After bringing pizza and craft beer to D.C., ‘matriarch of pizza’ plans fast-casual concept

WASHINGTON – Perhaps the worst part about ordering pizza at a restaurant is the 10 to 20 minute wait between the time you place your order and the time you take that first bite.

But this spring, that torturous delay will no longer be an issue. Veloce, a new fast-casual pizza concept from the founder of Pizzeria Paradiso, promises Neapolitan brick oven pizza in 2 to 3 minutes.

Twenty-five years ago, Neapolitan-style pizza was non-existent in the D.C. area; brick oven pizza was even scarce. But that all changed when Chef Ruth Gresser opened Pizzeria Paradiso on the second floor of a small townhouse in Dupont Circle in 1991. Her pizza quickly caught on, both with critics and customers, and soon after, she opened two additional Paradiso locations and inspired other chefs to follow her lead.

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A rendering of Veloce, a new fast-casual pizza concept, set to open in May at 1828 L Street NW. (Courtesy Veloce)

Now, Gresser wants to take what’s made Pizzeria Paradiso a success and apply those techniques and philosophies to a restaurant that caters to D.C.’s busy business district.

“The idea is we’re going to be doing what we do at Paradiso, but we’re going to be doing it really quickly — the quality ingredients, the brick oven pizza, but just fast,” Gresser says.

If achieving a crispy, slightly blackened crust and a center of golden, bubbling cheese in a matter of minutes seems impossible, Gresser says it’s not. The secret is in the temperature of the oven and the amount of moisture in the dough, both of which she’s adjusted to achieve the optimal taste and ideal cooking time.

“Knowing so well how we cook pizza and how the oven functions, it just seemed to be a natural marriage to me that pizza could be produced in the same way with that speed,” Gresser says. “The days of the idea that it takes 20 minutes to cook a pizza are gone.”

Once the doors to Veloce open at 1828 L Street NW, the 6,000-lb., 650-degree custom-designed brick oven will cook pizzas such as The Rooster, which is made with basil pesto sauce, goat cheese, house-made chicken sausage, sweet red pepper and pine nuts. Customers will also be able to design their own pizzas, and will have the option of four different crusts, including white, whole wheat, mixed grains and seeds and gluten-free.

To cater to the business clientele, Veloce will be open for breakfast, serving a variety of breakfast pizzas (think mushroom and bacon, sweet peppers and cheddar and a breakfast margarita), breakfast calzones and breakfast pockets, made of pizza dough and filled with smoked salmon and mascarpone cheese.

In addition to building its reputation for pizza over the years, Paradiso has become known for its carefully cultivated craft beer program. However, that aspect won’t be translated to Veloce – at least not yet.

“That’s the question I keep getting that I didn’t expect to get,” Gresser says about Veloce’s craft beer offerings.

Based on its location and its breakfast and lunch hours, Gresser predicts a vast majority of the clientele will be takeout. At first, she entertained the idea of stocking a few cans and bottles of special beers and obtaining an alcohol carryout license, in addition to an on-premise license. However, ABC regulations won’t let you have both. So Gresser is starting with none, but is open to customer input.

“I’m not thinking of this as a place where people are going to sit and eat pizza and drink beer. I would suggest they go to Paradiso, so we’re starting without it. If it turns out that it’s something that people really want to do, and then we will apply for one and get a license.”

Just because the concept is fast-casual, doesn’t mean Gresser is modeling the service after Chipotle, like so many fast-casual restaurants do. At Veloce, customers will place their orders at a separate counter from where the dough is tossed and the pizzas are made.

There will be 15 to 20 seats inside the mostly white- and yellow-designed space, as well as patio seating to accommodate the same amount of diners outside.

“This is the exciting part, the last part of the construction where you see it really coming together,” says Gresser, who is getting ready for the opening.

“The way I’m thinking about this project is, it’s taking what we know really, really intimately and have done for so long, and kind of making it brand new. … It’s kind of like renewing your marriage vows and moving at the same time.”

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