Not many chefs serving Naples-style pizza can say they spent their entire pre-adult life walking Napoli streets, including the ancient via dei Tribunali, stepping through the intoxicating smells of freshly baked pizza wafting from the windows of the most legendary pizzerias in the world.
Pupatella Founder and Head Chef Enzo Algarme was born where pizza was born.
However, his path to Pupatella was not a straight line (See FRK exclusive interview with Chef Enzo). At age 18, Enzo moved more than 4,500 miles from Italy to the D.C. Metro Area to attend George Mason University as a biology/pre-med major. He coasted through his first four years, graduated in 2004, and worked a couple interesting medical-related jobs – one as an assistant to a surgeon and one as an embryologist – but the conventional path of moving on to med school and becoming a doctor didn’t feel right.
Those familiar with his hometown Naples, Italy’s unofficial capital of the south or “Mezzogiorno,” know it as a gritty, working class – some say dangerous – city, where you need ambition, focus, and innovation to stand out and become successful. As a young man, Enzo looked up to those in his city that paved their own paths to success, and always dreamt of creating something that he could call his own – to one day become a successful entrepreneur. Right before his moment of clarity, he asked himself what he was most passionate about, at which point he drew upon his roots as a Neapolitan to guide his choice of business. He set out to be a bona fide “pizzaiolo” (pizza chef) like the ones he had grown up around, with the goal of serving the best, most authentic Naples-style pizza in the D.C. Metro Area.
In 2005, he went back to Naples to apprentice at Pizzeria Del Presidente, learning from the late, great Ernesto Cacialli and his staff. The few months he spent with the master pizza maker would prove more valuable than his four years of formal education at GMU, as he received the foundational skills to become one of the best at his craft.
In 2007, Enzo and his fiancé at the time, Anastasiya started selling pizzas out of a modest food cart at the Ballston Metro Station in Arlington, Virginia. He called the business “Pupatella,” which was his grandmother’s nickname, an Italian term of endearment meaning, “little doll.” It was during this time, the eatery’s rabid fan base grew exponentially. In 2010, Enzo moved Pupatella from food cart to a brick and mortar restaurant. Ever since, Pupatella has received continuous recognition as one of the best pizza shops in America, earning countless accolades, including Eater’s 38 Essential Pizzerias Across America and TODAY Food’s 10 Best Pizza Places in the U.S.
Pupatella is one of only five pizzerias in the DC Metro Area to be certified by the Assozione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN), a legal Italian entity that ensures that each certified pizzeria observes strict traditional Neapolitan pizza making rules. The distinction is held by only 97 pizzerias throughout the United States. To put that in perspective, there are nearly 77,000 pizzerias in the country.
Since the first time I visited three years ago, Pupatella has more than doubled their dining area. This includes a comfortable outside eating area. I am guessing they can accommodate around 50 diners at one time. Pupatella recreates the feel of a hip, retro pizzeria in Naples, with a charismatic mix of dark wood and stainless steel furniture, pastel blue walls, and white, yellow, and red globes providing additional lighting to an abundantly sun-lit area. As a nod to the graffiti-clad walls in his home town, Enzo invited local artists to tag a portion of his wall. Everything in the restaurant seems to revolve around the bright red brick oven with yellow bricks spelling out the store’s namesake. The oven is the heart of the place and underscores Pupatella’s Neapolitan authenticity. A few feet away from the brick oven are neon angel wings illuminating a photograph of Enzo’s late grandmother, who inspired the name of the restaurant.
I am not normally the type that orders the same meal every time I go to a restaurant, but whenever I hit Pupatella, I absolutely need to get the Margherita D.O.C.* I could order eight other pies and arancini balls, but one item on my table has to be Enzo’s OG recipe. As shown in our video on Pupatella that includes an Enzo’s eye view, the Margherita D.O.C. is simply made, but executed perfectly.
I urge you to eat the pizza as intended – unsliced and with a fork and knife. Trying it this way gives you a different experience and increases your chances of starting from the outer perimeter versus inside. As you bite into it this way, you feel and hear the crunch of the slightly charred crust. Then as you get to the narrower parts of the slice, you sink into the chewier canvas covered with sweet San Marzano tomato sauce, occasionally being rewarded by a basil leaf or piece of buffalo mozzarella. Perfection.
Pupatella also offers 13 other red pizzas, nine white pizzas, friggatoria, salads, and appetizers that are also worth trying. I have not ordered anything here that I did not love. Also, if you have a sweet tooth, get a scoop of their housemade gelato.
Conclusion and Rating
Whether you are in the D.C. Metro area or not, do yourself a favor and visit Pupatella. This is the best Neapolitan pizza I’ve ever eaten, and after hearing his story, it makes every bite even more special.
*Denomination of control, a special designation given by AVPN to recognize strict requirements that respect the tradition of the art of Neapolitan pizza making
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