Metro Weekly

Fired Up

Matchbox serves inventive pizzas and enticing entrees

Amazing things are happening to downtown dining, notably last year’s roll-out in Chinatown of another addition to an ever-growing list of popular new eateries near the MCI Center. Now Matchbox, a 75-seat, three-level gem, is cranking out thin-crusted pizzas and enticing entrées to a following of devoted fans.

Although nestled in a narrow row house, Matchbox feels anything but confining, with stairways ascending to two upper-level loft areas creating lots of open spaces. Oak tables with inlaid vintage matchboxes — from co-owner Perry Smith’s own collection — carry the namesake theme along with the flaming match head prints adorning the walls.

Matchbox’s custom-built oven can reach a top temperature of 900 degrees, and with its burning combination of oak, hickory, cherry, and even mahogany, you’re unlikely to find a crispier crust anywhere.

As with many pizza menus, diners here may opt for chef-selected topping combinations or get creative and build their own. Chef Graig Glufling, who previously cooked at Vidalia and Poste, has assembled an imaginative array of combos, including a few in keeping with the incendiary theme. Fire and Smoke, with its pairing of roasted peppers and smoked Gouda cheese topped with a near-flaming chipotle-tomato sauce, is the most excitement I’ve tasted in a pizza in years. Another winner is the Chicken Pesto, richly herbed with basil, which only fell short once recently when the generous chunks of chicken breast were rather dried out.

For palates that crave more than pizza, Matchbox’s appetizers are gaining fame. Chief among them are the mini-burgers made with Angus beef and presented on a plate heaped with a pile of lacy onion rings. Available in quantities of three, six, or nine to a plate, these grilled beauties could easily be a full meal.

Fried calamari looked a bit disappointing when it arrived as a salad topped with the mollusks, but it quickly revealed itself to be more enticing than expected. Strewn among the curly, crisp frisée are sautéed red onions and roasted red peppers all nicely splashed with balsamic vinegar. The overall effect is lighter and tastier than the usual mound of fried calamari. Another great choice is the steamed mussels — fresh, garlicky, and very plentiful.

Most places with a pizza oven are unlikely to turn out entrées as wonderful as Matchbox’s. The grilled pork loin, cooked to order and bursting with smoky flavors, is paired with a satisfyingly complementary bourbon cream sauce. Sides of fried polenta and asparagus with sun-dried tomatoes top off this memorable selection.

Seafood entrees entice as well. Crispy rockfish topped with rock shrimp is exquisite, and shares the plate with a clever potato and pancetta hash that had us wishing for more. Pancetta, a fabulous Italian bacon, is unusual in that it’s cured with herbs and salt, not by smoking.

In the mood for pasta? Go for the farfalle tossed in olive oil with tender chicken and more of that wonderful pancetta. While seemingly a simple dish, the blending of these fresh ingredients and herbs makes for a winning combination.

713 H Street NW
Appetizers $6-$11
Entrées $15-$21
Pizzas $11-$16
Mon.-Thur. 11:30am-10pm
Fri. & Sat. 11:30am-11pm
Closed Sundays

If you don’t have room for dessert, at least share one with your dining companions — the delightful chocolate chip bread pudding with caramelized bananas and a creamy rum sauce will make everyone wish they had one all to themselves. All the desserts, including chocolate roulade and various flavors of sorbet, are made in house and outshine most mid-priced restaurant sweets.

It can be a little hard to hear when Matchbox is crowded, as it so often is. But come here for the food and save the serious conversation for another time. With a fine selection of great pizzas, savory entrées and delectable desserts, you’ll wish you’d found Matchbox sooner.