A pizza bistro in Chinatown that deserves rave reviews

This unique restaurant probably doesn’t need any more “you simply have to try this place” recommendations because it has had several already in the brief time it has been open, including a rave review from the city’s most influential restaurant critic, The Washington Post’s Tom Sietsema.

But I’ll give it one anyway because I like its raffish charm, the pedigree of its chef and founding partners and its improbable location in the heart of Chinatown, just down the block from the best, most authentic Texas barbecue joint this side of the Rio Grande — Capital Q.

Matchbox bills itself as a pizza bistro, the first of its kind in Washington. Its specialty is “New York-style” brick-oven pizza, which means crispy, thin-crust pizza baked in a wood-fired oven that can reach 900 degrees. Ironically, all four founding partners — Perry Smith, Andrew Kim and brothers Ty and Mark Neal— made their names in the restaurant business in Chicago, which prides itself on an entirely different type of pizza that no real New Yorker would touch.

patrick g. ryan
Chef Graig Glufling, who has worked for some of Washington’s top chefs, included mini-burgers on Matchbox’s pizza-heavy menu.

Matchbox is located in a funky, 1920s-era long, narrow building with an exposed-brick interior where homeless people once congregated. The restaurant seats 75 people on three levels, with a wooden bar and inferno-like pizza oven and kitchen on the street level. It takes its name from its matchbox shape as well as the oak veneer tables, which are inlaid with actual matchbooks from Smith’s collection. (I told him I’d bring him some of mine, collected all over the world, because they’re gathering dust in my attic.)

Pizza is the name of the game here, but Chef Graig Glufling — they call him “Double G” — ranges far afield from the pizza oven. Only 30, he learned to cook while working for some of Washington’s top chefs (Jeff Bubin at Vidalia, Martin Saylor at Butterfield 9, David Craig at the Tabard Inn and Morou at Signatures).

A Boston native who grew up in Dale City and Manassas, Va., Glufling has put together an imaginative menu that includes offerings any of his former bosses would be proud to serve.

A standout among the five appetizers is the bite-size Angus beef miniburger, served on a toasted brioche roll. You can order three, six or nine of them for $6, $9 or $12, but I don’t know how anyone, other than a Redskins tackle, could finish nine of these babies. However, a young man of ordinary size at the next table polished off six when I was there.

Three are a meal, especially with the accompanying light-as-a-feather onion straws that are the best I’ve ever tasted. Suffice it to say, the burgers are plump, juicy and delicious. There’s also a 10-ounce bistro burger ($10), stuffed with gorgonzola cheese, on the sandwich menu.

I sampled three of the seven entrees, including the crispy rockfish, served atop potato and pancetta hash with tiny rock shrimp ($18); grilled salmon with green lentils, spinach, shallots and citrus sauce ($17); and a lusty rigatoni, accompanied by pancetta, peas, wild mushrooms and parmesan sun-dried-tomato cream ($13). The first two were outstanding, but the citrus sauce lent an odd sweetness to the salmon.

The rigatoni is particularly impressive. Glufling said it was inspired by a dish that one of the owners ate at Tarantino’s, a restaurant on Armitage Street in Chicago.
“He described how he remembered it. I had no idea what it was except that it had peas and mushrooms and pancetta, so I tinkered with it until I got it like he remembered it.”

There are five salads as well, priced differently for lunch and dinner, as are the pizzas. The grilled-pepper-crusted tuna and romaine salad ($8-$13) is richly adorned with grilled oranges and toasted pine nuts in a citrus black-pepper vinaigrette, and the arugula, pear and goat cheese salad ($7-$11) is served with apricot reduction, toasted croutons, walnuts and walnut vinaigrette. I highly recommend both.

Still, when you come down to it, this is a pizza joint — er, bistro — and you can’t go wrong with any of the 10 named offerings, or the “create your own” pizzas, which come in six- and eight-slice sizes priced at $9 and $14, respectively, with a choice of 10 different cheese, herb and tomato-sauce toppings at 50 cents each.

713 H St. N.W.; (202) 289-4441
Hours: Open for lunch and dinner Mon.-Thurs., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; pizza only, Mon.-Sat. until midnight. Closed Sun. Metro: Gallery Place/Chinatown. Reservations accepted only for parties of six or more.
Prices: Moderate: appetizers/salads/sandwiches, $5-$13; entrees, $13-$21; pizzas $10-$17.

Rating: 3 Domes

Food: 8 Ambiance: 6
Service: 7 Price/Value: 7

Ratings: Based on one-to-10 scale for food, service, ambiance and price/value; up to five domes based on reviewer’s judgment.

You won’t find a better pizza anywhere in D.C. than the Matchbox Meat, loaded with pepperoni, Italian sausage, prosciutto, tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella ($12-$17). I and two guests at lunch also liked the Q Special, named in honor of Capital Q and topped with grilled marinated chicken, portobello mushrooms and roasted red peppers, tomato sauce and mozzarella ($12-$17).

I was feeling adventurous at lunch one day and ordered the Fire & Smoke, topped with roasted red peppers, sweet onions, chipotle tomato sauce, smoked Gouda and fresh basil ($11-$16). My two guests, both young women and reporters for The Hill, agreed with me that it was a little too hot and exotic for our tastes.

For vegetarians, there’s the Veggie with saut