Slice of the Hill

Great Food, Deals Help Pizzerias Thrive

Posted April 6, 2005 at 6:36pm

According to some reports, Americans consume something in the area of 75 to 100 acres of pizza every day.

That’s a staggering figure, one that might at first churn the stomach. But the statistic also serves as a testament to just how much this country craves — one might even say loves — its favorite pie-shaped delicacy.

As song writer Jack Brooks once crooned, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”

And that sentiment is no less intense in and around the seat of the nation’s capital.

In an industry where individual businesses consider themselves lucky to stay open for 10 years, three pizza joints on Capitol Hill have been around for 16 or more years. These restaurants have managed to thrive alongside the usual big-name national pizza delivery services and the dozens of other Hill eateries, such as Capitol Lounge and Cosi, which also offer pizza on their menus.

What’s the secret to these establishments’ success? Location is an important factor, but even more significant is what keeps people coming back: great pizza.

For the most local of Hill pizza places, take a trip down East Capitol Street and stop into the tiny parlor of Al’s Gourmet Pizza (1382 East Capitol St. NE). The first thing you’ll notice is that there are no chairs or tables but just a small counter where you can stand and eat your pie. Despite its lack of furnishings, Al’s has been a favorite of locals since it first opened in 1984 and has done well with its take-out and delivery service. Today the restaurant can pump out about 90 pizzas an hour, and many of those pies are sent up to Hill offices, according to owner Hoss “people call me Al” Goal.

Al’s has some unusual choices among its 27 pizza toppings, and with these the eatery creates some very tasty combinations such as the “triple cheese-burger pizza.” A plain 14-inch pizza at Al’s will cost you $8.95, but if you’re short on cash you can order pizza by the slice for $1.50 — and with its close proximity to RFK Stadium, a slice of Al’s might be a great idea for Hillites walking to a Nationals game this summer. If you’re looking for more than just pizza for your walk to the stadium, Al’s also offers a selection of sub sandwiches, buffalo wings, salads and pastas.

According to Goal, one of the most popular specialty items at Al’s is the Jamaican jerk chicken pizza which, when it first came out, was such a hit with the ambassador of Jamaica that the dignitary called the restaurant personally for Goal’s jerk sauce recipe.

Goal said some of the restaurant’s other well-known patrons include comedian Dave Chappelle — “he stops in any time he comes to Washington” — and a slew of Congressional leaders such as former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) and former Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.), who Goal said is a big fan of mushrooms on his pizza.

For Hillites looking for great pizza a little closer to the office, Armand’s Chicago Pizzeria (226 Massachusetts Ave. NE) is the place to go.

Located right next door to the conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, Armand’s has a bit of a reputation as a Republican hangout, but its thick and crispy deep-dish pizza will please hungry pols on both sides of the aisle.

There are three Armand’s in Washington, which works out well because the delivery radius for the Capitol Hill Armand’s is only 12 blocks. Though the restaurant also offers subs and salads, Armand’s manager Fred Tito said 90 percent of his business is pizza and of that, 75 percent to 80 percent is deep-dish pizza. He said the original Chicago combo, a mix of pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers and onions, is the restaurant’s best seller.

A staple for Senate-side staffers for 19 years, Armand’s offers a spacious outdoor seating area, which is a prime spot during the spring and summer months, and enough room upstairs and downstairs to host up to 110 people for private parties, which it often does.

Here, a 9-inch cheese pizza will cost you $7.95, but Armand’s also offers the best lunch-time pizza deal on the Hill in its $5.99 all-you-can-eat buffet. While the large salad bar and banana pudding are nice additions, the main attraction of the buffet are the endless fresh pizzas that pour out of ovens that can cook up to 120 pizzas an hour.

For those looking for something more than a soft drink to go with their pizza, Armand’s serves beer and wine (though Tito said there are no happy hour drink specials). On tap, the restaurant offers Budweiser, Miller Lite and a decent Armand’s Ale.

The other popular pizza place for Hill staffers looking to get out of the office during the lunch hour is Pizzeria UNO, which has occupied its Union Station location (50 Massachusetts Ave. NE) since the fall of 1989. Known nationally as UNO Chicago Grill, the restaurant doesn’t offer a delivery service, but it does have an expanded lunch and dinner menu that includes steaks, ribs and seafood as well as its popular pizza. Here an individual cheese and tomato deep-dish pizza will cost you $6.99.

UNO bartender Mike Owens said that while the Union Station bar and restaurant is much more of a tourist hangout at night, Hill types make up much of the daytime crowd, taking advantage of the 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Quicklunch special. At $6.99 for the deep-dish option and $7.99 for thin crust, the Quicklunch special comes with your choice of house or caesar side salad or soup and is usually out in minutes. While patrons wait, they can sit back and watch tourists wander Union Station or catch a game on one of the three large televisions over the bar.

For those needing something to take the edge off from the work day, UNO offers a fully stocked bar and several drink specials including $2 Bud Light and Miller Lite drafts Sunday through Friday from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. and again from 10 p.m. to close. You can also get a large, smooth glass of UNO amber ale, brewed by the same company that makes Sam Adams beer, for $2.95 during happy hour.

And if you’re looking for a drink that’ll probably keep you from returning to the office, try the Ultimate Iced Tea, a potent mix of Tanqueray gin, Smirnoff vodka, Bacardi Limon rum, Souza Gold tequila, triple sec, sour mix and a splash of Coca-Cola. For a fruitier mix, try the Malibu Sunrise, made up of Malibu rum, orange juice, pineapple juice, grenadine and garnished with a slice of pineapple and orange.

Jennifer Lash contributed to this report.