Go: Pacci’s Neapolitan Pizzeria
The people: Spiro Gioldasis is a busy guy. He’s the wine director and general manager of Mrs. K’s Toll House Restaurant, and the owner and designer of Pacci’s, both in Silver Spring. Pacci’s executive chef is Rosario Granieri, a Naples native whose last gig was Oro Pomodoro in Rockville.
The place: A stylish, skinny room with an interior brick wall on one side, and sunny yellow paint on the other. Wine bottles are shelved vertically and horizontally above the bar, giving it the look of a wine library.
The food: Granieri makes a respectable Neapolitan pie in the 900-degree, wood-fired oven, but best to stick with pizzas that don’t have a lot of moisture-prone ingredients. The paper-thin crust gets soggy fast. My favorite is La Saporita, a white pizza with smoked provolone, friarielli, homemade sausage and fresh basil. The Pisolo tronchetti—a pizza rolled and baked—had a wonderful filling of smoked provolone, ham, mushrooms, arugula, shaved Parmesan and fresh basil. But the top half of it wasn’t hot; it might have been too bulky to heat uniformly without burning. The tiramisu was better than average, although spritzed with too much whipped cream.
The bottom line: Good pizza in a hip, urban space that probably makes it taste better.
8113 Georgia Ave., Silver Spring, 301-588-1011, www.paccispizzeria.com. $$
Go: Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza
The people: This extended friends-and-family operation was inspired by New Haven native Michael Wilkinson and his twin sister, Alicia Wilkinson-Mehr. With three others, they started their first location in Columbia Heights in 2008, and brought in an additional partner for this Tenleytown branch. A third location is opening this spring in Clarendon.
The place: Pretty basic, décor-wise. You order at a counter, get a number, sit down at a table and wait for your food to be delivered. Things get congested when it’s busy
The food: Although the definition of New Haven-style pizza varies, chef Tom Marr says the common thread is the crust, which is relatively thin, crunchy on the outside and chewy on the inside. Pete’s pies fit that bill, with crusts that are neither too doughy nor too crisp. And the flavorful toppings, which stay in place on the firm surface, are applied in just the right ratio.
I recently tried a Sorbillo made with folded pizza dough and stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella and sopressata, then topped with tomato sauce and a dollop of fresh ricotta. Sort of a cross between a calzone and lasagna, it could easily serve two. I ate the whole thing.
The bottom line: People may compare the place to the New Haven originals (Sally’s Apizza, Frank Pepe) and gripe about the prices ($25 pies), but this is good pizza.
4940 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington, D.C., 202-237-7383, www.petesapizza.com. $
Maybe: Taylor Gourmet
The people: Young, hip, nice guys Casey Patten and David Mazza, who grew up together in the Philadelphia area, have recreated the hoagies of their youth in the nation’s capital.
The place: Eco-chic—lots of reclaimed wood, and light fixtures fashioned from oil drums and buckets. Counter service, with seating available. With locations on H Street NE and K Street NW, this is Patten and Mazza’s first foray into the suburbs.
The food: I grew up in the Philadelphia area, too, and I can tell you that Taylor Gourmet’s renditions aren’t anything like the comfortably overstuffed sandwiches served on soft rolls that I ate in my youth. Those were like Barcaloungers; Taylor Gourmet’s are like settees.
Served on crusty rolls from Sarcone’s Bakery in Philadelphia, these hoagies are sleek and spare, with top-notch, carefully selected meats and cheeses. The sharp provolone and goat cheeses have real flavor; the thin, breaded chicken cutlets have a good Italian zip; and the home-roasted turkey breast and roast beef avoid the salty, spongy consistency of the usual processed sub meats.
But despite the high quality of the ingredients, the sandwiches just don’t click for me. I think the proportions are off—there’s too much bread to filling, and not enough lubrication from the restaurant’s scantily applied olive oil blend (this is a no-mayo, no-mustard zone). Or maybe it’s because this is Bethesda, not 1960s suburban Philadelphia. The tomatoes back then were never sun-dried.
The bottom line: A Philly hoagie shop interpreted by Gen Y.
7280 Woodmont Ave., Bethesda, 301-951-9001, www.taylorgourmet.com. $
Don’t bother: Uptown Deli
The people: This is how Howard Wasserman, general manager of Uptown, describes himself in a press release: “If they awarded Ph.D.s to deli countermen, Howard would earn one. He worked his way through college behind the counters of the best Jewish delicatessens in Baltimore, New York and Boston, and was in the wholesale food business for 15 years. He knows the smells, tastes, the traditional recipes and some of the best Jewish jokes.”
The place: Pretty nondescript.
The food: Oy, Howard. I know you’re trying hard. But after eating my way through chicken soup (twice), whitefish salad, chopped liver, potato pancakes, brisket, roast turkey and corned beef, I’ve had enough already. Though the chicken soup and matzo balls had improved a bit by the second time, the meats had a steamed-over, salty taste; the salads were too pulverized; and the potato pancakes were dull and leaden. And what’s with the squishy rye bread? A corned beef sandwich with coleslaw and Russian dressing calls for something more substantial.
