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Mar 6, 2002 11:17 AM

Best D. C. Area Source For New York "Style" Pizza & Commentary (LONG!)

  • j

is Sylvano's in Herndon. This will be 90% as good as an average Brooklyn hand tossed pizza. It will not be 100% as good. There is nowhere in the Washington area where you can find an authentic pie. In a very lengthy post far below I went into a great deal of detail (i.e. speculation) as to why the NY/NJ pie cannot be authentically reproduced in this area.
There have been a number of posts over a period of time asking where to get NY style pizza in the D. C. area. Answers have ranged from Tysons Corner mall upstairs which has hand tossed pizza to Greenbelt to Centreville and so forth. The BEST of all of these and to the best of my knowledge the best New York style pizza in the entire Washington metropolitan area is the Greek owned Sylvano's in Herndon which, for those in western Fairfax County, is a long standing institution.
The crust is NOT as good as authentic NY crust. But it IS as close as you are going to come in this area.
For very good pizza that is not attempting to replicate NY, just good on its own, the original Ledo's in Hyattsville is a 50 year D. C. institution. But ONLY the ORIGINAL on University Blvd. West near the University of Maryland. NO OTHER LEDO'S has the same pie. Luigi's on 19th Street mentioned below for those of us who grew up here in the '60's and '70's was the standard by which others were measured along with A. V. also mentioned below. Anna Maria's on Connecticut Ave. just north of Dupont Circle is another D. C. institution dating back to the '60's. All of these-IN THEIR OWN WAY-are very good. None of them are attempting to be like any other style of pizza.
Pizzaria Paradiso is called by ALL of the professional critics D. C.'s best with Two Amys now ranking by many just as high. Not everybody on this board (including myself) agrees with this. Coppi's on U Street is thought by many to be excellent. (preferred by me over Paradiso). Facce Luna has a following also. All of these four pizzarias use a wood burning oven and are different in style from those listed in the previous paragraph.
There is nowhere in D. C. where you can find coal oven pizza. The closest is Toscanini's in Philadelphia but the world standard for this is in New Haven at Pepe's and Sally's Apizza with the original Pepe's (now called The Spot and next door) also featuring the original New Haven coal oven. Several New York pizzarias also have coal ovens but arguably the best is in New Haven. Coincidentally many people feel the absolute best New York pizza (John's in the Village, Patsy Grimaldi's, Lombardy's, etc.) are from coal ovens.
To the best of my knowledge there is not a coal oven pizzaria that has opened in the United States since the Grimaldi's Brooklyn location (in the '70's?) which is an outpost of the original in the Bronx.
Authentic Chicago pizza cannot be found outside of Chicago. The original Uno's and Due's taste totally different in Chicago than they taste here. Gino's East is better in the Loop than it is in Merrillville. Giordano's, Carmen's, Nancy's and Eduardo's stuffed pizza are also far superior there than when duplicated (in style) here. There are many reasons but the main one is that it's Chicago and the "standard" is different there, the bar is just raised higher for a pizzaria to be successful. (Uno's has some of the original pans going back almost 60 years; this means the black cast iron pizza pans have a "seasoning" which influences the crust and its taste. The recipe is also DIFFERENT in the original than anywhere else. You wait a long time for a pie there but it's worth it!
But just like New Haven, New York and Chicago the actual city that you eat the pizza in will feature a pie that is superior to any that might be eaten elsewhere. Don't expect to find NY pizza here equal to Grimaldi's or John's. Don't expect Uno's here or in, say, Mississippi to taste anything at all like North Rush street. Don't expect anything anywhere else on earth (not even Naples) to taste anything at all like Wooster Street in New Haven. They are all originals and in their own way cannot be duplicated. Perhaps in name. But no way else.
D. C. has some very good pizza. In its own way, especially if you grew up here, while it's not as good, it's still comforting, fattening and worth going out of your way for. We live in Reston with a Ledo's three blocks away. Once every six months or so my wife and I drive the 30 miles to the original Ledo's in West Hyattsville for pizza. This weekend (now that I'm obsessed with this) we'll go back to Luigi's on 19th Street. While neither is as good as elsewhere for us-as native born Washingtonians-they still taste like they did when we were in high school. Then they were special and still are now.
Lastly one of the absolute best pies that I've ever had was a "white pizza" from Arcaro and Gemelli's just south of Scranton, PA in Old Forge. This in its own way was the equal of Grimaldi's. Incredibly good. But you can't find it anywhere outside of Old Forge. It was unique for the town it's in. They don't even make a pizza like this in Brooklyn or New Haven.
Point: the original Ledo's is a one of a kind on the face of the earth. Give it a try IN HYATTSVILLE ONLY. Or A. V. or Luigi's, even the Pizza Pantry on Walter Reed Drive on Arlington which hasn't changed since it opened in the mid '50's (not a great pie but unique). Don't expect any of these to taste like anywhere else. They won't. But in their own way they're awfully good.
And, please, for all of those who for the past two years that I've been following this board keep asking where to find NY pizza in the D. C. area: you will not. But the closest of anywhere really is Sylvano's in Herndon. There is nowhere in the D. C. area that is any better for this style of pie. Nowhere. You cannot duplicate the crust here. It will not be as "crisp." Unless you drive at least 150 miles north.

