Metro Weekly

The Divine Art of Pizza: Pizzeria Paradiso’s Ruth Gresser

Gresser pioneered gourmet pizza in D.C., and served it with a side of community spirit.

Ruth Gresser: Pizzeria Paradiso — Photo: Todd Franson

The trick to making restaurant-quality pizza at home? Use your oven’s broiler. “Get your oven as hot you possibly can, and use the broiler to cook it,” says Ruth Gresser. “Then just turn it down to the highest bake setting. It gives a nice rise to the crust.”

Gresser goes into greater detail in Kitchen Workshop – Pizza: Hands-On Cooking Lessons for Making Amazing Pizza at Home, the step-by-step cookbook she penned in 2013. However, the acclaimed chef is quick to concede that it may not work. “Some ovens will not be successful just because they won’t get hot enough.”

Still, if you use a pizza stone and the broiler, the finished product should approximate the kind you’ve savored over for years at Pizzeria Paradiso. We’re talking high-quality, Neapolitan-style pizza baked in a 650-degree wood-burning oven — the kind you may or may not eat with a knife and fork, but you certainly can’t buy by the slice.

These days, gourmet pizzas can be found throughout the D.C. area. Yet few match the quality — and even fewer the reputation — of Gresser’s Pizzeria Paradiso, which now serves five area neighborhoods, including Old Town Alexandria and Upper Northwest’s Spring Valley.

Earlier this year, Gresser garnered recognition from the James Beard Foundation, the restaurant industry’s leading arbiter, when it selected her as a semifinalist for the James Beard Award as Outstanding Restaurateur. “I’ve worked on a national level with Women Chefs and Restaurateurs and with the James Beard Foundation, so I understand that my world is bigger than the four walls of my restaurants,” Gresser says. “This award reminded me that what I do impacts the larger world. It’s very gratifying.”

And Gresser has been engaging with the world more and more, in ways that go beyond pizza. All year long, for example, she’s been spearheading the “United States of Pizza: Women’s Slice of the Pie.” The promotion honors states that have elected women to top political jobs with individually themed pizzas, the implied aim being to encourage more women to engage in politics and lead our country.

“I don’t feel like what I do is political,” Gresser says, downplaying a suggestion that the promotion is partially inspired by politics. “But I was raised with a strong sense of responsibility to goodness.”

Called “Momma Ruth” by some of her staff, the 60-year-old cites those very employees — now numbering 170, including part-timers — as a key reason for Pizzeria Paradiso’s success and rapid expansion in recent years. Although there are no set plans, she doesn’t deny that there might be more new locations in the pipeline.

“Anything is possible,” she smiles, warmly. “If you had told me five years ago that this is where we’d be today, I wouldn’t have believed it.”\

Ruth Gresser: Pizzeria Paradiso — Photo: Todd Franson

METRO WEEKLY: Let’s start with the “United States of Pizza: Women’s Slice of the Pie.” It’s a great idea.

RUTH GRESSER: It’s a promotional idea that’s really about women’s leadership — it’s not really about politics. What we’re doing is picking one state a week, and we’re highlighting the women in leadership at the top level from that state — so the governor, U.S. Senator, and U.S. Representative. And both parties are represented. It’s just that they are women, because there are a lot of statistics that women lead differently and the results are better. And because we’re in Washington, it all fits together. This is a way to just focus on women in politics — which of course was the big theme of the last election and the Year of the Woman. I’m 60 years old, I’ve lived through several Year of the Woman elections. So that was really my motivation for doing it — I wasn’t ready to let go of the idea of women’s leadership. I just wanted to keep that conversation alive.

MWIt’s important to note that not every state will get its own week and pizza. Nearly a dozen states will be snubbed, because voters have yet to elect a single woman to a top office in recent elections.

GRESSER: Right, and I’m from Maryland — I was raised with Barbara Mikulski, who always represented Maryland in one way or the other. And now she’s retired, and there aren’t any women in those positions, so Maryland doesn’t get a week, which is very sad for me.

MW: The promotion must help keep your creative juices flowing, as you work to identify appropriate toppings for each pizza.

GRESSER: It’s been interesting to do the research about each state. Each pizza either focuses on a product from that state or a dish. For example, the Washington state pizza had apples, and for California we did cioppino, the seafood stew that was created in San Francisco.

