Pillowy, golden-brown, and soaked with olive oil, focaccia offers a shiny, substantial meal all by itself. The dimpled Italian flatbread, rich enough to be eaten plain but often found in a pizza-adjacent form with tomatoes and cheese or whatever produce is in season, has been proliferating at a number of D.C. restaurants, markets, and bakeries since before the pandemic began. Exceptional squares have appeared at rustic Italian all-day cafe Piccolina and beloved Mediterranean lunch counter Green Almond Pantry (currently on hiatus pending a move). High-end full-service kitchens like Tail Up Goat, Lutèce, and Modena have workshopped their own versions. Focaccia works well as a takeout item, and it’s also gained popularity with home bakers during lockdown, second only to sourdough. Here’s everything you need to know about finding focaccia around the District.
What Is Focaccia?
Jim Lahey, the 2015 recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s Outstanding Baker award, provides a helpful baseline for focaccia in his book My Bread. “Focaccia and pizza are close cousins,” Lahey writes, “but focaccia is lighter and thicker, about 1½ inches, rather than dense and thin.”
Derived from the Italian “focolare,” meaning fireplace or hearth, focaccia began in the ancient Roman and Greek empires as a lowly test bread. To gauge the temperature of their wood-fired ovens, bakers would tear off a bit of dough, coat it with olive oil, and bake it.
Focaccia dough has a high moisture content relative to other breads. This means the slack, sticky dough — think The Blob, but delicious — rises quickly with active fermentation. Cagla Onal-Urel, chef and owner of Green Almond Pantry in Georgetown, calls the pillowy, bubbly dough “nice and happy.”
Once the focaccia dough has reached that stage, it gets turned out onto a sheet pan coated with olive oil and topped with more olive oil, salt, and maybe some herbs or vegetables. While it’s baking, the water in the dough causes steam. This creates large air pockets, which results in a hole-filled, open structure. After baking, cooks might apply final garnishes like a sprinkle of grated cheese, flaky salt, or fresh herbs that would otherwise burn in the oven. A successful focaccia is browned on the outside; chewy, soft, and moist on the inside; and coated with just enough olive oil and toppings to make it interesting.
Amy Brandwein, a four-time Beard Award finalist and owner of upscale Italian restaurant Centrolina and all-day offshoot Piccolina, says good focaccia must be plump but not heavy — and must not skimp on olive oil.
“Some focaccia can be dense or has a hard crust. Focaccia should be fluffy and bouncy and with big air pockets,” she says. “Another characteristic is that it should be a little greasy. ... If you don’t have to wipe your hands while eating it, I don’t know about that one.”
Why Focaccia Is Appearing on Menus Across D.C.
All food businesses, from restaurants to grocers, need to juggle costs, prep time, degree of difficulty, and quality of product. Putting focaccia on a menu balances all four considerations. The flatbread is also the product of a fairly forgiving dough, requiring less precise kneading, shaping, and fermentation than baguettes or crusty levain boules.
During the COVID-19 crisis, focaccia has benefitted from having all the traits of dishes that sell well: It’s comforting, it’s handheld, it travels well, and — due to its similarity to pizza — tastes familiar to customers.
“We needed something more practical, and it is nice and filling, with good ingredients, with everything we like,” says Green Almond Pantry’s Onal-Urel, referring to the focaccia she often topped with fresh, seasonal produce like eggplant, sweet potatoes, and squash.
At Sonny’s Pizza and Doubles, the square, grandma-style pizza shop and sibling cafe in Park View, chef and co-owner Ben Heller says his sesame-topped focaccia is simply “a great, versatile bread that we really like to eat.”
Where to Find Great Focaccia in D.C.
Chef Amy Brandwein’s Piccolina is an essential all-day spot for rustic, wood-fired Italian fare like many-layered eggplant Parm and braised meatballs. But the focaccia is among the city’s best, thanks to her expert technique and a 24-hour fermentation process that develops the dough’s flavor.
Piccolina currently offers two excellent focaccia varieties. The pomodoro comes topped with tomato sauce, tomatoes, caciocavallo cheese, mushrooms, fresh basil, and mozzarella. The other has tomato sauce and spicy soppressata, plus caciocavallo, basil, and mozzarella.
Check the menu often for seasonal focaccia. Brandwein also occasionally offers her special focaccia Recco, in which stracchino and Parmigiano cheeses are placed between two paper-thin unleavened dough rounds, then baked until the cheese oozes from air holes in the top.
“It is one of the most delicious things you’ve ever had,” Brandwein says.
963 Palmer Alley NW
Green Almond Pantry
Green Almond Pantry shuttered its Shaw market after the tiny eatery suffered a fire in late December. Owner Cagla Onal-Urel opens a new Georgetown location Thursday, May 13, where she will once again offer her signature fluffy focaccia slab topped with tomato and onion, in addition to a seasonal offering (green tomato for the spring).
3210 Grace Street NW
This Shaw bakery has a cult following for its dedicated practice of processing grain through its own stone mill, offering a weekly pizza night, and producing a dark hue on its whole-grain pastries. Seylou’s focaccia has the standard brown, crusty exterior and chewy interior, but with a definitive spin.
