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Edan MacQuaid on the Neapolitan Style and His New Spot

Photo: Amy McKeever/

Edan MacQuaid got his first job slinging pies at Pizzeria Paradiso back in 1992 — at least in part just because they hired him when Burger King wouldn't. But in the decades that have followed, MacQuaid has become one of DC's most celebrated pizzaiolos with devotees following him from gig to gig — and there have been several of those. After Paradiso, MacQuaid worked at 2 Amys for years, and since then his name has been associated with the likes of RedRocks, Bebo, Ardeo + Bardeo and now Local 16, where he landed shortly after an abrupt departure from Pizzeria Orso.

Eater met up with MacQuaid over at Local 16 to talk about the surge of Neapolitan pizzerias in the DC area, why he thinks it's the best kind of pie, and when DC can expect the opening of his forthcoming pizzeria on 14th Street.

How did you get into pizza?
Well, everybody likes pizza. When I was a teenager, I pretty much decided that I wanted to work in restaurants and I didn't really have any plans on doing pizza or anything. I went to high school in Maine and I worked in a lot of hotels there as a kid. Then I moved down here when I was 19. I actually was at Burger King on P Street applying for a job and I decided to go across the street over to Pizzeria Paradiso and apply for a job and they hired me. Burger King didn't. I just kind fell into it, to be honest with you. Then I took a liking to it.

What was it that you liked about it?
Well, it was a wood-burning oven and I've always been a little bit of a firebug, I guess. That was fun, I got to play with fire. It was a fun place to work, too. It's not like normal cooking. It's really fast-paced and you get to do a lot of things you don't get to do in a French kitchen as far as playing with dough and spinning stuff around.

How did you learn to do that?
It just comes with time. For me, being able to spin dough was kind of necessary because I had to go faster. Once you learn how to do it it's actually faster.

DC really likes its Neapolitan-style pizza. Why do you think that is?
Well, I think it's the best style of pizza myself. Probably a certain amount of it is kind of trendy, I think. And I think a lot of people, too, just saw Pizzeria Paradiso and 2 Amys being really successful and just kind of wanted to duplicate them. I've done a lot of consulting around town. I did some consulting with Roberto Donna at Bebo and I consulted at RedRocks when they opened the first one and Ardeo + Bardeo. I'm not sure how wise it is to say this, but everybody always kind of drops hints that they're trying to replicate the success of 2 Amys.

You've had a hand at some point...
In almost all of them. Not Pupatella, not Pizzeria da Marco, not Pizza CS, not Seventh Hill.

What is it about Neapolitan style for you that makes it best?
Well, you use the best things you can find. The product. For me, I haven't eaten at a lot of the Neapolitan places around town, but I think a lot of them don't live up to the standard you would get in Naples. My goal with the new place is to make — from a marketing perspective, without playing up too much the fact that it's Neapolitan pizza — make Neapolitan pizza that's as good as you get at one of my favorite places in Naples. Pizzeria Salvo or Gino Sorbillo, those are my two favorites. There's just something really fresh about Neapolitan pizza. When it's done right, it's cooked really fast in a really hot oven and the cheese is still just barely melted and the tomato is really fresh and the basil is really fragrant. Rather than cooking it for a really long time and everything breaks down and just kind of turns into a gooey mess.

And you've had criticism in the past for the authenticity of other places around town claiming authentic Neapolitan pies.
Yeah. The owner of 2 Amys, he was one of the original owners of Pizzeria Paradiso, too, and I worked for him off and on for years. Towards the end of my time there, he and I started to have differing opinions. I thought the pizza could be better than what we were serving and he didn't think it necessarily needed to be. The thing that really interests me now, keeps me interested in making pizza after all this time is I really like sourdough cultures and natural fermentation and really long, slow room temperature. It all sounds kind of boring, but for me it's actually pretty interesting.

What interests you about it?
It takes a lot more planning and finesse and understanding. If you make a cold, fermented dough it's easy. You just put it in the refrigerator and wait for it and take it out when you want to use it. Sourdough, you have to start getting into math depending how hot it is, and monitor things. It smells better, tastes better, it's lighter, it's easier to digest.

You've been in a lot of kitchens so now that you've got your place coming up, what else can we expect to see from that?
The reason we're doing this, we're doing it with the owner here [at Local 16] and a couple other guys. We're all actually friends and we get along and it seems a lot more natural. It doesn't seem like a weird business deal. The concept over there is to not hype it up too much, kind of fly under the radar. Make really good food, but not tie ourselves to any labels. It's supposed to be a cool place to hang out. We're going to be open late and we're hoping a lot of people from restaurants will come and eat there and hang out, maybe have some drinks after work.

How did it all come together?
I guess about five years ago, [Local 16 owner] Aman was at 2 Amys at the bar, my wife was bartending there and she overheard him talking about buying a pizza oven. They exchanged numbers and he contacted me. We talked a little bit. I helped him make the pizza program here. I consulted for him back then and we just grew a friendship out of that. After Orso, I was kind of bouncing around a little bit and he called me and asked if I wanted to come back over here. He still had the spot over there [on 14th Street]. I basically begged him to do something with the spot. I think it's a great location.

How's the buildout going?
Slowly, but it's going. We're just doing boring stuff now like running power and plumbing. Should start picking up soon.

What's your general timeline? Will you open this year?
We're shooting for September. I just spoke with the guy in Naples who's going to build the oven. He'd like to come build it between June and August. We'll have to seal that deal, too. That's the same guy I used at Orso.

And do you go to Naples often?
I've been once. I've been to Italy once in my life after I'd been making pizza for years. It was an eye-opener, though.

How was it an eye-opener?
Because you see how different an American pizzeria that's representing itself as Neapolitan is compared to the ones in Naples. But then there are so many pizzerias in Naples, too, I'm sure there are some that match up. But the top tier is a lot different.

What do you think about the Neapolitan certification process?
Without trying to get myself in trouble with the pizza police because I prefer that they like me, I think it's a marketing tool. It's pretty easy to get certified. You send some photographs to a guy in California with a bag of flour and your mixer and your oven and a can of tomatoes that you may or may not use and then a couple weeks later you fly him out and you make him a pizza and he takes a picture with you with the certification. It's a marketing thing. It doesn't seem really necessary.

So where do you eat in DC?
My favorite place in DC right now is absolutely Sushi Taro. I like Asian food and I just think it's a really well done restaurant. The service is great, the ambiance is just right, the food is amazing. It's all really interesting. I'm more attracted to Asian cuisine now because I don't really know how to cook any of it, so it's not boring. It's always exciting when you get things. I like Palena a lot. I like Obelisk. I live out in Falls Church and I eat a lot of Vietnamese and Korean food out there.

How about pizza-wise?
Who do I think has good pizza around town? Seventh Hill is probably one of my favorites. I think we make a really good pizza here. I like the original Ledo's in Adelphi. I haven't been to a lot of the new places because they're in Rockville or Bethesda and I don't usually get out there. I've been meaning to check them out.

Generally, what do you think of the pizza scene in DC?
I'm amazed at how many places are opening up. I think it's pretty good. I think we could do a lot worse. It's not Naples, but they have too many pizzerias. It beats Ohio. There's a lot of really good importers in DC, so that's nice. You can get a lot of really good Italian products easily. Here we get a lot of stuff from some farms that we're partnered with and stuff like that, but most things you just establish a relationship with these importers. They want to sell stuff and import stuff so they're always bringing new stuff around to show you.

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