Along the way, a few of the weeks we’ve made donations to organizations that are related to the pizzas. When the Georgia legislature and governor passed the very stringent anti-abortion laws, we were highlighting Georgia just by chance, and the governor of Georgia is a woman. And so, we got a lot of pushback about why we are highlighting this woman. It was completely by chance that those two things coincided. There were some people who said to me, “You should take her off the special sheet.” Because on our sheet, we say what the pizza is, what the state is, and who the women are. I said, “I can’t — I’m not rewriting history. We have to deal with all of it.” So what we decided to do was make a donation to Planned Parenthood from some of the revenue from those pizzas. And Missouri and Arkansas are in that category, too.

In September, we’re going to do a D.C. pizza, highlighting Eleanor Holmes Norton and Muriel Bowser. And we’re going to run it the week that the House has its statehood hearings for D.C. And we’re going to make a donation to DC Vote.

Pizzeria Paradiso — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: What will the toppings be?

GRESSER: It’ll probably be a half-smoke and chili pizza.

MW: You’ve been running this promotion since January.

GRESSER: Yes. We started a couple weeks into January, and we’ll end with U.S. territories taking us to the week before Thanksgiving. The interesting thing about the timing is that we will be able to get through all the states and the territories just in time to start the holiday promotion we’ve done for eight or nine years now. Starting the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas, we take spent grains from DC Brau and make them into a pizza crust. We charge a little extra for that pizza and proceeds from the extra revenue are donated to Bread For The City.

MWHow did you personally end up in D.C?

GRESSER: I’m from Baltimore, and I went a very circuitous route just to go 30 miles. I spent some time in New Hampshire working with a French chef, who had a cooking school and restaurant. Her name was Madeleine Kamman. And she placed me in a restaurant here in D.C., in the late 1980s.

I worked in a few restaurants here before I opened Paradiso in 1991. Now Neapolitan-style pizza, everybody knows about it. There are a lot of places that offer it. But we were the first one to do that kind of pizza in a wood-burning oven. I had been working in an Italian restaurant before opening Paradiso, and I wanted to step away from the high-end formal cooking that I’d been doing, and wanted a place that was more casual that my friends would come to. Pizza seemed like a great option.

Ruth Gresser: Pizzeria Paradiso — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: Your background is not Italian.

GRESSER: No, I’m Jewish-American from Eastern Europe, and then my grandmother was Roman Catholic from Ireland.

MW: That’s quite a mix.

GRESSER: Yeah, it was! My grandfather and my grandmother, in the 1920s — an Orthodox Jew and a Roman Catholic girl marrying, in Baltimore. They went to the Justice of the Peace and kept it under wraps for a while.

MW: Did you grow up cooking?

GRESSER: Yes. My family was a food family, and I cooked. My mother had a catering business for some of my teenage years, and my father owned a grocery store. My mother taught me about cooking, and my father taught me about business, without me really knowing that that’s what was happening, that they were preparing me for this.

I went to Grinnell College in Iowa, and graduated with an Economics degree. I came out in college and then moved to San Francisco. Which, not only was it the place to go if you were gay, but it also was the birthplace of New American cooking. And it was 1980, so it was the right time and the right place. My first job was working in a barbecue joint. And from there, I went to several neighborhood restaurants, where I was able to learn and also move up in the kitchen.

MW: Do you come from a big family?

GRESSER: I do. I have five brothers and sisters. We still get together. Familial bonds are very important, and I left in order to be a lesbian. I moved away from Baltimore when I went to college and didn’t come back until I was thirty. So I think there was a very clear reason why I needed to go and figure out what my life was going to look like before I could bring it back home.

Coming out has probably changed for at least some of our community — that your family will accept you more easily. I do have a niece who came out when she was 16, and she struggled only with the societal identity — within her family structure, it was completely accepted. No one had a problem with her being a lesbian, but she still had, I guess, internalized homophobia.

MW: You opened the first Pizzeria Paradiso in Dupont Circle and down the block from the current location. How did you come to be in that location and in the “gayborhood?”

GRESSER: It was actually a space that was right next door to the Italian restaurant where I was working, and it became available. And it was tiny — about 35 seats.

MW: I remember. It was hard to get a seat.

