In December, Chef Ruth Gresser, 60, opened the fifth outpost of her Pizzeria Paradiso chainlet, which ignited the Neapolitan-style wood-fired pizza trend when the first location opened in Washington’s Dupont Circle in 1991. Her latest outpost is in the Upper Northwest D.C. neighborhood of Spring Valley. We caught up with the Baltimore native, who lives in Silver Spring with her wife, Barbara Johnson, to ask about her career.
How did you wind up becoming a chef?
I went to college to be a chemist, but when I walked into second-year chem lab, I knew I wouldn’t last because it didn’t smell good. The other thing I wanted to be was a chef. I grew up in a family that cooked. I graduated in 1980, moved to San Francisco because I was a lesbian and it was a mecca for food at that time. There I was introduced to [chef and cooking authority] Madeleine Kamman’s work. I went to study at her cooking school in New Hampshire. She placed me in D.C. around 1987. I wound up at Obelisk as [chef] Peter Pastan’s sous-chef. Paradiso opened in 1991. We were co-owners for 10 years.
You were a pioneer in bringing thin-crust, Neapolitan-style pizza made in a wood-burning oven to the D.C. area.
I got tired of high-end cooking. I was interested in a more casual environment that my friends could come to. I always liked working with dough, making bread. We made bread at Obelisk and pizza for family dinner [staff meal]. Pizza is bread with things put on top of it and baked. No one was focusing on making pizza in wood-burning ovens like we did. So it seemed like a good idea.
Why Spring Valley?
Before the Chicken Out was Chicken Out, I saw a ‘for lease’ sign on the space. I thought, ‘That would be a great place for a Pizzeria Paradiso.’ But it never happened. So, to come back to it 10 or 15 years later, what was true then is true now—it’s a small market with a big draw. Spring Valley is a surprising, dense neighborhood—it can draw from across the river into Virginia, out to Bethesda, from [American University]. And there’s no pizza here! We like to go places where there isn’t any pizza.
You were an early craft beer pioneer. The Spring Valley location has 14 beers on draft and 165 canned or bottled beers.
The whole idea is that pizza and beer go really well together. Our beer program started with the original Paradiso, but we had limited space. We always had local beer on tap and never sold large-brewery beers. In 2006, I turned a downstairs space at the Georgetown location into the Birreria. No one at the time was focusing on craft breweries, on the unique, the best beers in the world. We were also careful about the glasses, the equipment we used and the temperature of the beer.
What has changed the most about the restaurant business since 1991?
The amount of competition: There are so many restaurants opening and there is development in a lot of neighborhoods now, offering more choices. And social media. There used to be a sense that if you made good food and provided a good experience that you could make it in the business. Now, that might not be enough.
Where do you eat in Montgomery County?
Noodle King in Silver Spring. Our favorite meal there is deep-fried salt-and-pepper tofu and leek flowers sautéed with garlic, which is high praise from an avowed carnivore. In addition, Mi La Cay, Ruan Thai, Hollywood East, Pollo Mex and, for a burger, The Limerick Pub [Pollo Mex is in Silver Spring; the others are in Wheaton]. And Zena Polin’s The Daily Dish for brunch.
Cooking is a lot more fun and engaging when you can measure with a banana tablespoon and stir with an eggplant whisk, according to Marci Heit, a professional voice-over artist who lives in Silver Spring and owns an animation production company there. In December, she launched Q.D. Foodie, a seven-piece set of vibrantly colored, easy-grip kitchen utensils with fruit-and-vegetable-themed handles.
The adult-size kitchen tools include measuring spoons and cups marked in metric and British imperial units and braille; a spatula; a whisk; a mixing spoon; and fork-and-spoon salad servers. “They are very kid-friendly,” says Heit, who has a 7-year-old daughter. “I wanted to create something that would make kids get excited about being in the kitchen, bring families together and lead to making healthier choices because they’re involved in their food.”
Q.D. is the nickname for Quinn Daisy, the main character of Q.D. Foodie, an animated show Heit created and pitched to networks. (It hasn’t sold yet.) Q.D. is blind and loves to cook with friends in her watermelon-shaped treehouse. The kitchen tools started out as illustrated props for the show. Then Heit realized there could be a market for them and turned them into merchandise.
The project had a steep learning curve. She had to find an industrial designer, hire a manufacturer (the tools are made in China because Heit couldn’t find a cost-effective U.S. manufacturer for the job) and trademark and patent the product. She teamed up with a company called 52Launch to help get the product to market, and raised $50,000 from a one-month Kickstarter campaign to finance production costs.
The Q.D. Foodie set ($49.99) is available online at qdfoodie.com. Heit has big plans for the future. “We have 30 more pieces designed, such as bowls, colanders and safety kitchen shears,” she says. “We hope to move forward with them by December.”
Comings & Goings
Matchbox Vintage Pizza Bistro plans to open this summer in the former American Tap Room space in Bethesda.
Also this summer, local chainlet Bethesda Bagels will open a fifth location, this one in Bethesda’s Wildwood Shopping Center. In the same shopping center, sister restaurants Oakville Grille & Wine Bar and Wildwood Italian Cuisine were slated to close in mid-February.
Mike Isabella’s Kapnos Kouzina closed in Bethesda in December, part of the crumbling of the celebrity chef’s restaurant empire.
Sister restaurants NaiNai’s Noodle and Dumpling Bar and Scion in Silver Spring closed in January.