The bottom line: Geshmak, this place is not.
7905 Norfolk Ave., Bethesda, 301-961-5787, www.uptowndelibethesda.com. $
Don’t bother: Vapiano
The people: Founded in 2002 by Kent Hahne, Germany’s youngest McDonald’s franchisee. Hahne sold those franchises in 2006, and is now going gung-ho expanding Vapiano. Currently, there are about 70 locations worldwide, with another 100 in development in the U.S.
The place: Architecturally interesting, with blond wood, live indoor trees and communal seating. Diners stand in cafeteria-style lines for pasta, pizza or salads, presenting electronic cards to short-order cooks who scan them with the requested order.
The food: With no wait staff, a high table turnover and offerings that have low ingredient costs (pasta and pizza), the chain must be raking it in. But to me, this is one of the world’s most annoying restaurant concepts. I’ve been to Vapiano when it has been both packed and empty, and it has been logistically problematic either way. It’s worse than a mall food court.
On one crowded night, the lines for the pasta were long and slow-moving, the noise level was so high I couldn’t hear the salad cook’s recitation of the dressings, and it was impossible to find seating, even as wine glasses teetered on our trays.
Is the food worth all the tumult? I say no. The Caprese salad consisted of hard, tasteless cherry tomatoes and an unsliced mound of mozzarella. Any home cook could concoct a more flavorful pasta primavera from the leftover veggies in his or her fridge than the one served here. My first pizza wasn’t bad, but my second—the Bruschetta (tomato sauce, mozzarella, arugula, fresh tomatoes, basil, garlic and Parmesan)—tasted odd and was undercooked.
The bottom line: A brilliant moneymaker with not very brilliant food.
4900 Hampden Lane, Bethesda, 301-215-7013, www.vapiano.com. $
Go: Wild Tomato
The people: Damian Salvatore, Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School graduate, L’Academie de Cuisine alum and owner of the popular Persimmon restaurant in Bethesda, has taken the plunge with a second, more casual neighborhood bistro.
The place: Unassuming, small and cozy, with dark wood tables and chairs, a small bar and great whimsical food art on the yellow walls. Go at off times to avoid waiting.
The food: There’s something for everyone, from appetizers big enough to share, to pizza, salads, sandwiches and entrées. Fried clams are never a pretty sight, but here they’re an addictive, nongreasy starter that you’ve gotta love. The Greek salad was a big, blah bowl of romaine with some feta and olives thrown on top, but its perfectly balanced dressing with fresh herbs made it unexpectedly lovely. And a pork tenderloin entrée, recommended by the waiter as a crowd favorite, was a homey, albeit awkward-looking dish, with three chunks of pork on a bed of polenta. A pizza with balsamic drizzle, prosciutto and cremini mushrooms was better looking and proved to be an above-average pie on a thin, chewy crust.
A few dishes were heavy handed: The wedge salad was buried in too much dressing, bacon and blue cheese, and the fish tacos were swimming in chipotle mayonnaise, guacamole, pico de gallo and coleslaw, drowning out the crispy fish underneath.
Note to Salvatore: Work on the desserts; they taste like afterthoughts.
The bottom line: A welcome, comfortable addition to an underserved neighborhood, with lots of options for everybody.
7945 MacArthur Blvd., Cabin John, 301-229-0680. $$
Maybe: Yamas Mediterranean Grill
The people: Formerly pizza shop owners in Virginia, Tony Alexis and his wife, Kelly, opened Yamas last August after 15 years out of the business. Tony Alexis was working for a software company in between.
The place: Has there ever been a Greek restaurant that wasn’t decorated with a seaside mural and accents of Mediterranean blue? Yamas, meaning “to our health” in Greek, sports a casual setting with counter service and a small bar. Service is friendly and earnest.
The food: Since it opened, there has been a lot of hoopla over Yamas’ gyro, painstakingly made by wrapping slices of house-marinated beef and lamb around a vertical rotisserie, as opposed to the spongy, prefab meat cones prevalent elsewhere. I salute the chef’s efforts; this is potentially a great rendition. But the kitchen should tread lightly on the tzatziki, which overpowers the meat. Ditto for the Yamas burger, a decent patty of ground lamb that got buried under a landslide of feta and tzatziki. The menu describes the Greek chicken as being marinated in lemon, oregano, olive oil and spices “kissed by the sun,” but it seems to have gotten overheated in the process, as the white meat was overly dry both times I tried it (this dish needs that tzatziki!). The chicken souvlaki was pretty good (but then I had the same dish at Manoli Canoli at 8540 Connecticut Ave., and it was so much better). Skip the thin, limp french fries fried in olive oil; opt for the roasted vegetable orzo instead.
The bottom line: This is a sweet place with potential.
4806 Rugby Ave., Bethesda, 301-312-8384, www.yamasgrill.com. $