A good pizza-slice begs to be inspected like a perfectly ripe piece of fruit. Feel the roundness of its edge, its bumpy ridge, and the way the whole thing sags just slightly as the crust narrows to a point. Get close enough to it so you can feel its heat, note the density of the cheese, and be in the proper position to address some vital questions: How much sauce is under there? If I proceed too quickly, will I get burned? Will parmesan be necessary? What about a second slice?
I’m close enough to a slice of ‘roni from Rios Pizza & Subs in Adams Morgan to answer all these queries, though I wish I wasn’t. There’s plenty of sauce here. Presumably the pasty substance is a variation on marinara, but it could be made with red paint for all I know: The sauce is tasteless, its presence detectable only by sight. I’m in no immediate danger of being burned. The slice is only lukewarm, so the much-needed parmesan just slides off the hard cheese and into my palm. I will not be ordering another. It’s past midnight on a weekend and I’m alone, but this slice is the real loser.
Everyone knows that the District is no haven for great
pizza pies, which might logically explain the city’s less-than-brisk slice trade. But despite the fact that one begets the other, pizza slices and pies are distinctly different beasts. Sure, you eat pizza by the slice (that would be a slice of pizza, not to be confused with our subject, the pizza-slice), but the pie is something you order customized. With the pizza-slice, you take whatever is ready. Your need is strong, but it’s less distinct than what you look to satisfy with a pie. The slice jones is an amorphous breed of recklessness rooted in lust and addiction, and in a town where the ruling class seems to be forever in blind pursuit of hasty gratification, you’d think there’d be a slice available at every intersectioneating one is the culinary equivalent of a “quickie.”
Not that slices aren’t available in the District, it’s just that the good ones are scarce and the joints that sell them are clustered; Georgetown, for example, is crawling with slices at the ready, but Rios is the only game in Adams Morgan. On 17th Street, the place is Trio, where the slices can be soggy, burnt, or in that perfect in-between state. Wild inconsistency also plagues the slices at Fairfax Deli & Grocery near Dupont Circle, which I’ve gravitated to since Vesuvios closed its doors. As with that meaningless fling, you return not because the slices promise anything lasting but because they’re there.
Armand’s has pretty much monopolized the pizza business along upper Wisconsin with a colorful presence on either side of the avenue. The northernmost Armand’s has a slice window that looks to be a lunch favorite among white-collar types and, more importantly, cops, ever connoisseurs of quick-fix dining. Armand’s pizza is a product of the Chicago school: Everything on the slice is thick and burly, from the crust to the cheese, making the consumption of two pieces the exclusive province of gluttons and the truly starved. The Chicago school admirably tries to achieve maximum density on a small, triangular surface, which means a single slice can qualify as a meal but also that girth, not taste, is the primary objective. So it’s no surprise that Armand’s slice is hearty but relatively bland.
Down Wisconsin a stretch, two restaurants modulate the crust-as-bread style that Armand’s peddles. Manny’s & Olga’s is the size of a large walk-in closet; more than four people waiting means that the line stretches outside. Like many joints hustling slices, M’s & O’s always has a cheese pie ready to be adorned with ingredients, although the extras are hardly necessary. The crust is fluffier than it is crisp, but it doesn’t overwhelm the slice or render it dry. It’s a slice enlivened by uniquely rendered basics; both the sauce and the dough are slightly sweet. Row House Coffee serves a disastrous variation on M’s & O’s succulent slice, a monstrosity with an inch-high crust that’s reminiscent of a day-old cake doughnut. The lesson here is that coffee and pizza don’t mix.
Slices are a trickier product than pies because slices generally need to be resurrected from the dead, shocked to life with a quick visit to the oven. They are taken from pizzas made in advance and left to cool at room temperature. Getting a truly fresh slice is a matter of luck, and heating lamps are to be shunned because, depending on who you ask, they either dry out the pizza or make it soggy.