GRESSER: Yeah. And at that point — we’re talking 1991 — I was 32. It was the perfect-size investment for someone who was young and just starting out, and also because we were the first ones to do that kind of pizza, and that kind of idea — all of the things that are still the buzzwords of the food scene: chef-driven, local, fresh. We were really at the beginning of this movement. And it’s huge now. It’s crazy to think what’s happened over the course of my career.

Ruth Gresser: Pizzeria Paradiso — Photo: Todd Franson

MWYou’ve increased the number of Paradiso restaurants over the last decade, with two of the five locations opening in the last two years alone. What prompted the recent expansion?

GRESSER: I think a lot of it had to do with my team. Going from Dupont and then opening Georgetown, that was to give growth for the people who were working with me. That’s really been the biggest impetus — because in order to grow, you have to add more people to the organization, and then they’ll bring their own perspectives and ideas and desires. And they fit together. The whole beer program is really because people who are part of the organization have been instrumental in working with me to create it.

When we opened in Georgetown in the cellar, we used the name Birreria just to identify it. There was the Dupont restaurant that didn’t have much of a beer program, and then there was the Georgetown restaurant that had this whole thing. As we grew and we were able to make space where the bar is more integrated into the restaurant, the beer program is identified as the Birreria.

Ruth Gresser: Pizzeria Paradiso — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: And the cellar space in Georgetown, that’s now an arcade?

GRESSER: Yeah, I think we opened the Paradiso Game Room in January of 2018. So that space was transformed, but the beer program in Georgetown remains. And the upstairs bar has the broad selection, and the downstairs space has a smaller selection that’s more focused on canned craft beer.

MW: I know each location is slightly different. Do you have a favorite?

GRESSER: [Laughs.] A mother’s not allowed to have a favorite. They all have their own personality, and I like things about all of them. Georgetown is the largest, and Dupont has a fondness — it’s odd, because even though it’s moved, it still feels like the center for me. They all take on the personality of the neighborhood where they live.

MW: The two-year-old Hyattsville Paradiso has a kind of personal significance in that it shares the building with the nonprofit Art Works Now, run by Barbara Johnson, your wife.

GRESSER: My spouse. I had a radical feminist youth, and the idea of the word “wife” — it’s been hard, historically, to be a wife, so I choose to use the word “spouse.” My spouse uses the word wife, so we have that conversation often. “Dyke” wasn’t a positive word ever before, so she’s like, “We need to reclaim that word. We need to reclaim ‘wife’ and define it not as property and lesser-than.” But I’m not there yet.

MW: Is it true that you and Barbara started dating relatively soon after you opened the original restaurant?

GRESSER: A year after. We will have been together for 27 years come Labor Day weekend. We had an illegal wedding on our 12th anniversary — we had a gathering and a party, the ceremony, everything but the license. And we got legally married in Maryland on our 21st anniversary.

MWIs marriage something you had thought much about?

GRESSER: I never thought about it. In fact, I was anti-marriage. For me it changed about a month after our illegal wedding, because my spouse and I were going through a difficult time. And had we not just pronounced our commitment to each other in front of our community, I think it would have been easier for us to say, “This is enough.” But marriage is hard, you know? I mean, we’ve been together for 27 years, and nothing is wonderful for 27 years. Nothing is. So often, people just choose, when it gets tough, you end. And that could’ve happened to us. And I think when it didn’t, and when we remained committed to each other, it changed my understanding of what marriage could be. I think that’s the ideal. And now 27 years into it, we’re very, very, very happy together. It’s really nice. I’m very fortunate.

Pizzeria Paradiso — Photo: Todd Franson

MW: Do you see the company continuing to expand and adding more locations in the coming years?

GRESSER: What I see as my role at this point is to figure out how Paradiso outlives me. I’ve been doing it for almost 30 years, and the world is different. It needs to stay relevant to people who weren’t even around when we opened. After 30 years in my role, it’s time for the organization to start moving past me.

It’s like an executive director of a non-profit and finding the succession plan — that’s where I am. What I created over the last 30 years is a community and a family. And even though the people change, the feeling that was created has remained. I absolutely think there’s room for it to grow. A community can always get larger, and a community that’s based on respect and nurturing and support and kindness should get bigger, so we’ll see. We’ll see if I’m successful in helping make that happen.

