How pizza joints thrived during pandemic

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How pizza joints thrived during pandemic
The Diavola pizza at Lena's Wood-Fired Pizza & Tap features fried kale and calabrese hot honey drizzled on top. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)
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By Olivia Anderson | [email protected]

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many Alexandria restaurants to either close their doors entirely or shift gears and adapt to an ever-changing food landscape. But pizza restaurants are a different story.

No stranger to the to-go box, the quick and transportable nature of pizza has helped these businesses survive in a time when so many are struggling to stay afloat, and in certain cases it’s actually helped them thrive.

Some local pizza joints are longtime neighborhood fixtures and others opened for the first time during the global pandemic, but they all show no sign of slowing down anytime soon.

Pandemic-proof

When owners Annalisa and Thomas Cardarelli opened Stracci Pizza on Feb. 1, 2021, they did so with COVID-19 in mind. This meant including menu items specifically designed to travel well in a to-go box, from the appetizers and sides to, of course, the pizza.

They started humbly, with a food truck stationed in the parking lot of the former Nectar Coffee and Wine Bistro, which closed in 2020. Just one month and countless sold-out menu items later, the duo began Stracci’s transition to a larger space in order to meet the high demand.

Stracci Pizza owners Annalisa and Thomas Cardarelli opened their Roman-style food trailer in February 2021.

Currently, the team performs production and prep work inside the former Nectar site, where they also sell drinks for customers to bring to the outdoor seating area, but the plan is to provide a full dine-in experience by fall 2021.

“It’s all very much evolving organically as we grow and it’s kind of cool we’ve been able to react very quickly. … Our initial idea for the business has evolved a lot in a short amount of time, but I think all in all it’s a much better direction,” Annalisa said.

Stracci Pizza serves Roman-style pizza, which involves a high hydration, long-fermented dough at cold temperatures. The result is a thick, airy crust that is crispy on the bottom and light and fluffy on the inside.

“I like to say it’s kind of the intersection of where artisan bread meets pizza, but it still remains pizza,” Thomas said.

Emmy Squared in Old town also opened its doors during the pandemic. Originally started in 2016 by Matt and Emily Hyland in Brooklyn, New York, the restaurant’s owners joined forces with partner Howard Greenstone and opened their Alexandria location on June 1, 2021.

“We haven’t really been affected by the pandemic itself. We haven’t had too many problems with hiring and we’ve been doing fairly well with gaining staff, too,” General Manager Keith Williams said.

Emmy Squared offers a Detroit-style deep dish pizza, which Williams stressed is vastly different from the popular Chicago-style deep dish pizza that may come to mind.

For the Nguyen, available at Emmy Squared, is a Detroit-style deep dish pizza with chicken, Korean wing sauce and scallions.

The difference between the two is that Chicago style involves layering the pies from bottom to top with dough, sauce, cheese and toppings on a circular pie. Detroit-style pies, on the other hand, layer dough, cheese, sauce and then toppings on a square pie and fill the cheese to the outside so that it caramelizes and becomes crispy. The end result is a baked cheese crust that is unlike any other style of pizza.

One of the most popular dishes at Emmy Squared is the “Colony” pizza, which features pepperoni and pickled jalapeños and is drizzled with honey on top to balance out the flavors.

“Our pies really speak for themselves. You can get pies anywhere, but this is a Detroit-style deep dish pie,” Williams said. “That’s what we’re really standing behind; we don’t make any pies other than a Detroit-style pie.”

Savory staples

Tucked away on a sleepy stretch of Belle Haven Road is, fittingly, Belle Haven Pizzeria. This cozy pizza joint has resided at the former Pat’s Market since February 2015 and over the years earned its spot as a community staple.

“It slowly but surely just became this huge neighborhood bar. Around here there’s not really too much else, and people will drive by all the time and not even know it’s here, so it’s kind of like a little neighborhood gem,” General Manager Nolan Grace said.

