Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Review: Pupatella, Arlington VA

Whenever there is a discussion of the best pizza in the Washington DC metro area, Pupatella is part of the conversation. 

On previous visits, I've stayed in the confines of DC proper, and had authentic NY slices at Wiseguy NY Pizza, great hybrid stuff at Seventh Hill Pizza, great Neapolitan at Comet Ping Pong, and world-class Neapolitan at 2Amys.

But Pupatella - perhaps the granddaddy of DC Neapolitan - remained on my must-try list. I finally got the chance on Father's Day weekend, when we visited on Saturday at lunch hour.
The Neapolitan oven where pies cook at 800-100 degrees in 60 seconds

Lining up to place an order
We arrived just minutes before the lunch crowd began queueing up; the process is that you order and pay up front, then take a seat. The staff brings your food to you. This leads to confusion about who to tip and when to tip, and whether you should bus your own table. Not a terrible system, but not a good one either.
"Salad 1"
It was a pleasantly warm afternoon, so we opted for one of the tables in the rear courtyard. It was a cozy space, but the tables were wobbly and the aroma of nearby decaying trash was distinct. The management needs to pay a bit more attention here.
Perfect card for pizza blogging Dad
For our party of two, we ordered "Salad 1" ($7.50) which included organic baby arugula, prosciutto, shaved Parmesan, and balsamic dressing. We chose two pizzas to split: 

  • a white pie ($12) with Italian​ cream, sautéed mushrooms, garlic, brie cheese, and truffle oil
  • a red pie with sausage, sautéed onions, and provola (fresh smoked mozzarella)

We had just begun the salad when the pies arrived. Our server was friendly and efficient, but this was another detail that the management missed; you don't serve the main course 30 seconds after the appetizer. Yeah, these pies cook in 60 seconds, but hold the order for a few minutes.
Our white pie with mushrooms
The pizzaiolo at Neapolitan is a bit of a purist; the website warns that the pie will be and should be wet in the middle. 

The white mushroom pie was beautiful to see; it had an ideal leopard spotting and a lovely patchwork of dark mushrooms and chunks of ivory brie cheese. The crust wasn't wet in the center, but it was unpleasantly damp. Fully half of each slice had drunk in too much moisture from the toppings.
Red pie with sausage and smoked mozzarella
As with many Neapolitans, the slice improved with each bite nearer to the cornicione, which was that perfect balance of lightness and chewiness with a satisfying char. The mushrooms were the star of this pie; they packed a lot of rich and earthy flavor. I'd like this pie better with less brie, less cheese overall, and less moisture. Excellent stuff, but well short of what it might have been.
Extra tasty at the cornicione
The red pie was largely disappointing. It was wetter than the white pie, so that even more of the crust was damp and limp. The red sauce displayed little character of its own, and the lumps of provola were oversized and hence undercooked, even as they acquired a bit of oven browning. The sausage was tiny crumbles that were barely perceptible. The overall flavor was still good, but this would not be the pie to put Pupatella on the map.
Too much on top for the delicate crust
Pupatella made a big splash 6 or 7 years ago, when it moved from food truck to its current location.  It's still packing in the customers, but I fear that the magic has worn off - especially as a large staff of newer workers is churning out a high volume of pies.
Just about an ideal char
The quality of the ingredients is apparent, but a Neapolitan pie depends on the balance of ingredients, and they're off. That affects the flavor a bit and the texture a lot. At Capofitto in Philly, you can get a world class Neapolitan that has a wet center yet retains full harmony of the ingredients. Maybe Pupatella can still do that on a good day.

Of all the DC area pies I've had, 2Amys is the clear winner. Wiseguy, Comet, and Seventh Hill are also ahead of Pupatella. That said, I'd gladly return to Pupatella if I was in the area. I'd try simpler pies, like the Margherita, and other combinations with fewer toppings. That superb crust deserves a chance to be consumed without a limp center. 

Pupatella Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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