MW: So five years from now, you may no longer be the head of the company?

GRESSER: I see myself continuing to be the leader, but with less day-to-day responsibility. Frankly, not working as hard.

MW: Has your job gotten harder or busier with the new locations?

GRESSER: My job has changed so much. I don’t know if I’m busier. I’m absolutely less busy than I was the year after we opened the original restaurant, when I was working 100 to 120 hours a week. My favorite story to tell is sleeping in the restaurant one night because I was just too late to drive home, and I had to be back too early. And I wore a Paradiso tee shirt and jeans — that was my uniform. And in Dupont Circle, right across the street was Luster Cleaners. I used to take them my laundry so that they would wash my clothes, because I didn’t have time. It was a very interesting lesson in what our needs are, what’s really necessary. At that point, I worked so much that there was nothing auxiliary.

A couple of weeks before I met Barbara, my brother died. And I was away from the restaurant for a day and a half. And I learned that I could be away from the restaurant for a day and a half. And that made an opening, frankly, for Barbara, who came in during that period. Probably a month earlier, I wouldn’t have even seen her. There wasn’t space in my world for anything else except the restaurant.

MWDo you ever get tired of pizza?

GRESSER: Well, I’m going to say it this way. There are periods where I won’t eat pizza for a while. But pizza is bread with stuff on top that’s baked, and you eat it with your fingers. It’s like everything good about food all in one. And you can go from cantaloupe to olives. I mean, you can put anything on a pizza. One thing that has changed with our pizzas: When we first opened, we topped the pizzas, frankly, more sparsely than we do now. We found that our customers preferred a little bit of a heavier, almost American hand over an Italian hand.

Ruth Gresser: Pizzeria Paradiso — Photo: Todd Franson

MWWhat else have you learned over the years?

GRESSER: People like pepperoni.

MWBut you must have known that.

GRESSER: I knew it, but it took probably 20-plus years to put a pizza with pepperoni on the menu. We had pepperoni on the toppings list, because we are in America. But because we were modeling ourselves more on an Italian pizza style, we didn’t list a pizza with pepperoni. And then at some point, I just finally said, “You know what? Let’s just make it.”

MWNow that there are many other quality pizzerias around, how do you ensure your restaurants — and your pizzas — stand out?

GRESSER: I have to say that I like our pizza best. It’s my favorite pizza — which is good, because it’s my pizza, right? I talk about my pizza as a country bread. First is the crust — that’s the key. And the crust that I prefer is this kind of chewy, a little bit crunchy, and very airy. I also like it with a nice amount of color and char. So I like this style of pizza better than the VPN, the traditional Neapolitan certified style — because I prefer this kind of crust to the softer, more tender and chewy crust. Personally, I like very simple pizzas. My favorite pizza is tomato and buffalo mozzarella, a little bit of oregano, and then a piece of prosciutto di Parma after it comes out of the oven.

We’re the originator in the area, so the things that come together here that I think have led to our success is having a very approachable and enjoyable style of pizza, as I see it, and then having the beer program in addition to that. And then having the quality of service and the community feel. So I feel like we hit everything, and that makes us stand out. And one of the things that I hear year after year is that our standards are maintained. That’s what my job is these days, to make sure that we keep showing our customers what we do best every time they come.

I don’t want these restaurants to lose the community feeling among the staff, because that’s the kind of environment that I want to work in, [and] it’s related to our customers, who become part of our community. And that’s really been important to our success, that our customers walk in the door and feel something different here than they might in other places.

MWYou try to make it feel like a community, or even a surrogate family to some extent?

GRESSER: Yeah. Early in the Dupont days, one of my staff members started calling me Momma Ruth. I knew when I was 10 years old that I didn’t want kids.

MW: Do you mind being called Momma Ruth?

GRESSER: I actually love it. At that point, I was the same age, pretty much, as “my kids.” And now I’m almost their grandmother’s age, which is an interesting transition also. The fact that that’s kind of how it feels here is important.

MW: The local food scene overall has grown and changed dramatically over the past few decades. What strikes you about the industry and what’s on offer today?

GRESSER: There are certainly more options today, and that’s a great thing. We might be getting to the point where there are too many — if for no other reason than there has to be a critical mass in order for a restaurant to last more than a year or two, or three.

