Tom Cardarelli starts off his mornings in a sweater, but about an hour into his day, the oven inside his new 20-foot pizza trailer keeps him toasty enough to work in a T-shirt. Cardarelli, the former chef at seasonal American go-to Vermilion in Old Town Alexandria, is the only cook in a kitchen with one heat source, a gas-powered deck oven from Bakers Pride. That’s where Cardarelli heats water to pull his own mozzarella. He then soaks the fresh cheese in organic cream to make bits of stracciatella, the final touch on free-form, vaguely rectangular Roman-style pizzas from Stracci, a takeout-only operation that served its first customers this week out of an empty lot at in Del Ray (2016 Mount Vernon Avenue).
“I call it super mozzarella,” Cardarelli says of the trailer’s namesake cheese. “The freshness and the flavor is amazing. It doesn’t melt super well, so we always finish the pizza with it [after baking].”
The chef and his wife, Annalisa, are the only workers at Stracci so far, and he performs all the kitchen tasks himself. That includes forming an 85-percent hydration dough that undergoes a 72-hour fermentation before baking at around 600 degrees, low by pizzaiolo standards.
“It’s got like no flop,” says Cardarelli, who worked at New York City fine dining institutions like Jean George, the Modern, and Marea before taking a leadership job at Vermilion in 2017. “It’s straight up crispy on the bottom, airy, fluffy. I think it’s great. We’ll see what the masses think.”
Stracci offers five different personal pizzas (about 10 by 12 inches) to start, plus a build-your-own option with toppings like artichokes, salsa verde, Calabrian chile, and the usual suspects. Red pies include the Salty Mariner, with tomato sauce, anchovies, oregano, salsa verde, pecorino, and “almost too much garlic.” A white, Carbonara-like Brusseler pizza has guanciale (cured pork jowl), Brussels sprouts, and a three-cheese blend.
There a few items beyond pizza, including a winter citrus salad with stracciatella, Castelvetrano olives, and pistachios. Cardarelli says Vermilion regulars might recognize his chicken liver mousse, served with pickled mustard seed, preserved currants, and toast from loaves of ciabbata he also wants to sell a la carte. For dessert, there’s olive oil cake and — sometimes — a marcona almond tart that sells out quickly.
After a few years at Vermilion that drew him positive reviews, Cardarelli says he opted to leave with “the worst timing possible.” He had plans to travel and was lining up partners for his own restaurant when he quit in February 2020, right before the COVID-19 pandemic began wreaking havoc on the hospitality business in America. After traveling to San Francisco to help a friend start a pop-up, he returned to Northern Virginia with nothing to do.
“I’m a chef who needed to do something, just sitting on my hands for too long,” Cardarelli says. “I wanted to get back to work.”
Cardarelli says he always wanted to open a pizzeria that worked with regional farmers, something in the vein of what Franny’s did in Brooklyn. Once spring hits, he sees himself piling ramps and Shenandoah Valley lamb onto pizzas.
Stracci will be in its Del Ray location through the end of February, Cardarelli says, and then he has to move the trailer somewhere he hopes will present more of a long-term solution. He’s hoping he can turn the pizza business into a full-fledged restaurant at some point, but naming it after straciatella feels appropriate for the current climate.
“It means tatters and rags,” Cardarelli says. “So ‘tatters’ feels like the world right now, and ‘rags’ hopefully represents humble beginnings.”
Stracci accepts online preorders on weekdays, opening from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday with a 6:30 p.m. closing time Wednesday through Friday.