Most customers are regulars, Grace said, and they come in anywhere from two to seven days a week.

“It’s very weird not to see them come in, so you start actually worrying about them a little bit,” Grace said.

In fact, Grace said it was the support of regulars that held up the pizzeria during COVID-19, along with implementing delivery and takeout options.

The vegetable toppings on Belle Haven Pizzeria’s Garden pizza are sourced directly from the restaurant’s 13-bed, all-organic garden. (Photo/Olivia Anderson)

Belle Haven Pizzeria recently added an outdoor seating area, an upgraded wood fire pizza oven and a new chef, all of which Grace said has contributed to the fact that the restaurant is busier now than it has ever been.

The restaurant offers handmade pizzas with meats smoked in-house and sauces prepared from scratch. It also features a 13-bed, all-organic garden where vegetables, including squash, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, kale, garlic and peppers are grown.

But Grace said that beyond Belle Haven’s expansive menu, what keeps people coming back is its overall vibe.

“It’s probably one of the few places I’d say you could walk in on day one, sit down next to someone at the bar and just have a nice, friendly conversation,” Grace said.

For pizza-seekers looking for something a bit more centrally located, Lena’s WoodFired Pizza & Tap, between Old Town and Del Ray, is a great option.

Opened Oct. 27, 2015, the restaurant’s theme delicately weaves in owner Jason Yates’ fondness for home cooking and memories of his own family dinners.

“Everybody came to the table, everybody was family, and it was always the one time everybody got together in the day, so that was one of the mottos around Lena’s,” Operations Manager Donna Shore said.

Many of the menu items are based on Yates’ mother Lena’s family recipes. The menu features Neapolitan-style pizza, which has a thin, crisp crust made with double zero flour and pure spring water.

The most popular item, Shore said, is also the most unique. The Diavola pizza contains spicy sopressata salami and mozzarella, topped with fried kale and calabrese pepper hot honey.

“Honestly, when it comes out it’s intimidating, but it [tastes] delicious. It’s a really cool, unique piece,” Shore said.

The family-owned eatery, which is part of the Alexandria Restaurant Partners’ network of restaurants, provides plenty of ambiance options for guests, like a more laid-back vibe in the outdoor beer garden, an upscale dining environment upstairs and a true taproom style experience inside. But no matter where a customer is sitting, Lena’s maintains one overarching goal.

“We really want to bring in that family warmth – you’re gonna come in, you’re gonna enjoy yourself, we’re gonna give you great food, but really, we’re gonna give you an atmosphere where you feel comfortable and will want to bring your family,” Shore said.

Similarly inspired by his roots, four years ago Dave Nichols opened an Italian restaurant in the heart of Old Town called Mia’s Italian Kitchen.

“We saw this location and we thought this corner was a fantastic corner,” Nichols said. “We came in here and we gave the place some energy and some life, some great food, and the restaurant is doing fantastic.”

Mia’s Italian Kitchen offers a wide variety of rectangular Sicilian-style pies, including a build-your-own option shown here.(Photo/Olivia Anderson)

Nichols grew up with the type of hearty Italian food Mia’s provides and was deeply inspired by his great-grandmother who didn’t speak any English and lived on a farm with lots of rustic Italian food.

Many of those flavor profiles have inspired Mia’s current menu, as did the thick square Sicilian-style pizza, which is served by the slice.

“But when I say by the slice, I mean [a] meal in itself,” Nichols said.

The restaurant also offers unique pizza toppings, including fig and braised duck, fresh pasta, an eggplant parmesan, homemade dough and 16-ounce all-beef meatballs.

Nichols said that even though COVID-19 presented an obstacle, Mia’s continued to thrive through its to-go business and outdoor dining options. Also, people just really like pizza.

“[People love] basic ingredients done well that have great flavors. With great olive oil and great herbs and fresh ingredients and fresh pizza, it’s hard to go wrong,” Nichols said.

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