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When James Alefantis and Carole Greenwood were deciding on a loose template for their new Upper Northwest pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, they took a tour of the Northeast for inspiration. In their search for the quintessential American-style pie—“the pizza you grew up with,” as Alefantis calls it—the two sampled versions in cities such as New York, Boston, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. But the pizza of New Haven, Conn., edged out all others. The partners discovered, as had countless Yankees and Yalies before them, that the pizza of New Haven is just that good—particularly the pie at the legendary Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana on Wooster Street.
“The closest thing [our pie is] based on is Frank Pepe’s,” says Alefantis, who was taken with the Connecticut joint’s crisp, cracker-bottomed crust and “burnt-toast flavor.” And unlike the simple crushed tomatoes that adorn New Yorknstyle pies, Pepe’s sauce is just that—a cooked sauce with garlic and plenty of oregano, he says.
Alefantis readily admits that Comet’s pies, created by Greenwood, aren’t exact replicas; for him, “the idea of replicating is not as interesting as taking an idea and doing something new with it,” he says. A fortuitous outlook, indeed: Since D.C. regulations prohibit building a coal-burning oven, which gives Pepe’s pies their blackened crusts, Comet uses a wood-burning oven that imparts a slightly softer flavor and texture.
“It’s us making it in Washington,” says Alefantis, “so I guess it has its own definition.” What he hopes Comet has captured is an American experience—one that people remember fondly from childhood—tweaked by the sensibilities of his partnership and of D.C.
What that means is not only a wood-burning oven but also sauce made of organic summer tomatoes from Pennsylvania’s Toigo Orchards instead of the imported Sclafani tomatoes that Pepe’s uses. Farmer Mark Toigo’s is among the faces in a large photo collage of purveyors and friends across from Comet’s bar; Pepe’s walls support yellowing photographs of beloved former employees and celebrity customers from its more than 80 years of existence.
Other Pepe’s-inspired touches at Comet get “world-class city” treatment: the distressed-wood translation of Pepe’s high-backed benches; tidier pies served on similar parchment-lined jelly-roll pans; and a display board that proclaims tomato pies made to order, just as those throughout Pepe’s do, except here the sign is poised against a dark-metal, industrial glamour.
And Comet’s single-serving pies, while good, are a mere stylish nod to New Haven’s, as well. On their own merits, a yeasty, salty crust; good-quality cheese; and sauce made from local summertime tomatoes ensure that your few toppinged bites will probably be good ones. A potato-and-butternut-squash pizza has good savor, though it’s skimpy on the butternut squash. Softly caramelized onions are the star, as they are on many of the specialty pies, but the few thin threads of squash are, well, squashed—a bit of a letdown for $14. Chunks of salty merguez on a sausage pizza play well with the herbed tomato sauce, bringing out its sweetness; the Smoky Pizza, with bacon, smoked mushrooms, and smoked mozzarella, is an unusual winner. Comet’s white clam pizza, an homage to one of Pepe’s bestsellers, is flavorful but decidedly precious. Meaning a rustic, $18 pie with those self-styled “melted” onions, a dab of mozzarella, and three clams. Pepe’s version—a heavenly assault of garlic, oregano, clams, and olive oil—is $11.70 ($13 with cheese) and nearly twice as large.
The main D.C.ification of the Pepe’s model might be in that $6.30—the feeling that you just paid a little too much for something a little too little.
At least the entertainment is a bargain: Comet’s other ode to Americana costs diners only 50 cents a ball. “The pingpong is fun, and it creates a really good design aesthetic,” says Alefantis, who co-owns another swanky salute to parks and rec, the nearby Buck’s Fishing & Camping, with Greenwood. “Really 1950s, ’40s American, and that’s where the restaurant is.” Pingpong-painted tables sit within walls chipped away to recall those of a crusty hall. Even the simple menus—a few pies and two salads—are fashioned like score cards, with bubbles for indicating selections.
But the table-tennis enthusiasm isn’t just a gimmick. The three pingpong tables in the back are consistently full, and they certainly seem to draw families with kids. They’re another component in Alefantis’ hope not only that Comet evokes the pizza the paying customers grew up with but also that “the kids that come to Comet, this will be the pizza that they remember,” he says.
It’s difficult to imagine that happening, though. According to Jennifer Kelly, one of Frank Pepe’s seven grandchildren who now run the parlor, the key reason people join unbelievably long outdoor lines to wait for their pie is that “it’s good food, and it’s cheap.” A family of four at Comet could easily approach $100 for a meal in which Dad, and possibly Mom, remain hungry and the kids sit confused by their boutique pies with the few bites of cheese in the middle. Forget about cold breakfast leftovers.
Comet Ping Pong, 5037 Connecticut Ave. NW. (202) 364-0404.
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