Restaurateur Hakan Ilhan has taste-tested all sorts of artisanal pizzas around town. “2Amys, in my opinion, was No. 1,” Ilhan says, referring to Peter Pastan‘s uber-popular pizzeria in Cleveland Park.
Yes, Ilhan is speaking in the past tense. Like any confident operator of a brand-spankin’ new gourmet pizza joint, Ilhan boldly asserts that the pies at La Forchetta, scheduled to open April 2, will set a new high watermark for Neapolitan-style craftsmanship in the District. The modish Italian-themed eatery already boasts some high-profile talent. Chef Roberto Donna, of Galileo fame, is running the kitchen.
“I think ours is the best,” Ilhan tells Y&H—-an especially bold statement in a city that’s becoming increasingly opinionated about its charred crusts and melty mozzarella motifs. “The reason is,” he goes on. “Well, let me show you.”
During a tour of the new restaurant on Monday, Ilhan leads me back into the kitchen, where he shows off his shiny new dough mixer, imported direct from Italy. Ilhan initially describes the contraption, which kneads up to 50 pounds of the stretchy floury stuff at a time, as the “Cadillac of dough mixers,” then quickly corrects himself. “Ferrari,” he says. “This is Italian, after all.”
The fancy machinery makes all the difference, Ilhan says, turning to Donna, his head chef, for confirmation.
“When it mixes the dough, it stretches the gluten, so you get more air and lighter dough at the end,” says Donna, who is standing to the side in his white chef coat and cherry red eyeglasses.
For Donna, the embattled but James Beard Award-winning toque, La Forchetta presents a sort of clean slate. Dogged by tax troubles, Washington’s most esteemed Italian chef shuttered his most recent incarnation of the Galileo brand last September and then briefly relocated to Arizona. His recent return to work for Ilhan offers a big opportunity to reclaim his longstanding reputation as a celebrated cook, not a failed businessman. A press release about the project last month placed heavy emphasis on a clear division of labor at La Forchetta: Donna is strictly in charge of the kitchen only, while Ilhan (the proprietor of some 21 area fast-casual concepts, slinging everything from gelato to bagels to Chinese food) will be handling the entire business side of things.
Both Donna and Ilhan seemed genuinely stoked and good-humored about the new project during our chat.
The pizzas, prepared in a piping, 700-degree-plus wood-burning oven, located smack in the center of the restaurant, account for a big part of the menu. A dozen savory styles are listed, ranging from the traditional margherita ($12.95) to a salted egg, pecorino and raw fennel-topped pie ($13.95), plus a few dessert varieties.
Ilhan put out a few complimentary samples of the pies for assembled members of the food media on Monday. Y&H will refrain from commentary until eating the stuff as a bona fide customer.
Ilhan says he will be seeking official certification from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, an organization dedicated to preserving authentic Neapolitan pizza-making traditions. It’s an honor so far bestowed upon only two pizzerias located within the District line: the aforementioned 2Amys and, most recently, Georgetown’s Il Canale.
But it’s not all about the pizza at La Forchetta. The menu further includes various calzones, risottos, homemade pastas and sausages. The main dishes feature, among other things, a cornish hen ($16.95) and organic veal skirt steak ($19.95).
Ilhan describes the beverage program as primarily wine-centric, but eight beers are also on draft. These include Italian staples Peroni and Moretti, as well as the mainstream American swill Miller Lite—-a selection, which Ilhan points out, is particularly tailored to the restaurant’s slightly off-campus location near American University.
“That one’s for the students,” Ilhan says.
La Forchetta, 3201 New Mexico Ave. NW, (202) 244-2223