- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza, a new eatery a stone’s throw from Washington’s MCI Center, labels itself an “upscale pizzeria,” with an authentic Italian touch. But it’s more than that. Management here is extremely ingredient-conscious, meaning only the best will do.

We began with crispy calamari with a spicy tomato dipping sauce, which was a very pleasant beginning. The squid is only lightly battered and fried, instead of the sometimes oil-drenched variety. The dipping sauce adds a very tasty touch.

Another nice starter is the selection of cured meats and cheeses drizzled in olive oil. The oval platter is lined with thin slices of excellent salami and prosciutto — again only the highest quality makes it onto the plate. The cheeses include melt-in-your-mouth mozzarella, smoked mozzarella and savory chunks of Parmesan.

We ordered a special: shrimp and asparagus salad with vine ripe tomatoes. This was not the perfect dish to share, but, irresistible as it was, everyone around the table sampled. This was a perfect union of flavors.

True to its aspiration of being an Italian pizzeria, the appetizers are small and the thin-crust pizza, of the one-per-person ilk. But the flavors and pizza crust are peerless and you may just have to order more.

A favorite among the pizzas is the soppressata, which features, besides the salami, shaved fennel, roasted peppers, sliced tomatoes and Parmesan. This, and the other pizzas we tried, were definitely less olive-oil infused than counterparts in Italy. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — they’re easier to pick up and eat by the wedge and of course less caloric.

The quattro formaggi pizza features a flavor explosion of fresh mozzarella, Gorgonzola, fontina and cacio.

The bosco pizza includes wild mushrooms, roasted garlic puree, tomatoes and fresh thyme. Again, only the freshest ingredients will do. The mushrooms and tomatoes aren’t just garnish, they add rich flavor.

We also tried the classic pizza Margherita — tomato, buffalo mozzarella, olive oil and sea salt, and chose as extra toppings sausage and pepperoni. Making up your own combination is a popular option.

The special of the evening was a leek, tomato, shiitake mushrooms, pancetta and goat cheese pizza, which became our favorite — a nice mesh of flavors.

All desserts are made in-house. The tiramisu, that smooth and creamy delicacy that’s hard to get enough of, was made with just the right amount of dessert wine, not all liquored up, which is sometimes the case.

Lemon bars with fresh berries and whipped cream is another rich and flavorful dessert.

The ice-creams are absolutely delicious. The strawberry sorbet is some of the best and the vanilla ice cream is not far behind.

The special that day was a summer fruit (raspberry) tartlet with homemade vanilla ice-cream. The raspberries were sweet and super-flavorful contrasted nicely against the not-so-sweet pastry shell.

The restaurant serves several Italian beers, including Moretti, and after dinner, for those so inclined, there is grappa. The bar, as it should be, is also well-equipped to serve any coffee drink a guest might desire.

Ambience-wise, Ella’s (the name of owner Ed Hanson’s daughter) offers a little of everything. It can be a sports bar if you choose to sit at the well-appointed liquor counter, in front of the plasma screen that shows football and sports highlights. It can be a show and tell, if guests seat themselves in front of the wood-fired oven and the large Imperial stove, which looks like it could handle a lot more than the 80 people the restaurant now can hold. Or it can be a people-watching spot at the front of the restaurant on Ninth Street.

This eclectic atmosphere is perfect for the location. Guests may be making a quick stop before or after a game at the MCI Center or a play at Ford’s Theatre or maybe an exhibit at the new Washington Convention Center.

But the restaurant also has enough to offer to make it a full evening itself.

The interior walls are in bright colors, and there is modern art, including metal non-figurative sculptures. It’s not cozy, but very nice.

The service is unobtrusive, but accommodating, leaving nothing to be desired.

Ella’s is only three weeks old, but it hits the spot in all right places. Management is still tweaking opening hours and menu choices, but as long as the best of ingredients and great preparation continue to dominate the menu it is well worth a visit.

RESTAURANT: Ella’s Wood Fired Pizza, 901 F St. NW; 202/638-3434.

HOURS: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Saturday

PRICES: Starters $4.95 to $5.95; main courses $7.95 to $11.95 (additional toppings are $1 and up); desserts $3.25 to $4.50

CREDIT CARDS: All major cards

PARKING: Street parking

ACCESS: Wheelchair accessible

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