump everything else on the menu. Lobster ravioli come choked by a heavy pour from the dried-oregano jar, and the same ingredients that mar the pies cripple most of the other fare. The antipasti all basically riff on crust dough shaped different ways—long and plump to create oily garlic bread or much better pesto-topped bruschetta, or rolled into biscuit blobs for a plate of “baked dough balls,” which amount to precisely what the menu promises.
Tiramisu, soft and creamy in all the right places, doesn’t boldly rethink the dessert; it simply reminds you why it predominates. And the cheesecake has remarkable fluff. But if you order something sweet and frozen, be thankful for coffee worth lingering over: You’ll need to let that spumoni soften for a while before scraping off its freezer-burned outer layer.
Marzano, it should be said, never comes off as the kind of new chain restaurant that can’t entice its staff with juicy gratuities. On the night I have to wait for the host who’s run after a customer who’s forgotten her sweater, I discover that the bartender knows enough not to pour me the dregs from the bottom of a bottle of Chianti. Later, I’m delivered a cracker-crisp pie holding little islands of melted goat cheese interspersed with whole pieces of sun-dried tomato. The pizza’s actually quite delicious—and, for once, it’s sliced.
San Marzano Pizza Vino e Birra, 3282 M St. NW, (202) 965-7007.
One reader rightly contends that AKA Friscos, an underappreciated, beloved-by-its-devotees cafe on upper Wisconsin Avenue, deserves praise for its handheld goods alone. “A female companion,” the reader writes, “once saw fit to admit having naughty thoughts at the sight of a wrapped to-go Friscos’ giant Fatboy sub.” ‘Nuff said. But I’m addicted to the spicy chicken soup. I’ve never tested out the reader’s claim that the stuff can cure a hangover “in exactly 15 seconds,” but I don’t doubt it.
AKA Friscos, 4115 Wisconsin Ave. NW, (202) 244-7847. —Brett Anderson
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