Ask a Chicagoan in the know and he’ll tell you the key to a good deep-dish pizza is the crust. “You invariably need a lot of it to hold that massive payload of cheese and sauce together, so it has to be tasty independent of its toppings,” Matt Lynch, a Windy City-based food editor, says. Pi Pizzeria, new to Bethesda, would ace Lynch’s test because its deep-dish pizza has a crust satisfying enough to temp me to eat my slices in reverse.
Though deep-dish got its start in Chicago, Pi Pizzeria’s version comes to Bethesda from elsewhere. Founder Chris Sommers, who opened the first Pi Pizzeria in his hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, in 2008, was inspired by the cornmeal crust at San Francisco’s Little Star Pizza. “Who would have thought deep-dish by way of San Francisco, but Pi is built on that recipe,” Sommers says.
The chainlet has five locations in St. Louis, one in Cincinnati, and one in D.C.’s Penn Quarter. The Bethesda restaurant became the latest to open its doors April 18, in the space formerly housing Pitzze Table. The now-dormant, coal-fired oven is the only vestige of the previous pizza tenants; the freshman occupant is modern thanks to a lipstick renovation and ingredient-driven food.
Most come to Pi to quell pizza cravings, but before the main event, there’s an undercard of appetizers and salads to consider. Most notably, the “Pi Squares.” These rustic mounds of Fontina cheese, mushrooms and kale coated in crispy, salty breading taste like someone’s nonna converted last night’s leftovers into a warm, gooey indulgence stacked on a moat of sundried tomatoes.
The meatballs, on the other hand, are anything but. Advertised as orbs of pork and beef, a taste test reveals balls comprised chiefly of bread. Skip these and focus on what follows—a choice of 14 suggested “specialty pi” pizzas, or the opportunity to build your own.
Decode the pizza slice icons before ordering because they indicate which pizzas are best suited for deep dish versus thin crust. The latter designation enables patrons to further choose whether they’d like standard, stone-ground wheat or gluten free dough. We order a deep-dish “South Side Classico” with mozzarella, Berkshire sausage, mushrooms, green pepper and onion. The crust wows and the flavor vibrates with roasted tomato, but the pie could benefit from more time in the oven.
In also sampling a thin crust “Cubano” pizza from the seasonally rotating “chef’s picks” section, we encountered a surprise. Bite into the crust and out oozes baseball stadium yellow mustard in lieu of tomato sauce. It forms an appropriate base for a pizza impersonating a Cuban sandwich with slow-cooked pork shoulder, country ham, kosher pickles and Swiss cheese. It’s an adventurous flavor trip I’m glad I signed up for.
Corporate Executive Chef Cary McDowell carries out Sommers’ vision, which promises fresh ingredients. From what we sampled, they make good on their word.
Sommers was careful not to overemphasize IPAs when curating his small craft beer list because he believes too many bars are in competition to serve the most bitter brews. That’s why you’ll find a range of styles from both Mid-Atlantic breweries and St. Louis’ standby, Schlafly Beer.
Suds are the focus, but you can also wash your pizza down with wine from a list that tops out at $50 a bottle, or a handful of cocktails ($8.95-$10.95). I ask my bartender to describe the “pi-crafted seasonal tonic” that accompanies gin in the “Pi Gintonic” and without missing a beat, he pours me a taste from a siphon that jolts my palate with citrus and basil. It’s even better in the drink.
Our server matches our bartender’s need-to-please attitude on a Thursday night. The half-full dining room, which currently seats 125, is peppered with families (big and small), while younger groups gather in the bar area partitioned from the rest of the restaurant. After all, that’s where to cash in on a 4-to-7 p.m. weekday happy hour that includes Pi Squares for $6.95 and Italian sangria for $5.95.
Go, wait or skip
Go. With a relaxed setting, cheery servers and hearty pizzas that rarely cost more than $20, Pi Pizzeria is making a ploy to be a go-to neighborhood spot that feels as local as the people in it—a small triumph for a St. Louis-based concept.
Pi Pizzeria is open 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sundays serving one standard menu, though more brunch dishes could be coming. Pi Pizzeria, 7137 Wisconsin Ave., Bethesda; 240-800-3822; www.pi-pizza.com/bethesda