Friday, March 12, 2010

When Campus Food Just Won’t Cut It

It's easy to miss Pete's New Haven Style Apizza (pronounced, as the menu will tell you, "ah-beets"). Located on the ground floor of a shiny new apartment complex in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, DC, the twenty-foot high glass doors look like an entrance for a law firm or high-end cosmetics shop, not a pizza joint. A small clapboard sign advertises Pete's lunch specials, and directs travelers to take a left turn out of the Metrorail station just twenty-five feet away to enjoy two slices of cheese pizza for the bargain price of $5.99.

Just five years ago, Columbia Heights would have been an unlikely location for an upscale pizza restaurant. The neighborhood, at the intersection of 14th and Irving streets in north DC, had long been the location of low-income apartments and high crime. However, an urban development company decided that Columbia Heights would be a prime location for a gigantic big-box retail complex called DC USA--thus starting the gentrification of the area. As soon as the Target, Best Buy, and other stores opened within DC USA, commuters from across the city flocked to the new complex, overwhelming the neighborhood's previously underutilized Metrorail station and causing traffic jams up and down 14th Street. Before long, new apartment complexes were being built, and Columbia Heights (or at least three blocks of it) was suddenly Northwest DC's hottest community.

Columbia Heights' gentrification is somewhat unsettling. Take the H4 bus towards Brookland station and you'll see what I mean: you'll pass through the upper-middle class area of Cleveland Park, and though the Salvadorean community of Mount Pleasant, with its bodegas and carry-out restaurants. Suddenly, for several blocks, the brick and concrete changes to the glass and metal of new urban construction. The homeless seem equally confused by this shift, begging for quarters at the top of the Metrorail station, shoppers rushing this way and that. And in the midst of this confusion, so sits Pete's New Haven Style Apizza like a Chuck E. Cheese in the middle of the Sahara.

Urban planning aside, Pete's serves up some of the best pizza and sandwiches in DC. A tiny restaurant with maybe thirty-five seats, Pete's sells pizzas by the slice for the reasonable sum of $3 or so, and full pizzas that can reach upwards of $30. It's a popular spot for young professionals on weekends, and it's often tough to find a seat. Pete's is a neighborhood pizza joint that would feel more at home downtown than it would in Columbia Heights, but I'm happy to take advantage of it's location for a "Little Pete" panino sandwich.

I first ordered the "Little Pete" on a Thursday afternoon in October. Exhausted by class, I wanted something tasty--not the soggy pizza or flavorless dishes available at my campus dining hall. I had been to Pete's once before, and had ordered some serviceable pizza that didn't quite fill me up for the $3 per slice I had paid. Almost all reviews of Pete's, however, had mentioned the panini, so upon exiting the bus at 14th and Irving, I decided to order the "Little Pete" for the reasonable sum of $8.80, tax included.

The "Little Pete" marries fried Italian eggplant, a sundried tomato pesto, broccoli rabe, and Rossellino cheese pressed into two gloriously thick slices of garlicky bread. It's served with a side salad of lettuce and dressing--which, when warmed by the sandwich, creates an interesting diversion from the main event. With my first bite, I was hooked...this was the sandwich I had been looking for! It was cheap, filling, delicious, and a welcome break from delivery or on-campus food. "I just ate my best food item of the semester," I later posted on Facebook.

Whenever I crave a feel-good meal, I still head over to Pete's Apizza in the wonderfully confusing neighborhood of Columbia Heights. It's not perfect: often too crowded and priced a little above average. Yet the "Little Pete" is worth it, and it may stick with me as one of my best food memories from my college years.

Mike W.

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