"When we created this business, the commonality was our fondest memories growing up," &pizza co-owner Steve Salis says of the chain that has rocketed to popularity in D.C. over the past 17 months.
Salis and partner Michael Lastoria opened H &pizza (1118 H St. NE) in July 2012, bringing their vision of the classic pizzeria with a modern twist to the District. Aiming to shake up the pizza game (which Salis calls "stale" and "[lacking] innovation"), &pizza has done to the the pizza parlor what Quentin Tarantino did to the crime genre with Pulp Fiction. Rather than sell pizza by the slice or the standard, circular pie, the restaurant offers long, rectangular pizza. Customers can build their own, or tweak the suggested pies that are offered and watch as they're prepared.
"The whole idea about the individuality of our pies was strictly a result of fast-forwarding to the future and thinking that, given all of the potential health or dietary restrictions, it makes less sense to be sharing pizzas with each other or to be able to purchase a slice of a pre-made pizza," says Lastoria.
However, Salis and Lastoria know that letting customers choose their pizza isn't what makes their business unique. "You’ve always been able to customize pizza, the difference today is that the experience has to be more visual," Lastoria acknowledges. "The assembly line just sort of facilitates that because it allows the opportunity for customers to get creative, then share that creativity with others [through social media] which brings other people into the store because they feel like they can have some ownership over what it is that they’re building."
Prior to relocating from New York in 2011, they targeted D.C. after identifying it as an evolving market that was the perfect match for their concept. "It seems like the marketplace has been predominantly driven by government and law, but I think the market is becoming more well-rounded and the hospitality industry is definitely an emerging one," Salis explains.
In the wake of H &pizza's success, they opened another location along the historic U Street Corridor (1250 U St. NW). What's comforting about the &pizza brand is the genuine respect for the neighborhoods that the restaurants inhabit. While D.C.'s recent "gentrification overdrive" reflects economic growth, it's alienated some longtime residents, resulting in a burgeoning gap between new and old. That's not what &pizza is about.