The Spirit of the Independent
A Pizza Joint in Madison Park
The Independent Pizzeria has a rotary phone (brrringgg!), a glowing old stereo receiver, jelly-jar glasses, and thrift-store dishware. The green vinyl couch has wagon-wheel armrests and a horse's-head appliqué. The menus are made of repurposed old book covers, spiral-bound. From certain seats, you can't read the blackboard with the short, smart beer list because of a pillar that's in the way; an overhang near the pizza oven has a bunch of boxes on top, a jumble of visible storage. But this makes it sound kitschy and/or cluttery, and it's not. The building is a lovely 1957 modernist oddity, and the walls are practically all windows, with some flagstone to keep it from floating away. The overall effect of the Independent Pizzeria's triangular room, with its tiny bar and itty-bitty open kitchen, is one of lightness and air.
In Georgetown, the spirit of the Independent would feel run-of-the-mill; on Capitol Hill, it would feel possibly disingenuous, market-researched and (almost) ready for replication. Set at the very end of Madison Street—where a wine bar unfortunately called Impromptu used to be—the Independent Pizzeria actually feels independent. This is tony Madison Park. Gray-haired people walk fluffy dogs past outside, while behind them expensive cars glide. Prosperous-looking gents stroll and smoke cigars—they really do. From inside, you've got a view of the lake (twinkling lights now, summer fun later), wholly decent wine for $4 to $7 a glass (which makes having another much more impromptu), and very good pizza. And, lo and behold, the neighbors love it.
Around six o'clock, it's the kid hour. Two pretty young matrons at the single larger table have lost control of their offspring; they sit in a litter of wadded-up napkins, magic markers, plates and cups and leftovers, including the last of their wine. The kids are putting their feet all over the wagon-wheel couch with abandon, keeping the noise mostly this side of admonishment ("NO, I don't want to!" one with a pink headband lets the world know). At another table, an older kid elegantly flops his head back and forth when the Smiths come on. He looks around 12, until he's hunched over a flowered mugful of local Bluebird ice cream, when he suddenly looks 6 or 7. (His mother looks blissfully unaware of the challenging years ahead.)
Also on the stereo: Portishead, the Blow. The children clear out, but the Independent Pizzeria remains full—friends and families, dates young and old. Only one older couple looks like a Madison Park stereotype: He's talking about a long-ago war; she's got shiny jewelry and a wig. When service gets a little sideways—if the place is small, the staff is maybe too small—only the War and the Wig get cranky ("Could we have our wine, please!" the Wig snaps).
The Independent's Caesar salad is excellent. The romaine is hand-torn, fresh, happily variegated in color; the Parmesan is clearly high-quality, drifted atop like a fine snow. The dressing is lemony-light, made with raw egg (right), containing the correct amount of garlic and anchovy for fortitude. There are no croutons. Instead, that element comes in pizza-crust-dough breadstick format, browned and chewy, which lets you calibrate your lettuce-to-bread intake bite by bite. It's tasty, and it's smart—a crouton can be elusive when it's needed. A large Caesar, easily enough for two, costs just $7.
The Independent's pizza is based on the idea of super-thin-crust Neapolitan style, but it is not hung up on authenticity, to everyone's benefit. It's slightly thicker—avoiding floppiness at slices' points, holding up to more cheese and toppings, and yay for that. It still achieves big, beautiful, blackened bubbles along the edge, and eating the crust of the crust is a pleasure. The toppings are high quality—Mama Lil's peppers, Fra' Mani Italian sausage. The State Fair has the latter, generously distributed—you might find five sausage-coins on a single smallish slice—and both mozzarella and pecorino to keep the cheese interesting. The Twin Peaks has crimini mushrooms and fontina and sage, but it's just barely sagey, like it was in the same air with sage, instead of tasting like shrubbery. It comes to the table bubbling hot, even if the pizza chef has to bring it out himself.
Is the Independent's pizza too expensive? The pies, which range from $8 to $12 and are cut into six pieces, are just larger than personal-sized. For fancy, independent pizza, it's a good deal; for Madison Park—the wine, the view—it's a steal. If you split a salad, you might be satisfied with sharing one pie, but you'll probably want your own. You'll like eating the leftovers later at home.