Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Oro Pomodoro: Pizza plus on Rockville's Square

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Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette
Pizza Margherita (tomato, mozzarella and fresh basil) is reportedly among customer favorites at Oro Pomodoro in Rockville.

Rockville Town Square

33A Maryland Ave., Rockville

301-251-1111, fax 301-251-1130

Reservations for groups of six or more

All major credit cards

Accessible

Carry out

A respected Washington restaurateur and a Neapolitan cheese maker joined hands to open an upscale pizzeria in Rockville Town Square in May. The 145-seat Oro Pomodoro ("golden tomato") brings together Savino Recine (Primi Piatti, Provence, Coco Loco and Finemundo) and Biagio Cepollaro. Their mission is to make people understand the Italian passion for food.

"It's not just business. We care about customers and care about food," Cepollaro says.

Pizzas, 19 in all, are the stars here. They are not cracker-crisp like some chains' fare, but "exactly like the pizza eaten in Napoli" — except the water in the U.S. has too much chlorine, he says. Early diners complained about the "soggy" crust. After fine-tuning the oven and educating customers to what Neapolitan pizza is, he says complaints have stopped.

Enzo Esposito, Oro Pomodoro's original pizza maker, had to return to Italy. His replacement, Rosario Granini, at 20, is one of Italy's youngest pizza chefs. He makes the dough twice a day and refrigerates it for six to eight hours. Like people, it needs to rest. The wood-burning oven with its rotating base can evenly bake up to 10 12-inch pizzas at once.

These pizzas are easy to love with their chewy crusts, thin in the center and radiating to a thick bubbly edge. The refreshing namesake pizza has fresh yellow tomato, mozzarella, goat cheese and pesto, while the al tartufo is redolent of the woods with mixed mushrooms, smoked mozzarella, fontina and truffle essence.

Pizza Margherita (tomato, mozzarella and fresh basil) is the most popular, Cepollaro says. Created by Raffaele Esposito, pizza chef to the king and an ancestor of Oro Pomodoro's original pizza maker, in the colors of the Italian flag, it was a favorite of its namesake Queen Margherita. The next most popular is Margherita doc (made with buffalo mozzarella). In third place is capricciosa (tomato, mushrooms, artichokes, black olives, mozzarella, basil and cooked ham).

"Americans love to put [on] a lot of toppings," Cepollaro says.

He estimates he has sold 7,000 Margheritas, 3,000 docs and 1,000 capricciosas in two months. To keep up with the demand, mozzarella is delivered from Naples every three days.

Oro Pomodoro is kid-friendly, even though it has no children's menu. Appetizers like croquette di spinaci (potato and spinach croquettes), arancini (saffroned rice balls stuffed with mozzarella) and fried calamari. make fine, bite-sized stand-ins. All are served with homemade tomato sauce and truffle-accented aioli. And, of course, there's polpette (meatballs in tomato sauce). Pastas are available in half-portions, a boon to parents — and folks who want to try more than one kind.

Calamarata alla Don Franco (ring-shaped pasta, hence the squid-like name, with mixed seafood, cherry tomatoes, garlic and parsley) is one of the most popular of the 10 pastas, we're told. We see why, even when fettuccine is substituted for the O-rings. The seafood is perfectly fresh, and the sauce, light-handed. Penne alla Mario e Maria, a happy, zesty marriage of pasta, sun-dried tomatoes and goat cheese, is also welcome.

Seafood salad comes as a surprise. The melange of fresh sea scallops, shrimp, calamari, octopus, tiny mussels, black olives, fresh basil chiffonade, celery slivers and red onions is just as described on the menu, but we expected some greens as well.

The vegetali misti (roasted veggies with olive oil) hit the spot. The menu boasts half a dozen panini, at lunch only, and a mozzarella bar with cheese and food pairings.

Desserts ($7.95) contain the usual (tirami su, cannoli and profitteroli) and the unusual, for example, straccetti, finger-length pieces of fried dough with Nutella filling, ideal for four to share.

You can enjoy a glass of wine at the white marble bar extending the length of the dining room. Table and banquette seating overlook the open kitchen and 10-foot screen. Patrons at outdoor tables have a front seat for the City of Rockville's free entertainment on the square.

Oro Pomodoro is improving its wine list, which is 90 percent Italian and features 23 reds and 10 whites ($29-$115) and five reds and two whites by the glass ($6.50-$7.50).

Service at times isn't up to the food. A few staffers could be more alert and informed.

Still, whether dining, listening or people-watching, Oro Pomodoro provides a pleasant diversion.