For the Exploring Comfort Food miniseries, WTOP interviewed D.C.-area chefs on their favorite comfort foods, and how the tastes and smells from life experiences influence the way they cook and eat today.
Daniela Moreira still remembers the hunger and frustration she felt walking 20 blocks home nearly every afternoon. The school she attended in Argentina didn’t serve lunch, so most students returned home for the midday meal.
“I would be cranky all day because I hated school, but once I opened the door to my house and smelled the frying of milanesas, that was heaven. It’s the thing I miss most of my mom’s cooking,” Moreira said about the breaded and fried chicken dish her mother made often.
“Then just coming to her, hugging her and smelling garlic on her hands. That smell just reminds me of her.”
Food played a prominent role in Moreira’s upbringing. Her mother and grandmother — who Moreira said made “the best lasagna I ever had” — ran a restaurant on the campground that her parents owned and operated in the central province of Cordoba. Moreira and her siblings were recruited to pitch in, and cooking became a chore.
“So when all the kids were playing in the river, I had to be helping out. This was in the middle of the summer, afternoons; it was a pain. So no, I did not like cooking,” Moreira said.
She also didn’t love school, so when it came time to start thinking about college, Moreira proposed culinary school, instead. Only then did she realize her talent in the kitchen, and the more she studied food, the more she grew to love it.
Today, Moreira is the executive chef behind Timber Pizza and Call Your Mother — two D.C. restaurants that have received national recognition. Both establishments include a few nods to Moreira’s Argentine roots, like the empanadas at Timber and the alfajores at Call Your Mother.
But the menus really hone in on the childhood comfort foods of her business partner and boyfriend, Andrew Dana, a Northwest D.C. native.
“I’ve always had strong emotions toward warm carbohydrates,” said Dana, who left a job in marketing to open Timber Pizza in D.C.’s Petworth neighborhood in 2016.
The idea to leave his 9-to-5 to start a restaurant came from Dana’s father, a successful D.C. lawyer who made weekend bagel runs a family tradition and who frequently told his kids, “I should have opened a deli.”
“You know, most kids want to be like their dad, so I stole that tagline and said ‘pizza place’ … And it started as a sort of a joke, I think. It was, ‘Oh, I’m going to go into marketing, but I really want to open a pizza restaurant.’ And just the more I hated my job, the more I thought that would be fun,” Dana said.
In 2017, Bon Appétit named Timber Pizza “Pizzeria of the Year” for its fresh, farmers-market take on wood-fired pies. In 2018, Dana and Moreira went on to open their second concept, Call Your Mother, a Jewish-style deli with bagel sandwiches and creative takes on classic lunch fare, like a pastrami-style cheesesteak, pastrami fried rice and Jewish tacos (brisket, pastrami, cheese, jalapeños, cilantro, onion and lime on a corn tortilla).
“We just put stuff on the menu that we really dig, and [stuff that] we’re eating,” said Dana, who also opened a by-the-slice pizza outpost with Moreira earlier this year in Arlington, Virginia’s Ballston Quarter Market.
“And that’s sort of the extent of it. I wish I could say there was some like board room with a white board where we’re drawing out why a taco makes sense on the menu, but truly at its core, we make stuff that we like.”
As bold and bread-heavy as their food is at work, Dana and Moreira like to keep the food scene light and simple at home, by throwing something on the grill or ordering takeout. (Brownie sundaes also make a frequent appearance around the house.) Simple, however, does not mean meals are overlooked.
“It’s sort of how we unwind at the end of the day. So comfort food really is at the core of everything we do,” Dana said.
“I think the vision of a warm piece of naan wrapped around some butter chicken at the end of the day is what keeps us together sometimes.”