The secret behind the slices served by Georgetown Bagelry and Pumpernickels might be that both shops’ other gig is bagels; cooking, cooling, and then toasting is a house specialty. Both serve a thin-crust slice that’s strong at the edge and almost gooey at the centera consistency horrifying in any other food but gorgeous in a well-constructed slice. Ask for pepperoni at Pumpernickels and the guy will slap salami-size circles on the slice and set it into the oven until it sweats. I count 19 small ‘ronis on my Bagelry slice, which I cover in oregano and garlic salt. Cappuchino’s slices are equally strong and large, about the size of my forearm, but less prone to greasiness. In my book that’s a shame.
Pepperoni is the test case used to compare one slice to another in this survey. It’s the slice every restaurant has, and its ubiquity should make it the most laudable when truly divine and the least excusable when screwed up. But both Mario’s and Giuseppi’s don’t encourage customers to behave predictably.
Giuseppi’s came recommended to me by a reader from Pittsburgh who has lived in Denver and D.C., by his measure “the two worst pizza towns in the non-communist world.” Giuseppi’s is run by Pittsburghers who push me to loosen up when I ask for pepperoni. I’m steered toward a ham-and-green-pepper beauty that looks like the innards of a Denver omelet. It’s a mess that would be easier to eat with three hands (a woman next to me is kind enough to pluck some cheese from my hair before I leave), but it’s well worth the struggle.
Mario’s triumph is its sausage slice. Mario’s cuts squares from a rectangular pie, and the sausage is a single round patty, like what you’d expect at breakfast. It’s a geometric mismatch made in heaven and, according to the guy at the counter, “the only way to eat a slice.” Since the place has been around for nearly 40 years, I figure he knows what’s up.
As with ribs or tacos or punk rock, pretty much any bozo can slap together a passable slicein desperate states, I’ve bought my fair share from gas stations. But rarely does the alchemy of the ingredients seem as heaven-sent as in the slices served by Vace. The ‘roni slice is a picture of perfection: The sauce is spread thin and proud on top of cheese that bonds directly with the crust, as they conspire to achieve that sublime gooeyness. The pepperoni affects everything, creating a sharp glaze over the top and a scent that brings to mind a lifetime of past pizza experiencesall of them good. Could you ask for anything more from a two-dollar lunch?
Armand’s Chicago Pizzeria, 5000 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 363-5500.
Cappuchino’s Pizza, 1438 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 337-5115.
Fairfax Deli & Grocery, 2153 P St. NW. (202) 296-1542.
Georgetown Bagelry, 3245 M St. NW. (202) 965-1011.
Giuseppi’s Pizza Plus, 213 N. Washington St., Rockville. (301) 424-0413.
Manny’s & Olga’s Pizza, 1641 Wisconsin Ave. NW. (202) 337-1000.
Mario’s Pizza & Subs, 3322 Wilson Blvd. Arlington (703) 525-0200.
Pumpernickels, 5504 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 244-9505.
Rios Pizza & Subs, 1815 Adams Mill Rd. NW. (202) 667-1600.
Row House Coffee, 1834 Wisconsin Ave. (202) 965-2688.
Trio Pizza, 1624 Q St. NW. (202) 232-5611.
Vace Italian Delicatessen, 3315 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 363-1999.
Hummus, I’ve always argued, should be a condiment, like mayonnaise. Think of how much more inclined we’d be to make sandwiches. If you ask, the folks at Cafe Amalo will put hummus on anything; I’ve even brought some home to eat with french fries. Amalo’s shish ta ‘wook, a pita sandwich filled with lemony chicken and a few onions, is a hummus lover’s dream. The white stuff seeps from the sides, onto your shirt, plate, or hand, where you have no choice but to lick it off.
Cafe Amalo, 1506 U St. NW. (202) 986-7020.
Eatery tips? Hot plates? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Or call (202) 332-2100 and ask for my voice mail.