New Joint’s Buzz Is Hotter Than a Pizza Oven

Posted July 30, 2010 at 5:14pm

It’s seven minutes after lunch service is supposed to start on a recent weekday at the brand new We, the Pizza, but chef-owner Spike Mendelsohn is still huddling with a few of his staffers.

A line about 20-deep stretches from the long counter and spills out the door onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Mendelsohn confers with this team, waits until a few more pies come out of the oven and then gives the signal. Two cashiers step forward to start taking orders. The orders keep coming. And coming.

Mendelsohn, owner of the next-door burger spot Good Stuff Eatery and a former contestant on the show “Top Chef,” seems to have mastered a formula for success along the House-side corridor: Accessible food (burgers, fries and shakes at Good Stuff; pizza, subs and sodas at We, the Pizza) with on-trend nods to the gourmet and sustainable movements, relatively low prices and a liberal dash of celebrity.

“That’s him!” says a young man standing in line, wearing a tie and a Congressional badge. “It’s Spike!”

It might be easy to dismiss the media-savvy restaurateur with his trademark fedoras as simply a clever showman. But that wouldn’t quite explain the out-the-door crowds and the fact that the pizza place is going through 500 pounds of flour a day.

But a bite of the Forest Shroomin Pie helps make the to-do more understandable. Mendelsohn describes the ingredients lovingly: a from-scratch béchamel sauce, pecorino cheese, truffle jus and sautéed mushrooms. Half of the mushrooms are pureed and stirred into the sauce, while the rest top the pie, which is finally garnished with thyme and sea salt. The crust is thin, but yeasty and springy.

And a slice is $4.

The mushroom pizza is one of the most popular items on a menu that includes a roster of pies with both basic toppings — traditional cheese and pepperoni — and more nouveau ones, such as potato and pancetta and buffalo chicken. Familiar fare such as wings, subs (the meatball is a standout) and salads are dressed-up versions of the classics.

At the soda bar in the rear of the first floor, house-made seltzers are spritzed into cups with fresh syrups and fruit purees. Gelato will be added to the menu soon, Mendelsohn says.

The interior of We, the Pizza is sleeker than Good Stuff’s slightly rustic vibe. Tile floors, glossy stone counters and a wall covered in gleaming metal pizza pans lend an industrial-chic look. Large black-and-white photos lining the walls highlight various charities that Mendelsohn works with.

It is tempting to question a commercial enterprise whose theme and branding revolves around community service. According to the restaurant’s ambitiously earnest manifesto: “‘We’ is community and family. ‘We’ is belonging. ‘We’ is no one place or thing or idea. ‘We’ is an ideal. ‘We’ is the promise of better days and brighter futures and the opportunity to finally be ourselves because together, ‘we’ are one.”

But the charities are more than just window dressing. Mendelsohn regularly invites local children from the tutoring and mentoring organization Horton’s Kids to the restaurant, where they learn to make their favorite foods from real ingredients. He’s hired five graduates of D.C. Central Kitchen’s culinary training program, which offers marketable skills to the homeless, unemployed and ex-convicts.

Inspired by first lady Michelle Obama’s anti-obesity campaign, Mendelsohn has planted a “Good Stuff Garden” at a local charter school.

Mendelsohn says he derived the idea behind the pizza place from the community that made Good Stuff a success and from his Capitol Hill customer base.

“They inspire me,” he says. “I’ve met people working for their states and for initiatives that I’d never heard of before. I figured I should give back, too.”