After a few transcendent bites of the Sausage + Peppers pie from Martha Dear, I wonder if this is truly the best pizza I’ve had in D.C., or if there are other forces at play. The pandemic, largely, has robbed Washingtonians of the pleasure of trying a new restaurant soon after it opens. The build up! The anticipation! The feeling that you’re being let in on a juicy secret! Many of the restaurants that were poised to break onto the scene in 2020 pressed pause. Who wants to make a grand entrance in a take-out box?
Martha Dear took that risk when it opened for takeout only on Dec. 11. When I arrived in Mount Pleasant to pick up my Neapolitan-style pies, I couldn’t peer into the dining room to see how married co-owners Tara L. Smith and Chef Demetri Mechelis fixed up the space that used to house a pupuseria. Instead, Smith mans an outdoor stand in a bright orange beanie, darting in and out to retrieve pies seconds after they come out of the oven. I appreciate the pick-up staging areas some restaurants have erected to temper risk. Diners and delivery drivers don’t have to cross the threshold.
Martha Dear pizzas are sturdier than typical Neapolitan pies, which can be a little soupy in the center and slosh around in transit. My Sausage + Peppers pie made it the 4.1 miles to my house in top form, probably because I settled the precious cargo on the passenger seat with the seat heater on.
After nibbling my way to the crust of my first slice, I paused to inhale the unmistakable, tangy smell of sourdough. Mechelis makes the dough from a few freshly milled grains from Migrash Farm in Baltimore, along with a little Greek semolina.
“It’s fermented for 24 hours and shaped the next day,” he says. “Always at room temperature.” The color is a beautiful sandy brown. “He makes it sound easy, but it takes two days and all the time,” Smith chimes in.
Mechelis tops the Sausage + Peppers pie with ‘Nduja—a spicy and spreadable pork product from Calabria, Italy. Smith likes the way it melts. “The oil ekes out and coats the pizza,” she says. The ‘Nduja is joined by provolone and mozzarella cheeses, peppers, onions, and tomato sauce. Mechelis says his pizzas need about two and a half minutes inside a gas-powered Marra Forni oven.
Smith, who builds the wine list, recommends pairing the Sausage + Peppers pie ($21) with a garnacha blend from Sierras de Malaga, Spain ($27). The restaurant will add to-go cocktails soon.
The owners met while working at Tail Up Goat, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Adams Morgan known for its pasta and fancy toasts. When they set out to open Martha Dear in the neighborhood where they live, they had humble ambitions. Smith told City Paper in 2019 that she was excited to work side-by-side with her fiancé at a restaurant named after his mother.
“It’s just going to be really fun,” she said. “It’s a small little place. We’re not looking to be anything other than what we are, which is pizza and fun wine and the occasional octopus I hope. This is our future.”
The future is now. Martha Dear opens online ordering at noon on Wednesdays through Sundays. The shop is small—Mechelis can only make a limited number of pizzas for pick-up between 5:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. They’ve been selling out for good reason. Yes, there’s the extra dusting of magic because Martha Dear is sparkly and new, but the Sausage + Peppers pie is best in class.
“It’s been wild and wonderful,” Smith says. “There’s been so much support. People like what we’re doing. We’re trying as hard as we can to figure out when to grow, but safety is the operative word right now. We’re 11 days old. Bear with us.”