Deceivingly complex, pizza is much more than the sum of its parts. Dough, sauce, cheese: put them together for a magical outcome. Now meet the woman who has helped pizza grow up, due, in no small part, to her founding of DC institution Pizzeria Paradiso. Her name is Ruth Gresser, and she’s been pushing the pizza envelope for 25 years.
Before we talk about how she’s made pizza hotter, we need to rewind to before it was even put in the oven. Gresser is a hometown girl, raised just up the street in Baltimore. A third-generation Marylander and a daughter of a grocer, Gresser very much grew up surrounded by food. Her father’s shop was a neighborhood gathering place where high-quality ingredients were paramount. Both parents emphasized the importance of home cooking and family experiences, especially since her father often had to miss meals when he was at the store. But Friday night was a different story. A longstanding family event, its centerpiece was homemade challah, making Gresser truly at home with dough. “Even though I don’t make pizza crust much anymore, dough is a foundation for my cooking. It’s where I’m most in my element,” she says.
From Baltimore, Gresser packed off to college in Iowa, and then moved out to the West Coast. Through a friend in San Francisco, she met Madeleine Kamman, a famous chef and educator of fine French cooking, who later led her to positions at high-end restaurants in DC.
After her time at formal places, Gresser wanted to break free. “I wanted to do something more casual, approachable and fun. I wanted a party!” she says with a sparkle in her eye. Given her feeling that there was no great brick-oven pizza in DC, Gresser combined her fine-dining background, love of dough and need for good ‘za, and out of that oven came Pizzeria Paradiso.
Gresser turned out to be way ahead of the crust curve. She created an entirely new genre of informal, chef-driven cuisine. “It’s pizza, elevated,” she says. “High-end comfort food.” It was cutting edge, but still casual, warm and inviting. The DC dining scene has caught up with her, for sure, but Paradiso has remained extremely popular. This is certainly in part to its innovative beer program, which was just awarded a 2015 RAMMY.
Back in 2008, Gresser came across a Chipotle and realized that this quick approach could be applied to pizza. It would be a perfect marriage. While other Paradiso projects came before she could fully bake this idea (writing a book, for example!), Gresser was able to finally open Veloce last month. Unlike other similar fast-casual places, and though its name means “fast,” it’s not a rushed experience. There is no pointing at an assembly line of food; rather, customers order at a counter from a curated menu of options, including a chef-chosen daily special. The pizzas then spend all of 120 seconds in the specialty oven. Fast, indeed.
But speed isn’t the key ingredient here—it’s the actual ingredients. The foundation is the same famous crust used at Paradiso, a slow-rising, slightly moist concoction that cooks at 600 degrees and comes out thin, yet chewy, with just a touch of blister on the sides. There’s also a new crust available only here called grains and seeds, which includes spelt, oat, wheat and rye flours and poppy, sesame, flax and chia seeds.
What goes on top of that crust is important, too. The goat cheese has come from the same farmer for the past 20 years, and the eggs come from a local Amish farmer. Veggies, which are roasted for depth of flavor, are seasonally appropriate. One of our favorite menu options only comes out in the morning (yes, you can have pizza for breakfast). As a nod to her heritage, Gresser now produces a pizza graced with smoked salmon, herbed mascarpone, capers and onion. A new take on lox and bagels, anyone?
In her “spare” time, Gresser helps lead a women chefs group, volunteers with Casey Trees and looks to improve the customer experience at her stores. But back to that dough. To this day, she and her mom are most famous in local circles for their heavenly Torah cakes. The best topping for any celebration, featuring pizza or not, is to finish with a slice of tasty scroll. “It all comes back to family and community, because without their support, Paradiso and Veloce just wouldn’t be possible,” she says. And for that, we’d like another slice, please.
Veloce, 202-290-1910, 1828 L Street NW, Washington, DC, Monday–Friday 8–10:30 am (breakfast), 10:30 am–8 pm (lunch and dinner). Not kosher.
Photos courtesy of Veloce.