In the basement of Bloomingdale’s beloved coffee shop Big Bear Cafe now stands a wood-fired oven made from French clay bricks that can fit five pies at a time. That’s where you’ll find Chef Robbie Tutlewski topping 14-inch pizzas with pickled fresno chilies, arugula, hand-pulled mozzarella, fresh ricotta, parmigiano reggiano, shaved pecorino romano, and honey hot enough to have you reaching for a glass of wine to put out the fire.
Tutlewski didn’t expect to sell out on this particular Thursday, but he did. Despite manning a busy oven, the chef found time to run up to the fire-lit patio to drop off pizzas with neighborhood regulars eager to try his latest creations. He has a pizza pedigree. Tutlewski ran renowned, Bronx-born pizzaiolo Chris Bianco’s restaurants in Phoenix, Arizona, before moving to D.C. in 2017. Before cooking at Big Bear, Tutlewski worked at Michelin-starred Tail Up Goat in Adams Morgan.
Throughout Big Bear’s 14 years in business, the gathering spot has reinvented itself and its food and drink options. For a number of years, owner Stuart Davenport was laser-focused on beefing up private event business. Many Washingtonians exchanged vows under the vines encasing the outdoor area, but that meant the focus on everyday meals waned slightly
Now, despite the constraints of the pandemic, the kitchen is firing on all cylinders during dinner hours. In addition to “pizza on the patio” nights currently held Thursdays through Saturdays from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., the restaurant also offers multi-course dinners for two available for pick-up. This weekend’s feast is slow-roasted Happy Valley pork crown rib with Parmigiano-Reggiano potatoes au gratin and blueberry lemon shortcake for dessert ($38).
“I’ve been wanting to build an oven here forever,” Davenport says. “I used to work at Woodberry Kitchen when they started their brunch program. They had to bake all their breads overnight. I’d show up on a Saturday night and bake there for eight hours just to learn how the oven worked.” If you build it, Tutlewski will come. “With wood-fire, you need someone really talented and I found Robbie.”
Tutlewski has been working toward opening his own pizza place in the District dubbed Little Donna’s. His stint at Big Bear Cafe is an opportunity to hone his skills and tweak his recipes. Davenport hopes the project is something the pair can team up on down the line.
“One of the ways this place works is we tend to attract really talented people, but it’s always with the understanding that they have other goals,” Davenport says. “The idea is that if we get along, maybe we could work together.”
Tutlewski is down. But in the meantime, you can try his contributions to D.C.’s pizza pandemonium at Big Bear. To achieve a crust that “stays crispy for at least 10 minutes,” the chef uses baker’s yeast instead of wild yeast. He ferments it using a technique that utilizes day-old dough as a starter. “A lot of people will say, ‘You’re a pizzaiolo, why don’t you use wild yeast?’” he says. “I don’t like that style of pizza.”
There are typically six pizzas on the menu, with the occasional chalkboard special. “We’ve only been doing this for two months,” Tutlewski says. “We’re working to get a good balance of red and white pizzas on the menu. We’re finding our own and seeing what people are interested in and things that excite us.”
Vegetarians are loving the Jerry Bear pizza ($20) with sliced Brussels sprouts, kale, lemon, sesame seeds, hand pulled mozzarella, parmigiano reggiano, and gorgonzola. Even the pepperoni pizza ($20) stands out. The pepperonis are the size of sand dollars, not silver dollars.
It’s possible Big Bear will expand its “pizza on the patio” days and hours as the weather improves. For now, tables are on a first come, first served basis. A limited number of pizzas are available for pick-up as well. The restaurant is also using its new wood-fire oven to make bagels. You can order a box of four of them ($16) for pick-up or delivery on Sundays. Orders sell out fast.
“This pandemic has been really tough for a lot of people,” Tutlewski says. “At least we have something like this that, at the end of the day and with as much work as we’ve been putting in, has been successful.”
Big Bear tried out a new fundraising strategy to get them through the pandemic and fund the build-out of their new and improved basement kitchen. Through SMBX, customers can buy “Small Business Bonds” to invest in places that make their neighborhoods great places to live. These mini investors receive monthly principal, plus interest payments. Davenport says Big Bear Cafe was able to raise its goal of $150,000.
Big Bear Cafe, 1700 1st St. NW; (202) 643-9222; bigbearcafe-dc.com