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  1. Joe,

    Excellent post. Glad to see that you have some perspective on things. Also glad to see you point out that Washington DC's food critics are responsible (primarily responsible in my opinion) for the elevation of Pizzeria Paradiso to godlike status.

    To settle a portion of this debate, I have decided to eat one slice of cheese pizza from every pizzeria in Fairfax County. I do understand that this will be quite an undertaking (as I am not obese and prefer to stay that way), but I figure I can allocate atleast 5 years to the project. I intend to document flavor, texture, preparation, aesthetics, and packaging. I am still deciding some other logistical elements such as inclusion of chains (probably not), what constitutes a "chain", and what constitutes a "pizza". More later.

    12 Replies
    1. re: Jeffrey

      A more than worthy undertaking.

      1. re: Jeffrey

        OK, I'm not too sure this is a good idea, but I'll bite --

        Joe, Jeff, et al., why *aren't* you wowed by Paradiso's pies (the Atomica, in particular)? And no fair answering that they're not as good as Pepe's/DiFara's/(fill-in-the-place-of-your-dreams).

        P.S. Great post, Joe.

        1. re: Marty L.

          I believe that the next door Obelisk is one of the best Italian restaurants in America. Considering the original same ownership I would have expected paradiso to be its equal. It's excellent and I really respect it. The crust is excellent, the cheese, toppings are superb with very good oil, even more thoughtfully available at the table.
          But it's not, well, over the top for me. In fact what's on top seems kind of sparse. I would prefer more tomato (over ripe plum San Marzano) or sauce (if's really good), more cheese, even more olive oil. Sally's in New Haven for a 12" pie, no lie, must use 1/4 cup of olive oil that is squirted on top. (they also use fresh mozzarella and sauce made from the tomatoes I note above). Yes the crust is excellent but I suppose that I prefer all of the gunk on top in addition to the crust. Or at least a bit more of it. I've even sat out in my car and eaten it carryout thinking that maybe using my hands and eating it out of the box would make me like it more. But it didn't.
          It's really, really good pizza that is more similar to what you find in Italy. But I honestly like the original Ledo's better. Of course I grew up eating it so there's my bias. Coppi's on U Street? My wife and I came back from Milan having eaten at the best pizzaria there. Within 48 hours we were at Coppi's and thought it was better. Similar to Paradiso but somehow better. Maybe the toppings, maybe more oil.
          I doubt if there is anyone who grew up in Chicago that would admit New York pizza is better and vice versa. Maybe I'm also guilty of that.
          But I also like Sylvano's better than Paradiso which does not pretend to be a New York pie but only New York "style."

          1. re: Marty L.

            I agree with Joe's sentiments in his response to your post. I don't like Pizzeria Paradiso for the following reasons [both culinary and non-culinary]: (a) their pies are scantily clad and overly priced. $10.00 for a 10" pie with barely anything on it? I can get a 16" pie at Luciano's for about $12.00. (b) I don't believe Peter Pastan and Ruth Gresser have done anything revolutionary despite rave reviews from critics. In the case of Pizzeria Paradiso, I think they are better entrepreneurs than chefs. (c) I like to support smaller neighborhood establishments run by families rather than ones run by financiers. It's bad enough to have lost dozens of coffee shops, bakeries, and delis to the likes of Starbucks, Corner Bakery, et al. (d) I found the atomica pizza bland and hardly spicy. In my opinion if something's going to hold the name "atomica", it should have subtle yet strong kick.

            Okay, I have written enough about Pizzeria Paradiso now. Next subject.

