My pizza platform is one plank: Pizza is the people's snack. A slice should be cheap and unfussy but dignified. The crust should be crunchy-chewy and foldable, the toppings few and fresh, the tomato sauce light and bright, and the cheese a melty mozzarella.
For many years, people on Capitol Hill have looked to Hot Mama's and Big Mario's for their quick lunches and late-night booze sponges, or called in a party pie from Pagliacci. (I don't really want to talk about Amante, but desperation has led me to that door more than once.) These places all subscribe to the basic tenets of my pizza platform—and at times, silently noshing on a slice of Mama's is an act akin to prayer.
When I realized that five pizza places had opened up on Capitol Hill in the last year—all within eight blocks of each other—I got excited about the possibilities. I'm a bit of a purist, but I can appreciate the variety of pizza ambitions. Occasionally it's nice when someone cracks an egg on a pie, or fools around with figs and a pear, or just tries, through small, meaningful adjustments, to create the perfect tomato pie. So with an open mind and maw, I went on a pizza crawl to determine what these new shops bring to the Capitol Hill pizza scene.
Broadway's Pizzeria 88 is a Neapolitan-style pizza place with a casual date-night vibe. There's a marble countertop bar and one of those charming tile ovens in the corner. It's a bit too sterile and spacious in the restaurant, so any flirtatious advances would have to be shouted at an unflirtatious volume.
I ordered the Parma, topped with prosciutto, a mountain of arugula, as well as grana and mozzarella cheese, for $16. Over a draft Peroni, I quietly mourned the fact that I hadn't gotten there early enough for happy hour (4 to 6 p.m.), when personal pies are just $6.
A welcoming bartender who knew his Italian digestifs served me a classic representative of the Neapolitan genre: a wilted, soggy-bottomed pie with a salad piled on top of it. If you try to fold and bite into this pizza, prepare to eat all of the toppings at once. The prosciutto and generous shavings of grana were wonderful, but the mozzarella was joyless and rubbery. The end crust tasted bitter-sour from the oven char in a good way, but it left a powdery finish in my mouth.
Further south at Ian's, a Midwest college-town pizza chain, the first thing you have to deal with is a little smell-bleed from the fro-yo place next door. The second is the menu of pies with wacky toppings such as buffalo chicken or the "macadilla," a spicy chicken quesadilla and macaroni mash-up.
I snagged a slice of the Mac n' Cheese ("Ian's All-Time Best Seller!") as well as a slice of pepperoni and sausage. The crusts on both were crunchy and chewy and receive high marks for their cornmeal dustings. The Mac n' Cheese wants hot sauce and a lot of black pepper, without which it is an inedible block of cheddar and noodles and unidentifiable white cheese that will grind your gut to a halt. A sugary oregano tomato sauce dominated the meat pie, lending it a pizza-flavored pizza flavor. Both pies were decidedly average but forgettable. Fine in a panic.
Down the hill on Pine Street, Meltdown Pizza Co. serves sweet-sauced Papa John's–esque pizzas in a carousel display. Watching the pizzas rotate, I became hypnotized by both their circular motion and the extremely even distribution of toppings such as pineapple, sausage, and pepperoni.
I tried the sausage and assorted vegetables pizza, which was a grease-bottomed nothing slice of blahness. It's mainly a glutinous vehicle for ranch dressing, which the cashier/server suggested I buy to accompany my slice. As I ate it, an oil slick formed on my hands. Even after a lot of napkin work, the pizza left me with a post-lube sensation—my hands were dry, but they didn't feel clean. I felt like a dirtbag in the dining room's sterile, cement cube.
I knew I was dealing with a Portland-based pizza chain when, at Sizzle Pie on Union Street, I had to double check whether I was sprinkling Parmesan cheese or nutritional yeast on a slice of pizza that I was forced to order by speaking its name, "High on Fire," aloud.
The best thing about Sizzle Pie is that you can get a slice and a good salad for $7. Roughage accompanying pizza is a kindness, an understanding between peoples. The other great thing is that you can get "cuts," which are $2 half slices of pizzas that you might want to try. These "cuts" solve the problem of feeling too full after a pizza session. Sometimes two slices is too much! But a slice and a cut...
"Spiral Tap" is an excellent candidate for a cut. If you don't want to destroy your body (or if you're vegan), you can add this little sidecar pizza to your main jam. It has an onion sauce swirled with a tomato sauce, so it's slightly sweet, slightly tangy. It goes well with red pepper flakes and a lot of Parm.
I did not receive my pizzas at the height of their powers (the place was packed for dinner), but Sizzle Pie is good, and its wild ingredients are wild without trying too hard. Also, a fine and filling $12 meal on the Hill is no joke.
Dino's Tomato Pie on Olive Way is the swankiest of Capitol Hill's new pizza joints, brought to you by Delancey's Brandon Pettit. A crystal chandelier (it's actually made of plastic) hangs over the big party booth in the back. Dino's other chandeliers look like deconstructed pebbled-plastic tumblers, a wink to the humble family pizza parlor.
I ordered an on-tap old-fashioned and a "fancy salad" while I waited for my 18-inch Hot Salami pie. (Dino's also serves square Sicilian pizza but, out of fairness to the other restaurants, I tasted only the round pie.) The old-fashioned was strong, fumy, and better than half of the non-on-tap old-fashioneds I've had on Capitol Hill. The fancy salad tasted fancy—strands of arugula and shaved fennel flapping around in a metal bowl. The real star is the dressing, which tastes like liquid Parmesan.
The pizza came to the table on one of those elevated platforms that put the pie at eye level and allow for easy swiping. The herby, tangy tomato sauce cut through the salami pie's high grease content. The cheese was a dream—good chew, very stringy. The crust was bready but not a gluten bomb, crunchy with a nice amount of char. It's floppy and has the best fold-action of the bunch. At $22, the price is relatively high, though you could feed a family of three with one pizza. (Dino's sells only whole pies until 10 p.m. *Update:* Dino's now sells square slices from 4 p.m.--2 a.m. seven days per week.)
Dino's is the best of Capitol Hill's new pizzerias, and it serves what is technically the best round pie on the Hill. But those who agree that pizza is for the people would do just as well to walk up to Hot Mama's or Big Mario's and grab themselves a slice to eat out in the open air. The most valuable service these new pizzerias offer the neighborhood is the possibility of shorter lines at two places Capitol Hill already loves.