The thing that is probably the most striking to me is that when I entered the restaurant business, it was about making food. And now 30, 40 years later, it’s more about entertainment than it is about food — food is an element in the entertainment. So that makes me a little sad, frankly.

MW: Hence, the video games.

GRESSER: The video games, yeah, because people want more than just food when they go out to eat now. We do things that fit into who we are and how people know us — people want to relate to their restaurants more than just as a source of food and nourishment. People used to gather at other people’s homes, and that moved to gathering in public spaces, which were restaurants around food — it was still around the table, but taken into a public space. And then the next step is this idea that the space provides more and is more of a community center. Maybe Starbucks had something to do with it — you go and have coffee, and they have Internet, so it becomes your office. I don’t know. I’m not a sociologist. But it is absolutely something that I recognize as the provider of these spaces.

We just did a beer festival in the park on King Street. And I’m not an event producer — my background is food and cooking and running a business.

Pizzeria Paradiso — Photo: Todd Franson

MWDoes Paradiso have an events director?

GRESSER: We actually just created the position. Everything before was me, primarily, working with the beer director, because most of our stuff has been focused around beer. We started doing events with beer dinners when we first opened the Birreria space in Georgetown. But in June, one of our managers moved into an operations and events role.

And we recently purchased a mobile pizza oven, it’s on a trailer so we can take it to different places. We’ve had about five or six events with it. We did a beer festival in Hyattsville, so that was the inaugural event. We’ve been at the Atlas Brew Works, and we’re going to be there again in September. We’re going to be at Port City. We’re talking about taking it to Snallygaster. And we’ve done some private events with it. So we can do catering, festivals, or private catering events.

That’s why we created the position — to see where we can take the oven. Paradiso On the Road, maybe that’s what we should dub it. Or Pizzeria Paradiso on Wheels?

MWThe local LGBTQ scene has also expanded and changed dramatically since the late-1980s when you settled here.

GRESSER: I have a funny story about when I first moved to D.C., either in ’86, or ’87. I remember wondering: “Where’s the gay community?” Because it was really closeted then. There were a lot of gay publications that had people’s first names and the first initial of their last name. And I mean, to be in the government and be gay, that was a scary proposition.

I was walking to work one day, down Connecticut Avenue, just south of Dupont Circle. And a bus goes by, and this person leans out the side of the bus and calls me a faggot. And I was like, “Oh, thank God.” Even though they got it wrong, at least I’m still gay, and I’m still presenting as gay in this environment, in this cement city, where I didn’t know where the gay community is. I thought, “Thank God, I’m still gay.”

But I love D.C., I love it. It’s been a wonderful place to spend my life, frankly — a very comfortable place. The food and restaurant world has always been filled with the fringes, so it was a very comfortable [setting]. Restaurants have always been a place where people could be who they are. And so, it was very acceptable to be gay. Now yes, you do have the prejudice and all that, but still, you could be out. It might expose you to harassment, but you could be out still.

And as a lesbian in San Francisco, it was very easy to be out. And so I was able to come into my own, in a career that had a place for me, that allowed me to be who I was. And that was true here in D.C. for me as well. I wasn’t in the government, I didn’t have to be in the closet. It was easy to be an out lesbian in the restaurant industry in D.C.

MWAnd hopefully now it’s easier for a lot more people to feel and live that way as well.

GRESSER: I would hope so. I do think it is easier. It’s less foreign, so yeah.

Pizzeria Paradiso locations are in Georgetown at 3282 M St. NW (202-337-1245), Dupont Circle at 2003 P St. NW (202-223-1245), Old Town at 124 King St., Alexandria (703-837-1245), Hyattsville at 4800 Rhode Island Ave. (240-467-310), and Spring Valley at 4850 Massachusetts Ave. NW (202-885-9101).

For more on the “United States of Pizza” promotion, including the featured state and pizza of the week, visit www.eatyourpizza.com. Or follow @eatyourpizza on Twitter.

Ruth Gresser’s Kitchen Workshop-Pizza: Hands-on Cooking Lessons for Making Amazing Pizza at Home is available at www.amazon.com.

Doug Rule covers the arts, theater, music, food, nightlife and culture as contributing editor for Metro Weekly.

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