The first time I sampled chef Edan MacQuaidâ€™s pies at RedRocks Fire Brick Pizzeria, my hands looked like I had just finished working the black seam in a West Virginia mine. They were covered with the char of a marinara pizza blackened and blistered in a ferociously hot oven. I remember thinking that either the kitchen screwed up or MacQuaid wanted to emphasize the undervalued flavorsâ€”a sort of ashy vanillaâ€”that char imparts to pizza.
My next two visits confirmed my initial hunch: MacQuaid really likes to turn up the heat on his pies. Each one I ordered hit the table with mushroom clouds of blackened char exploding from the crust. Even his slices of homemade bread for the bruschetta featured black ribbons of charred crust. This guy, I thought, is a pyro.
Given the chefâ€™s aggressive approach to heat, I was inclined to believe a nagging rumor: that MacQuaid had been fired from his previous job as pizza-maker at 2Amys for fighting in the kitchen. MacQuaidâ€™s pies, after all, had shown me that heâ€™s not afraid to play with fire. I figured, like any good artist, his food reflects his personality.
The truth about MacQuaidâ€™s pizzas, as it turns out, is far more interesting. The chef tells me that his pies tend to have more char because he actually follows the rules for Neapolitan pizza-making, as opposed to his previous employer, which MacQuaid says blows a lot of smoke about its Denominazione di Origine Controllata pies but doesnâ€™t actually follow all the laws. MacQuaid says he cooks his rounds at approximately 900 degrees Fahrenheit, right around the 485-degree Celsius temperature mandated by the Italian government. 2Amys, he claims, cooks pizza at about 650 degrees Fahrenheit.
MacQuaid also says 2Amys takes liberties with its dough. â€śTrue Neapolitan dough is never refrigerated,â€ť he says, â€śand theirs is on, like, a 36-hour refrigerator cycle,â€ť which retards fermentation and allows 2Amys to rise its dough longer than allowed by D.O.C. law.
â€śI feel like I [had] kind of been put in this positionâ€¦where a lot of other pizza-makers started to call me out and say that we werenâ€™t doing things authentically and that we were fudging it,â€ť MacQuaid says of his nearly six years at 2Amys. â€śThen I started to look at it, and we were.â€ť
Of course, maybe MacQuaid is the one blowing smoke here, just a disgruntled former employee who wants to torch his old boss, chef and owner Peter Pastan, whose pizza the Washington Postâ€™s Tom Sietsema has called among the best in the country. MacQuaid, after all, was indeed fired shortly after an altercation in the kitchen earlier this year.
MacQuaid doesnâ€™t exactly label it a fight; apparently a line cook tried to jump MacQuaid after the chef made a smartass remark about the guyâ€™s work ethic. MacQuaid wanted Pastan â€śto take action on that, and he didnâ€™t want to do anything,â€ť the chef recalls. â€śI went and filed a police report, and he fired me. Thatâ€™s the whole story.â€ť
When I contact Pastan for comment, the owner sounds almost blasĂ©, as if MacQuaid were just the latest in a long line of court plotters trying to steal his throne. Personally, he says, he wouldnâ€™t classify MacQuaidâ€™s exit as a firing. â€śEdan told me of his intention to leave within a fairly short amount of time, and then a lot of unpleasant stuff happened,â€ť he recalls.
If you press Pastan for details on the fight and his response (or lack thereof), the owner invokes his belief in the philosophy of RashĂ´mon. â€śEverybody has their own way of looking at the world, and we have different ways of looking at the world,â€ť he says. Besides, Pastan believes MacQuaidâ€™s past is irrelevant now, and he politely declines to discuss it further. Heâ€™d prefer to talk about pizza, which, when I do, makes Pastan act as if heâ€™s testifying before a grand jury.
â€śThere are a lot of different perspectives on what D.O.C. pizza is, and being that itâ€™s an Italian thing, everybody has their own concept about which bylaws are relevant,â€ť he says. â€śI hate to be Clintonian, but it really depends on how you interpret the guidelines and which set of guidelines you use. I mean, I feel pretty good about the guidelines weâ€™re using.â€ť
Pastan argues that while his pizza oven has a thermometer on it, the gauge only measures the temperature â€śsix inches below the center of the oven.â€ť A laser gun has measured the internal temperature of the oven, and readings have varied from the 700s to nearly 1,000 degrees depending on how close the surface area is to the fire. As for the dough, Pastan allows that â€śweâ€™re probably letting it rise longer than some interpretations of how you do things,â€ť close to 24 hours in all.
Like Roberto Donnaâ€™s decision to ditch San Marzano tomatoes on his Neapolitan pies (â€śRed Scare,â€ť Young & Hungry, 8/17), Pastan is unapologetic about his miniconfession, which seems to flout a D.O.C. law that calls for two different dough risings totaling between six and eight hours. â€śI think one of the things that makes the dough special is that it ferments very slowly for a long amount of time,â€ť Pastan says. â€śIâ€™ve been making bread for 25 years, and obviously slow, controlled rising makes a much more developed, flavorful loaf, and I think the same is true for pizza.â€ť
After MacQuaid questioned 2Amysâ€™ integrity, I made a return trip to Pastanâ€™s pizzeria and ordered the D.O.C. margherita pizza. It was as crisp, creamy, chewy, and salty as I remembered. Screw D.O.C. certification, I thought. I donâ€™t need some agency to certify what my palate already knows: This is damn fine pie.
In fact, I think 2Amys has the edge over the upstart RedRocks, where MacQuaidâ€™s pizzas are hot, bubbly, and chewyâ€”but still lack consistency. Iâ€™ve had pies at RedRocks so flimsy and oversauced that I almost wanted to skip past the featured ingredients and go straight to MacQuaidâ€™s outer band of beautifully burned crust.
But regardless of whoâ€™s doing true Neapolitan-style pizzaâ€”and MacQuaid says that â€śwe follow the letter of the [D.O.C.] law to the letter of the law here at RedRocksâ€ťâ€”isnâ€™t it time to stop placing so much emphasis on rules and just trust our tastes? To me, the D.O.C. certification seems as much about marketing as about guaranteeing a true taste of Naples. I wondered aloud to Pastan whether his D.O.C. certification still served as a viable marketing tool nearly six years after he got it.
â€śI think probably when we opened it was a better marketing tool than it is now,â€ť Pastan says of D.O.C. rules. But, in the end, he agrees that â€śeither you like the pizza or you donâ€™t. The rest of it is just commentary.â€ť
RedRocks Fire Brick Pizzeria, 1036 Park Road NW, (202) 506-1402
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