WASHINGTON — Ruth Gresser was watching an old episode of the 1990s sitcom “Mad About You,” when something caught her attention. It wasn’t the teased hair and questionable clothing choices — it was a green can of shakable Parmesan cheese that Helen Hunt was sprinkling on her pasta.
“What has happened in 25 years for food is absolutely phenomenal,” Gresser said about the actor’s choice in cheese.
Yes, when it comes to food, a lot has changed since the 1990s. Conventional now competes with artisan and “local” gives “big ag” a run for its money.
But one thing has remained the same: Pizzeria Paradiso.
In 1991, Gresser, a fine-dining chef, left the world of white tablecloths. She wanted to open a restaurant that was “more accessible to people,” so she traded in bearnaise for a brick oven and opened Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle.
“Nobody was doing a restaurant that was focused on pizza in a wood-burning oven, and so it seemed like a great time and a great idea,” said Gresser, who wanted to show Washingtonians a style of pizza that was different from delivery.
Gresser explains that Neapolitan-style pizza focuses on the crust. It cooks in a wood-fueled oven at a high temperature for a short period of time.
“American-style pizza, generally the crust is not as important. The toppings are really the focus, and our pizza is the opposite,” she said.
In addition to serving a new style of pizza at Paradiso, Gresser decided to showcase beers other than Budweiser. From day one, her taps were pouring craft beer — an anomaly in the 90s.
It was a box of Chimay outside of the new Georgetown restaurant that caught Thor Cheston’s eye in 2003. Back then, the Georgetown University student’s interest in beer was just beginning to pique, and the sign lured him into the restaurant to apply for a job.
At Paradiso, Cheston quickly rose through the ranks of host to bartender, and eventually approached Gresser with an idea. The basement dining room was being used for overflow on the weekends, but during the week it went untouched. Cheston, now the co-founder and co-owner of D.C.’s Right Proper Brewing Company, proposed that Gresser turn it into a craft beer bar.
“My argument was if people are going to pay more for Bell and Evans chicken at Whole Foods, then they’re going to pay a little bit more for a better glass of beer,” Cheston said.
Gresser agreed — “Pizza and beer is an obvious marriage,” she said — and Cheston got to work, calling breweries and ordering “beers I had only read about.” The two put together a list of roughly 150 bottles and several drafts, and overnight Pizzeria Paradiso became known as one of the city’s best beer bars.
“It was definitely needed at the time,” said Cheston about the lack of area establishments serving craft beer.
“Pizza and beer [used to mean] a Michelob and Domino’s or something, and now it can mean pretty much anything,” Gresser said about Pizzeria Paradiso’s success pairing pizza and beer.
Since then, D.C. has welcomed a number of other brick-oven pizza restaurants and craft beer bars, but it was Paradiso that paved the way.
“Twenty-five years ago, [Gresser] was doing things that no one else was, and it’s really a testament to her hard work that she’s still around,” Cheston said.
Gresser added: “I think that one of the reasons we’ve been successful over the years is that what we did in 1991 is we opened a high-quality food-focused restaurant that was driven by a chef in a more casual atmosphere. And that’s sort of what has grown exponentially in the last 25 years.”
The city has also seen an uptick in the number of female chefs.
“The position of being a woman in the kitchen in 1991 — there were…fewer of us. And that has really been the big change for women in the last 25 years is that there are a lot more women in the food industry and in restaurants,” Gresser said.
However, she notes that there is still a shortage of women executive chefs and restaurant owners.
“That glass ceiling still exists,” she said.
To celebrate 25 years, Gresser — who also owns the fast-casual pizza concept, Veloce — is serving a handful of Pizzeria Paradiso’s most beloved dishes at 1991 prices from Nov. 14 through Nov. 20 at all three locations.
The Paradiso Pizza will cost $6.95, an insalata mista will cost $3.95 and the mozzarella fresca will cost $3.95.
Gresser will also host a Trappist Beer Dinner on Nov. 17 and hold a “year of pizza” drawing throughout the week, which, as the name suggests, will award a lucky winner free pizza and beer once a week for a year.
While many credit Gresser with being a pioneer in D.C.’s dining industry, she credits her employees and the community with Pizzeria Paradiso’s overall success.
“It’s probably been the most gratifying part of the last 25 years is to be able to work with and serve and nourish,” she said. “To be a part of people’s lives in the way that we have been over these years has been just an honor.”
Pizzeria Paradiso’s “throwback menu,” available Nov. 14-20:
Paradiso Pizza, $6.95
Paradiso tomato sauce and mozzarella
Panino di Arrosto di Verdure, $4.95
Roasted vegetables (eggplant, sweet peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, garlic) with pecorino and balsamic vinaigrette
Panino di Arrosto di Agnello, $5.95
Herb and garlic roasted lamb, roasted vegetables, mixed greens and Dijon mustard
Insalata Mista, $3.25
Mixed greens with balsamic vinaigrette
Mozzarella Fresca, $3.95
Mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes, basil and olive oil
Variety of house made Italian cookies
Selection of house made ice cream