Whenever I’m new to a city, some of my first meals there tend to be delivery. I’m not really sure that is, though I suspect it has something to do with being too overwhelmed by the unknown to want to venture out of my newly decorated room, too lonely because of the initial lack of friends and acquaintances to be willing to leave Netflix behind. Sometimes a dash down to the front door with tip money stuck loosely in my pijama pockets is the perfect trip to make for nourishment. A take-out container of something new, paired with a frosty beer from the fridge and some Mad Men in bed can be the best intro to a new home. In D.C. that place, for me, was Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza at Columbia Heights, a 5 minute walk from my apartment. During move-in week, I was in the mood for pizza, which is odd because pizza is normally something I veer away from, let alone crave. Growing up in a pretty Hungarian household, the concept of “ordering a pizza” has always been foreign to me. First, the thought of paying someone to shuttle your food to you has always been kind of weird in general. Second, the thought of eating more than 1 slice of pizza, especially considering portion sizes in this country, has always intrigued me. Scenes in a movie where 2 girlfriends order a 16-incher, and consume the whole thing while talking about their manicurists and their periods blows my mind.
Anyway… This time I was actually in the mood to do just that, order a whole pizza and enjoy as many slices as I could before keeling over. I was pleased with my first meal from Pete’s – so pleased, in fact, that I ended up ordering from there plenty other times and even went there a few days ago to check it out. The place proudly serves “apizza” which, apparently, is a New Haven twist on traditional New York style pizza. I’m not really sure what the big difference is. According to the website, “apizza” is pronounced “a-BEETS” and the main differences are in the crust (which is thin and cooked unevenly to produce delightful patches of burnt-looking areas and chewier tanner spots), toppings (which are used sparingly to make for a lighter, healthier-feeling pizza), and presentation (large, though thin, and unevenly shaped). I’m not sure I see a huge difference between apizza and any pizza I’ve ever previously had in my life, but it was very good and reasonably priced, and left me feeling happy and full. Here are some of the items I’ve had from Pete’s over the past few weeks.
One of my favorites from Pete’s is their Crispy Goat Cheese Salad which has candied pecans, dried currants and a big old mound of breaded and fried goat cheese on a bed of organic herb greens. I was thoroughly surprised by the quality of this salad, considering that it cost only $5 and that it came from a(n) (a-)pizza place. I was indeed expecting a tiny block of drippy goat cheese on limp greens and 1-2 pecans tossed on. What I actually got was something very satisfying which left me barely any room for the pizza I had planned to eat after. Very fresh green leaves and some juicy, sweet currants spotting these, hydrated a bit with their own jus. Crispy pecans were candied correctly, with no excess brittle stuck onto the nut to overwhelm it and ruin your teeth. The crunchy pecans contrasted the block of snow white, warm goat cheese, which was softened and crumbly but very moist. The goat cheese was coated with a fluffy layer, breaded and very lightly fried – no excess grease. The juxtaposition of mushy, tart goat cheese and crunchy, sweet pecans was great and the caramelized shallot vinaigrette sprinkled over provided an even greater flavor depth, quieting down the sweetness of the pecans and freshening the flavor of the goat cheese with its own piquant flavor.
And then came the apizza, a specialty of the house called Edge of the Woods. In what is apparently true apizza fashion, the crust was fantastically uneven, crunchy in some parts and chewy in others. There were black spots spattered around the otherwise baked tan thing, which gave it a nice overall smokiness without any burnt bitterness. The slice held nicely when grabbed by the crust, since the toppings were not heavy enough to weigh it down. The base ingredients (tomato sauce, mozzarella patches, ricotta, spinach and caramelized onions) were indeed used sparingly, with only the light eggplant slices piled high. This allowed the pizza dough to shine through in all of its crunchy, carbohydrate glory and resulted in a meal which felt less heavy. I have actually never had eggplant shaved this thin and fried – I really enjoyed it. It retained that smoky, slightly bitter flavor that makes the roof of my mouth sting, but was very delicate in its texture. The slices were very thin, flour-coated and lightly fried, resulting in crispy, oily little chips of the stuff. At each bite, a slice of eggplant would lay itself across my tongue, the slightly coarse fried crust tickling the surface as my teeth came down and greeted the stuff with a crunch. Some of the oil of the fried eggplant was lifted by the acidity of the tomato sauce and the excess soaked up by the apizza dough. The spinach and ricotta patches were nice, adding a nice mushy, creamy element to the crunchiness of the dough and eggplant. Thick, tender slivers of caramelized onions were also a great touch, adding a caramelized sweetness to contrast the acidity of the tomato and cheese and the salty, fried flavor of the eggplant.
When my friends from Boston were here, we ordered the Spinach Olivada Salad with crunchy, fresh baby spinach, crumbles of tangy goat cheese, slow roasted tomato, crunchy and oily pine nuts and olivada dressing. Not very complex but everything was very satisfying, including the portion size. The tomato might have been a tad nicer heated up, but maybe at the restaurant it is, not not in delivery.
