Imperatives 4 - The Pines of Rome
My dad follows DC-area real estate news and for several years he has warned me that the Pines of Rome might not be around for much longer. Properties adjacent to it, he told me, had been sold to developers. Ultimately, he said, someone would purchase the Pines of Rome’s building because it’s in the center of what could be one big development. I've lived in New York City for many years, so I'm no stranger to the phenomenon of long-beloved restaurants and shops closing not because they aren't doing good business, but because they don't own their buildings and the rents are about to skyrocket.
But last November, when my dad dropped the bomb on me — that the Pines of Rome’s building had in fact been sold — my feeling of devastation far exceeded that which I'd felt for any similar loss here in New York.
If I had to whittle down my childhood food experiences of memory to the most important one, without doubt it would be the culmination of my visits — and all of the food I’ve eaten — at the Pines of Rome over the years.
Enter the Pines of Rome in Bethesda, Maryland, and you feel like you’ve just stepped back to 1975. I refer not only to the decor (wood paneled walls, blue plastic table coverings, vintage posters promoting travel to Pisa, Rome, and the Florence), but also to that amazing feeling many of us of had, of experiencing pizza for the first time — not frozen pizza, but homemade, fresh authentic pizza — and of being a child who gets to eat in a restaurant where the owner and employees there know you (and by they know you, I mean that they know you well enough to correctly predict what you’re going to have before you’ve said anything; of course, they don’t bother to bring you menus).
Even today, decades after first opening its doors in 1972, the Pines of Rome continues to serve excellent pizza and other Italian and Italian-American standards. Its prices remain inexpensive compared to other restaurants in the area (a large pizza is $12.95 and, I swear, it had been $7.50 for at least 10 or 15 years, well into the ‘00s). Many folks — us, and plenty of others included — returned again and again, at least once a week, for decades. (I find it strange that since the late 1980s, food writers have in essence ignored the Pines of Rome. Rarely is anything written about the place, even though it's been going strong, both food-wise and crowds-wise, throughout its existence.
Did the waiter named Pepe, who supported his family and put his kids through college with his earnings from the Pines of Rome (and he still works there) always bring the food too fast? Yes. Did it bother me? Not at all. We learned to order in increments.
Did the Pines of Rome offer all sorts of things that were not on the menu, not on the specials board, but popular with the regulars? Of course.
Was there ever a time when we went there and my parents did not run into people they knew, thereby delaying our chance to sit down and get things underway? No, never. Good thing the waiter was Pepe.
The Pines of Rome’s red pizza is thin, has a crispy bottom, an even crispier edge, and a perfect amount of juicy tomatoes that get built onto the pizza atop the cheese by being pressed in by hand — a method I’ve seen just once before, at Pizzeria Angelo e Simonetta, in Rome. (Click above photo for a peek at pizza-making at the Pines of Rome.)
The Pines of Rome’s white pizza, which is made with two types of fontina (Italian and Swedish — each contributes a different flavor and level of oiliness, according to Marco Troiano, the owner), is as important to the menu as the red pizza is. For some reason, it is cut into squares that get stacked onto a small plate so that — if not grabbed quickly enough — they can stick to each other. Fortunately, the Pines of Rome’s white pizza is too addictive for that to ever happen — especially when paired with strips of garlicky, parsley-laden roasted red peppers, which we like to lay on top (my brother invented this move years ago; kudos, Jeffrey :-).
I have brought Pines of Rome pizzas and roasted red peppers back to New York many times before. But when I heard that the building had been sold, I began to stockpile both pizza types in my freezer — and even more than what would fit in my inadequate New York apartment freezer, in my parents’ otherwise empty basement freezer back in DC. Now, my supply is running low. I may have to road-trip just to replenish. Because the end is near and customers haven’t been told when that’ll be, the final bomb could drop any day. Any day!!
One time last year, I invited my friend Scott Wiener (a bona fide pizza expert — he conducts history-laden pizza tours in New York and is in the Guinness Book for the size of his pizza box collection) over to my place for some Pines of Rome pizza from my freezer. Pretty bold of me, given that I was feeding him pizza out of a freezer. He liked it, though he told me that he enjoyed witnessing me and my love for this pizza as much as he enjoyed the pizza itself. Oh: he couldn’t get enough of the roasted red peppers-white pizza combo. (He wrote about the experience on his own blog, here it is.)
Every meal we’ve ever had at the Pines of Rome has included both types of pizza, those peppers, some salad, maybe some fried zucchini with lemon, and bread. But that’s just the first course. Then we all get mains. My favorite thing to get is the shrimp parmigiana. In fact, this is the shrimp parmigiana by which I judge all shrimp parmigiana. It features three large, butterflied shrimp that have been fried and then baked with a covering of mozzarella and tomato sauce. The shrimp have perfect crunch.
In case you haven’t yet surmised, when we eat at the Pines, I eat to excess. It’s been going on this way for such a long time that I actually blame the Pines of Rome on my tendency to overeating certain foods. It’s an issue that I’ve worked hard at controlling over the years. Now I’m in my late 40s and I’ve developed a sensitivity to overeating and to high acid foods (ie. cooked tomatoes); I can’t get away with eating and overeating the way that I once did. But I’d take indigestion, gassiness, or acid reflux any day over the prospect of losing the Pines of Rome and therefore not being able to overeat there.
The fact is, sadly, I don’t get a choice. I would like to beg Marco to open again in another location. (Maybe he will, but he’s pretty tight-lipped about everything except what’s on special.) I wouldn’t even care if the decor in a new location came out looking plastic and fake — heck, it could look like the Molly Pitcher rest stop on the Turnpike for all I care. But I don’t get a choice. Real estate development means “progress” — or, at least it does for the developers and their investors. And in the case of the Pines of Rome, it's not a question of "if," it's a question of "when."
I hope that people will never lose their desire for real places that aren’t all about money but are instead focused on staying true to what regular people want out of a restaurant: consistency, recognition and conviviality for being a regular customer (if you are), fair prices, and — in the case of the Pines of Rome — red pizza with its crispy edge and hand-pressed tomatoes, and (duh) white pizza with fontina stacked one square atop another such that the pieces would get stuck if not eaten quickly enough. Of course, there’s no chance that will happen. At least not at the Pines.
THE PINES OF ROME ESSENTIALS
Who: Founded in 1972 by Marco Troiano, currently operated by him and his sons.
What it is: A vintage '70s Italian-American restaurant on a non-descript block in Bethesda, MD. Its several dining rooms are routinely packed with generations of regular customers.
Why go: Dependable and affordable Italian & Italian-American food that emphasizes simplicity. Excellent restaurant pizza. Be sure to have regular ("red") pizza and the white pizza (it's made with two types of fontina). Roasted peppers (appetizer) in conjunction with white pizza is a killer combo. Of the entrees: shrimp parmigiana, eggplant parmigiana, broiled whole fish (type varies), soft shell crabs with pasta (when in season). Also, a solid salad (not fancy).
Why go soon: The building has reportedly been sold, so the restaurant will probably be there only for the duration of its current lease — and no news has been forthcoming about when that is.
Important Tip: When ordering pasta, be sure to specify "al dente."
411: 4709 Hampden Lane (near Wisconsin Avenue) in Bethesda, MD. Tel. 301-657-8775. Metro: Red Line to Bethesda. Map The Pines of Rome. Hours: Sunday - Thursday: 11:30 am - 9:30 pm; Fri - Sat: 11:30 am - 10:30 pm.