            1. re: Jeffrey

              Okay. I don't know about Ruth, but Peter Pastin is not a financier, rather an enthusiast about all things Italian. Depending on when you go, and who's in the kithen, Paradiso can live up to its name, or be merely good. I'm getting a little fired up about the discussion of pizza with New York style as the standard. This is an apples and oranges issue. Serious places in Italy with 700 degree wood-fired brick ovens throw scanty toppings on an incredibly thin crust that bakes for two minutes, tops. It comes out on the edge of charred, and generally one person can happily eat an entire 12-14 inch pie (with knife and fork if they wish, by the way). With the exception of Paradiso (at its best) I haven't encountered that outside of Italy. Also, for a "joint," Paradiso has a sensible and reasonably priced selection of wines by the glass. PP is trying to bring us some of the most delicious aspects of Italian culture/cucina, and much of the time is succeeding.

              1. re: Dave B.

                The standard is not in New York or Naples. It is in New Haven. And note my comment about Obelisk where my wife and I celebrate our anniversary every year. Paradiso cannot compare to top New York parlors such as Grimaldi's.

                1. re: Joe H.

                  New Haven with its third/fourth generation Italian immigrants and modern Italy are light years apart. This isn't about filling you up with lots of dough, lots of sweet sauce, lots of toppings (sorry, I know there's still a lot to be said for the above). Paradiso, as I said, isn't always at the top of their game, but they get close, on occasion to Italy's ideal, which is rarely attempted, even more rarely attained in this country.

                  1. re: Dave B.

                    They may get close to Italy's ideal but they don't get close to New Haven's best. I've been to da Michele and and the 200 plus year old Brandi in Naples; I've had pizza throughout Italy. And you are right in saying that Italian pizza and American pizza are light years apart. As are both of these and New Haven pizza. I am arguing that the crust in the 800 degree coal fired ovens in New Haven where the coal burns IN the oven with the pizza is, at the least, equal to the crust at da Michele. I actually prefer the coal flecked crust of Pepe's. If we are not talking about toppings then perhaps we should talk about a white clam pizza which Pepe's, among other pies, is famous for.
                    Pizza Margherita is the same in New Haven as it is Naples. The toppings (or absence therefof) are similar. In New Haven there is a bit more of them and, I am sincerely arguing, they are better than the spartan toppings found on a true Napolitan pizza. I DON'T LIKE THE NAPOLITAN PIZZA AS MUCH. If I go to Pepe's and ask for a pizza margherita I will not have tomatoes or sauce on it. It WILL be the same as at da Michele. Only better.
                    Of course pizza is a matter of taste. But FOR ME I have eaten these two pizzas 48 hours apart and, FOR ME, there is no comparison. The world standard is on Wooster St. in New Haven.
                    Again, I believe that Obelisk is one of the best restaurants in America. I have been going there regularly since it opened in the '80's. I know the intent of Pizzaria Paradiso. I also know that I won't say it in the same sentence. With Pepe's or Sally's. Until Peter Pastan uses a coal fired oven for his pizza he will not have crust like New Haven. And this isn't going to happen any time soon since all of the coal oven pies exist thanks to grandfather clauses.
                    New Haven isn't about lots of sauce, thick crust and mounds of cheese. Until you've eaten it you cannot believe how good something as simple as pizza can be.
                    Even though Two Amys ascribes to the Napolitan standard I personally believe that the true standard is found in New Haven, not Naples. With all due respect to where it originated it was perfected in the 1920's in America. On Wooster Street. By Italian immigrants who still, in big block letters, advertise "Old Reliable" on the box.

                    1. re: Joe H.

                      Well-said, obviously coal-fired remarks. The enthusiasm comes right through. The best pizza I ever had wasn't in Naples (or New Haven, sorry), but rather Mantova in Lombardy in northern Italy. Scant cheese, a handful of mushrooms, and a crispy, smoky crust which had charred all the way through in several spots. Like most worthwhile things, this is an intensely personal subject.

                      1. re: Dave B.

                        One of the best meals that I ever had was about 10 km from there at Dal Pescatore. Have you ever been there? This is one of the best areas on earth for eating. (Balsamic, reggiano, proscuitto, sauce bolognese, risotto, etc.)I can imagine what the pizza must have tasted like. I had a pizza in Bologna that was cheap but incredibly good. Sitting outside at a table watching everybody walk by, drinking a good (or even a bad!) chianti-all is right with the world. This is actually one of the many reasons why I like Obelisk so much. Simple, basic food but so incredibly good. A chunk of moist reggiano from the middle of a freshly cut wheel with some proscuitto, crusty loaf of bread with good olive oil... Obelisk has this style and they excel at it. I think as well as some of the better restaurants in Italy!
                        My wife will be mad at me but I believe the most beautiful women in the world are in this area especially Bologna which is one of the great "undiscovered" cities in the world. That, by the way, is part of its charm. Few tourists.