In addition to lining the sheet pans with local butter instead of olive oil, the whole wheat focaccia “is leavened with both a natural sourdough starter and a small percentage of commercial yeast,” owner Jonathan Bethony says. The sourdough starter gives it a particular tang. Two types of local, organic flour that are milled in-house go into the dough.
Bethony thinks his focaccia is good because “it ties into the deeper thing that we do here, which is use really high-quality ingredients. Even the oil is through a Greek family company from Pennsylvania: Dimitri up in Baltimore. ... It is all whole grain. It’s healthy.”
Seylou’s rosemary and sea salt “focassia” is available on Sundays.
926 N Street NW, Suite A
Daniele Catalani has a way with dough. Whether it’s rolling fresh pasta for Cucina Al Volo, making light bomboloni doughnuts stuffed with a plethora of creams and curds, or preparing round focaccia for his market in Mt. Vernon Triangle, the Italian chef enjoys the early-morning work of playing with flour and fermentation times. His focaccia undergoes a four-day process that starts out with 6-ounce balls of pizza dough. Depending on the day, there may be three flavors or as many as seven. Customers may find focaccia topped with cherry tomato and red onion, zucchini and thyme, sausage and potato, or mozzarella, Parmesan, and garlic confit.
414 K Street NW
Bakeries aren’t the only strong focaccia game in town. Over in Park View, Sonny’s Pizza and Doubles serve a sesame-crusted focaccia with all of Sonny’s cheese-smothered red sauce sandwiches and meatballs.
“I grew up eating cold-cut sandwiches on sesame hoagie rolls,” chef and co-owner Ben Heller says. “So I wanted to do something inspired by that, but a little bit different.”
The “pizza garden” behind Doubles and Sonny’s is open for individual focaccia squares, as well as espresso, pastries, and bagels.
3120 Georgia Avenue NW
Along with its whole loaves, this charming neighborhood bakery and café in Mt. Pleasant serves an excellent focaccia. Because Ellē likes to layer its focaccia with fresh, seasonal toppings, the bread was on hold over the winter. Instead, diners have been able to enjoy a thick, grandma-style pizza slice. But owner Nick Pimentel says focaccia is making a comeback in late spring and will be available Thursday through Sunday, starting around 11:30 a.m.
3221 Mt Pleasant Street NW
A Baked Joint
This Mount Vernon Triangle bakery, an offshoot of Georgetown go-to Baked & Wired, serves two flavors of focaccia year round: a caramelized onion and goat cheese, and a cherry tomato and herb — both of which tend to sell out by around 1 p.m. There are also occasional specials like chipotle potato. A giant slab costs a reasonable $5.95, and bite-size strips cost around a dollar. Focaccia is available for pickup or delivery, and the shop is currently open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. most days and until 2 p.m. on Mondays and Tuesdays.
430 K Street NW
Via Umbria in upper Georgetown has evolved into a permanent Officina pop-up where customers can enjoy a circular, individual-size focaccia Barese with burst cherry tomatoes and olive for $5.
1525 Wisconsin Avenue NW
4434 Connecticut Avenue NW
Fancy Dining Rooms
At Modena (1100 New York Avenue NW), chef John Melfi considers focaccia one of his signature items. Like at Fiola Mare (3050 K Street NW, Suite 101), Modena includes focaccia as a bread course with both dine-in and takeaway meals. Melfi’s starts with a family recipe and uses a combination of Caputo flour and a flour ground on-site using wheat sourced from Next Step Produce in Charles County, Maryland. It ferments with fresh yeast for a few hours and after baking gets garnished with extra virgin olive oil, sea salt, and Parmesan that’s aged for at least 24 months.
Lyle’s, the stylish New American restaurant inside the recently opened Lyle hotel (1731 New Hampshire Ave NW), offers a bread course of focaccia, too. Chef Nicholas Sharpe says he uses a starter gifted from a colleague that’s purportedly 100 years old to make a poolish, which then cold-ferments for up to 72 hours and, on the day of baking, proofs for up to four hours at 90 degrees.
Iron Gate (1734 N Street NW) currently serves a dine-in house focaccia with Meyer lemon, red onion, kalamata olives, and feta. Chef Anthony Chittum also offers two focaccia-style pizzas for takeout: a Greek pizza with lemon-roasted chicken, olives, tomato, dill, feta, and yogurt green goddess and one called “The Grinder,” with Italian cured meats, provolone, pepperoncini, and cherry tomato pomodoro.
The menu at Georgetown’s popular Lutèce (1522 Wisconsin Avenue NW) always includes a pillowy focaccia, served with basil oil and cultured butter made in-house.
Naturally leavened with a sourdough starter named — for reasons unknown — “Steven” (many chefs and home bakers name their sourdough starters), chef Matt Conroy adapts his focaccia seasonally. Heads-up to spring diners: Conroy started topping his focaccia with sautéed ramps now that they are (briefly) in season.
Additional reporting by Gabe Hiatt and Tierney Plumb