A friend of mine got the Rags of Pasta with Chianti-Braised Short Ribs. Slippery, thin broad noodles topped with parmesan cheese, some caramelized toasted Cipollini onions for some crunch and sweetness, thinly sliced Cremini mushrooms and big, juicy lumps of braised beef short rib flavored with red wine, which fell apart into its fibers when bitten into. I really liked this dish a lot, and thought the hearty texture of the pasta stood up quite nicely to the dense ribs. The mushrooms were chewy and gummy, and their very mild fungal flavor was not lost either in the deep flavors of the meat. The layer of pasta became a tad rubbery and stiff as it got cold, but everything else about the dish was great..
My other friend got the My Mother’s Pasta Bolognese, which was just okay, definitely not as good as the Braised Short Rib rags. The rigatoni was a bit too stiff for me and required too much chewing to soften. The meat sauce was good, tangy from tomato with a nice texture on the ground beef. It was flavored with basil, like jarred Ragu, and some parmesan was melted over the pasta. I guess my main problem with this dish, which might come from the bias of not really caring about Italian food outside of Italy, is that it was too much an imitation of a classic and it was neither a PERFECT imitation or something innovative, like an interesting spinoff off using lamb instead of beef or throwing in some toasted pine nuts…or something. Anyway, not a bad pasta, but kind of rigid and boring.
I also decided to try their New Haven pizza, which seems like their signature and a signature also of the New Haven “a-” style. This is a white pizza with local Chesapeake clams, plenty of garlic, some olive oil, sharp pecorino romano cheese, sprinkled with oregano for some depth. A very thin slice, with the crust on the bottom delightfully crunchy and, indeed, patchy from the unevenness of its grilling. A layer of bumpy, warm cheese was not very gooey but perfect to sink my teeth into. The Chesapeake claims seemed pretty fresh. They were only a tad chewy and packed with a nice marine flavor reminiscent of the broth of a hearty clam bisque. They also went pretty well with the pecorino, and picked up the flavors of garlic as well. I could’ve used a tad more clams, though when I went back to visit the place, the other slices had way more, so it might have just been bad luck.
After a long day lasst week, I ordered Pete’s Bibb & Artichoke Salad and was floored by what I got for the price. Very fresh bibb lettuce, some delicate and curly pea tendrils, juicy hunks of grilled artichoke, some very vibrant shaved watermelon radish, green peas, shaved pecorino, salty, crispy cubes of fried pancetta and a vinaigrette with plenty of sweet sauteed onions to spread loosely over the greens. The salad had pretty much everything I crave when I make the conscious decision to order a salad instead of a protein. The greens were crisp with a picked-yesterday springy texture and the pea tendrils provided a nice hydration, as well as textural intrigue to these. The peas were great in there too, very plump, their flavor the definition of what I think of when I hear the word green. It’s rare to see watermelon radish used, especially at a neighborhood pizza joint, so I was very pleasantly surprised by these, mildly spicy in flavor and quite like a tender turnip in texture. The big, beautiful chunks of artichoke were hardy enough to take the place of meat, only slightly pickled (instead of downright sour, like in many unfortunate cases) before it was slapped on the grill and charred to perfection. This bit of burnt flavor (smokey though, not bitter) and the contrast with the sharp, salty pecorino gave the salad great flavor depth. The best part, though, were the crispy, juicy, fatty little cubes of fried pancetta which added a naughty, salty, oily hint to the very light salad. The onion vinaigrette was great too, although not really necessary as it added another chunky ingredient to a salad already bursting with textural and flavoral contrasts.
Pete’s Cutler’s a-pizza is delicious and great for times where I crave various meats on a slice of crunchy dough. The same very thin crust, unevenly cooked on the bottom to where patches of charred and tan dough alternate. I like about Pete’s that they use very little tomato sauce on their pies, allowing the light to shine on the ingredients and crust instead. Slices of spicy pepperoni, thin prosciutto and crumbly hot sausage are layered on. The menu says this pizza also has Milano salami, though I don’t think there were any on my slice. Just as well, since the meats on my slice were in just the right proportion. They were also quite enough as they were – I’m really not a fan of those ginormous “Meat Lover’s” triangles where everything from chicken to mutton to rattlesnake to in-law are piled high, weighing down the dough and turning it into a helpless little thing. Everything had the right texture – the sausage was juicy and moist, the slices of pepperoni and ham had a great firmness and weren’t rubbery as happens quite often when they are slapped onto pizza and baked additionally.
When my friends were here, we also ordered one each of their Cheesecake Truffles, as well. Neither of us were too impressed, but I wasn’t completely against the thing, as it was thick and dense and packed with chocolate, and happened to be just what I was craving. It wasn’t exactly what I think of when I think of a cheesecake truffle, however, in that the moist, cheesy filling is flavored with chocolate as well, along with raspberries. A thick ganache coats the thing completely, making it even more rich and yes, pretty heavy as well.
The variety of stuff you can find on Pete’s menu is great and the quality of most of the stuff I’ve ordered from there is pretty high for the price. The apizzas are creative, busy enough to be interesting but not too busy to the point where toppings weigh down the dough. Pastas are just okay, salads are some of my favorites in the city, or at least near Columbia Heights.