Matchless Pizza
[from September 2003 issue]

Twirled in the air by pros, the authentic pizza pie may rank as one of man's best food friends. That there are loads of pizzerias making cheesy claims about their pies' superiority only adds a certain cachet to this economical meal-in-one. With stiff competition in every neighborhood, it would seem there is not much room for yet another pizza place.

Well, there is. It may not win the award for the smallest restaurant in town, but matchbox (no typo here; management wants it this way!)--just around the corner from the MCI Center--could brave the pizza wars and come away decked out with blue ribbons.

Pizzas---thin-crusted, New York-style pizzas---are what make this place tick, and smoke from its wood-burning brick oven mingles freely with that from the BBQ place almost next door. Chinatown now has the aroma of a Wyoming campfire.

matchbox is just one of the latest of interesting eateries to open up near DC's sports arena, and it offers a valid alternative to uptown, cross-town or downtown pizza places. Pies include such classics as the Portobello mushroom, spicy meatball, veggie, and the sausage-and-onion pizzas.

A small one of the sausage pies at $11 makes a great dinner for one or appetizer for two, but offers nothing outlandish or outrageous---just a good crust dripping a fair amount of melted mozzarella paired with pieces of sweet Italian sausage. A quirkier choice would be their matchbox meat pie, which assembles pepperoni, sausage and prosciutto with a drizzle of tomato sauce baked on a crust. On the other hand, the fire & smoke pizza may take the prize: fire-roasted red peppers with chipotle chilies and smoked gouda atop a thin crust.

Pizzas are not the only game---though with a wood-burning oven at work, these seem an obvious choice. But there's more: Their Bistro Burger fits neatly onto a brioche roll dripping with melted gorgonzola and it is heavenly accompanied by a sizzling side of skin-on fries and a fat pickle spear. This adds up to 10 ounces of ground Angus beef, so you know the meat will be outstanding.

Other sandwiches offered include grilled chicken breast, warm vegetarian with the requisite mushrooms and roasted red peppers, and Italian cold cuts--all of the above on toasted ciabatta.

Want something sturdier? A very short section of the menu lists such entrées as chicken farfalle, grilled salmon, grilled sirloin, and a spicy pecan-crusted chicken breast with mashed potatoes from their upstairs kitchen. With one of these main meals, you may want to dress up dinner and kick off your meal with their mozzi carrozzi, an ultra-caloric fried-mozzarella cheese-and-bread treat with tomato sauce.

I can heartily recommend the chopped salad, a retro dish that makes the garden-variety house salad seem uninspired, for here this chopped creation tosses together thin slices of pasta with diced tomatoes and crispy bacon.

Odds are good that the fried calamari will be crisp, and the unusual 3-6-9 Mini Burgers, priced according to the number of burgers you order, puts an unusual spin on having it all: You can start with small burgers, and order up the larger size for dinner.

Really disappointing is the absence of tempting sweets. A choice of ice creams or a chocolate chip bread pudding may appeal to some, but this high-class casual menu begs for a confection worthy of the meal. Toss in a warmed apple cobbler, lemon meringue pie or chocolate fudge cake, and a matchbox meal would win kudos from the dining public and sports fans alike. But until that day comes along, I'll be content with a hot pizza and a chilled coke, and--from my seat at the gleaming wood bar downstairs--wonder about the stairway that climbs upward and away.

Tip: seating is best where all the action is--that is, where the pie baking and drink making go on and on right downstairs. And then . . . let the games begin!

matchbox, 713 H St. NW; tel., 289-4441 ( Pizza entrée prices, $11-$17; other entrées, $14-$21. Hours: 11:30am-10 or 11pm (sometimes to 1:30am). Major credit cards accepted.

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