          2. re: Jeffrey

            I love this! Good luck and don't get sick of pizza (from the samples that are awful). If you want to cut down on the number of pizzerias you need to visit, just let us know and I'm sure we can provide you with the names of places to avoid. --Ann (in Fairfax)

          3. Anyone else miss Cafe Pettito on Conn Ave north of Dupont Circle? I spent 5 years working a couple doors away and we ate their pizzas at least once a week... sometimes more. They were fantastic. Not NY style at all. But excellent.

            1. h
              Harlan Messinger

              I've reached the conclusion that the quest for a real X in y just like back in Z is at least partially fallacious. The implication is that unrelated operations like, say, Giuseppe's, Giovanni's, and Giaccomo's pizza parlors in City Z all miraculously produce pizza similar enough in style, taste, texture, substance and quality that one is able to speak of there being a City Z Style of pizza, and yet when other people get more than a few miles away, they are just as miraculously unable to reproduce the formula no matter how hard they try.

              The fact of the matter is that my partner has shlepped me to pizza parlors in NY from time to time, each one the latest "real original NY pizzeria" that he's read about, and each time I am unimpressed. Not that the pizza isn't good, but sometimes it's just been ordinary, and it *isn't* the same from one place to the next. The *type* of crust may be the same--just as in Chicago they may all use corn meal--but they aren't any more like each other than any of them is like any of the versions of that style made here in the DC area. Last fall we went to John's, and my reaction was, OK, I can get good pizza in NY, but it doesn't take me to my knees in gratitude, and I can still get good pizza in DC, so enough of this hauling off to worship at the NY houses of pizza.

              The same goes for rye bread, bagels, chopped liver (mmmm, I love the beef version I just discovered at Katz's in Rockville), cheese steaks, po' boys, sourdough bread and crab cakes.

              2 Replies
              1. re: Harlan Messinger
                Harlan Messinger

                I've been corrected--it was Lombardi's we went to last fall, though we've been to John's.

                1. re: Harlan Messinger

                  The true temple is on Wooster Street in New Haven at either Sally's Apizza or Pepe's. Modern nearby isn't too shabby either. As for New York if this was the New York board a lot of people would immediately shout their disagreement at what I am about to say but I think the best is at Patsy Grimaldi's at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. John's in the Village (there are several of them) and Lombardy's are very, very good. But not in league with Grimaldi's where Sinatra is on the juke box and you sit at table with red and white checkerboard clothes. When you walk out the door and turn to the right you can just make out the Bridge at the end of the street. For me all of this is part of the taste experience. I have never been to the original Patsy's in Harlem and, I believe, there is now one in North Jersey but still the location itself is part of the experience.
                  Have you ever had Famous Ray's on Avenue of the America's? (They only have one location and are NOT a chain.) Standing up on the sidewalk eating the overstuffed slice, for me, is part of the taste. Just as eating a cheesesteak at Pat's at 9th and Passyunk at 1:00 in the morning or a four way at Skyline Chili in Cincinnati just after midnight. Sometimes it's not just the actual taste and texture of the food but the overall experience.
                  Sally's and Pepe's by the way always taste the same but Sally's might actually have an edge when eaten in the restaurant because you really feel like you're eating a truly homemade pie in someone's home. The guy who "feels" the tomatoes for lumps as he spreads them on the dough with his bare hand usually wears a "wifebeater." My telling you how much olive oil he squirts on from the plstic container does not have the mouth dropping impact of watching him do this nonstop for twenty seconds, then look at it, and squirt for another ten.

                2. At the risk of losing all future credibility, i'm gonna go on record and say that I am a huge fan of pizza mart in Adams Morgan. Not because it's the best pizza i've ever had. In fact, as far as pies go, it's pretty middle of the road. The thing that makes Pizza Mart special is the experience.

                  At two in the morning, after a long night of Adams Morgan nightlife, there's nothing better than standing on the sidewalk on 18th street with your mates, trying to figure out how to eat this steaming hot mammouth slice of pie (one slice is literally 1/4 of a large pizza) without dribbling tomato sauce all over yourself.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Brian

                    How about Pizza Mart for lunch and dinner too. One slice is a meal. Definetely worth the trip into town from 703-land.
                    They do have great pizza. The cheese, rather than being just gooy and flavorless, has complexity. What's more, the sauce has a great garlicy punch. Best of all is the pool of hot oil and toward the middle of the slice. If they called it Ray's Pizza Mart, you would feel like you were in the big apple.