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The first time I sampled chef Edan MacQuaid’s pies at RedRocks Fire Brick Pizzeria, my hands looked like I had just finished working the black seam in a West Virginia mine. They were covered with the char of a marinara pizza blackened and blistered in a ferociously hot oven. I remember thinking that either the kitchen screwed up or MacQuaid wanted to emphasize the undervalued flavors—a sort of ashy vanilla—that char imparts to pizza.
My next two visits confirmed my initial hunch: MacQuaid really likes to turn up the heat on his pies. Each one I ordered hit the table with mushroom clouds of blackened char exploding from the crust. Even his slices of homemade bread for the bruschetta featured black ribbons of charred crust. This guy, I thought, is a pyro.
Given the chef’s aggressive approach to heat, I was inclined to believe a nagging rumor: that MacQuaid had been fired from his previous job as pizza-maker at 2Amys for fighting in the kitchen. MacQuaid’s pies, after all, had shown me that he’s not afraid to play with fire. I figured, like any good artist, his food reflects his personality.
The truth about MacQuaid’s pizzas, as it turns out, is far more interesting. The chef tells me that his pies tend to have more char because he actually follows the rules for Neapolitan pizza-making, as opposed to his previous employer, which MacQuaid says blows a lot of smoke about its Denominazione di Origine Controllata pies but doesn’t actually follow all the laws. MacQuaid says he cooks his rounds at approximately 900 degrees Fahrenheit, right around the 485-degree Celsius temperature mandated by the Italian government. 2Amys, he claims, cooks pizza at about 650 degrees Fahrenheit.
MacQuaid also says 2Amys takes liberties with its dough. “True Neapolitan dough is never refrigerated,” he says, “and theirs is on, like, a 36-hour refrigerator cycle,” which retards fermentation and allows 2Amys to rise its dough longer than allowed by D.O.C. law.
“I feel like I [had] kind of been put in this position…where a lot of other pizza-makers started to call me out and say that we weren’t doing things authentically and that we were fudging it,” MacQuaid says of his nearly six years at 2Amys. “Then I started to look at it, and we were.”
Of course, maybe MacQuaid is the one blowing smoke here, just a disgruntled former employee who wants to torch his old boss, chef and owner Peter Pastan, whose pizza the Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema has called among the best in the country. MacQuaid, after all, was indeed fired shortly after an altercation in the kitchen earlier this year.
MacQuaid doesn’t exactly label it a fight; apparently a line cook tried to jump MacQuaid after the chef made a smartass remark about the guy’s work ethic. MacQuaid wanted Pastan “to take action on that, and he didn’t want to do anything,” the chef recalls. “I went and filed a police report, and he fired me. That’s the whole story.”
When I contact Pastan for comment, the owner sounds almost blasé, as if MacQuaid were just the latest in a long line of court plotters trying to steal his throne. Personally, he says, he wouldn’t classify MacQuaid’s exit as a firing. “Edan told me of his intention to leave within a fairly short amount of time, and then a lot of unpleasant stuff happened,” he recalls.
If you press Pastan for details on the fight and his response (or lack thereof), the owner invokes his belief in the philosophy of Rashômon. “Everybody has their own way of looking at the world, and we have different ways of looking at the world,” he says. Besides, Pastan believes MacQuaid’s past is irrelevant now, and he politely declines to discuss it further. He’d prefer to talk about pizza, which, when I do, makes Pastan act as if he’s testifying before a grand jury.
“There are a lot of different perspectives on what D.O.C. pizza is, and being that it’s an Italian thing, everybody has their own concept about which bylaws are relevant,” he says. “I hate to be Clintonian, but it really depends on how you interpret the guidelines and which set of guidelines you use. I mean, I feel pretty good about the guidelines we’re using.”
Pastan argues that while his pizza oven has a thermometer on it, the gauge only measures the temperature “six inches below the center of the oven.” A laser gun has measured the internal temperature of the oven, and readings have varied from the 700s to nearly 1,000 degrees depending on how close the surface area is to the fire. As for the dough, Pastan allows that “we’re probably letting it rise longer than some interpretations of how you do things,” close to 24 hours in all.
Like Roberto Donna’s decision to ditch San Marzano tomatoes on his Neapolitan pies (“Red Scare,” Young & Hungry, 8/17), Pastan is unapologetic about his miniconfession, which seems to flout a D.O.C. law that calls for two different dough risings totaling between six and eight hours. “I think one of the things that makes the dough special is that it ferments very slowly for a long amount of time,” Pastan says. “I’ve been making bread for 25 years, and obviously slow, controlled rising makes a much more developed, flavorful loaf, and I think the same is true for pizza.”
After MacQuaid questioned 2Amys’ integrity, I made a return trip to Pastan’s pizzeria and ordered the D.O.C. margherita pizza. It was as crisp, creamy, chewy, and salty as I remembered. Screw D.O.C. certification, I thought. I don’t need some agency to certify what my palate already knows: This is damn fine pie.
In fact, I think 2Amys has the edge over the upstart RedRocks, where MacQuaid’s pizzas are hot, bubbly, and chewy—but still lack consistency. I’ve had pies at RedRocks so flimsy and oversauced that I almost wanted to skip past the featured ingredients and go straight to MacQuaid’s outer band of beautifully burned crust.
But regardless of who’s doing true Neapolitan-style pizza—and MacQuaid says that “we follow the letter of the [D.O.C.] law to the letter of the law here at RedRocks”—isn’t it time to stop placing so much emphasis on rules and just trust our tastes? To me, the D.O.C. certification seems as much about marketing as about guaranteeing a true taste of Naples. I wondered aloud to Pastan whether his D.O.C. certification still served as a viable marketing tool nearly six years after he got it.
“I think probably when we opened it was a better marketing tool than it is now,” Pastan says of D.O.C. rules. But, in the end, he agrees that “either you like the pizza or you don’t. The rest of it is just commentary.”
RedRocks Fire Brick Pizzeria, 1036 Park Road NW, (202) 506-1402