Despite the dozens of pizza orders it handles a day, Matchbox is not a pizzeria. Rather, the restaurant considers itself a bistro that just so happens to have a brick oven perfect for baking up blistered and crispy pizzas with fresh ingredients.
Located not far from Verizon Center on H Street, the original Matchbox is housed on three floors of a former Chinese grocery store. There are also sites in the Capitol Hill neighborhood and in Rockville, Md. All three restaurants offer the same menu, which combines elegant bistro fare with more down-home, simple dishes.
In the Chinatown restaurant, diners can sit at the bar and choose from a wide beer selection, ranging from local to Belgian drafts, or they can elect to eat at one of the tables. The smell from the burning oven permeates the restaurant, luring patrons’ eyes towards the pizza section almost immediately after receiving the menu.
Though tempted on a recent visit to ask for a vegetarian version of the prosciutto and Mission Black fig pizza with gorgonzola, roasted garlic and honey, I decided on the oven-dried tomato and fresh mozzarella pizza. Unlike a traditional pizza sauce, the pie came with a chunky tomato base with a zesty bite. Hints of red pepper, garlic and sea salt infused the sauce, a nice complement to the creamy puddles of mozzarella that dotted the pie. Since sliced mozzarella has high moisture content, cheese often weighs down a pizza. Matchbox avoids this problem by using just the right amount of cheese to retain the crust’s crisp texture.
Matchbox knows what it’s doing in the crust department. Baked in a 900-degree brick oven, all of Matchbox’s pizzas are based on a thinly spread dough. The high temperatures bake the pies in a matter of minutes, giving them a crispy texture. Although the heat can produce black spots on the bottom and edges of the crust, the char is not a spot to avoid but rather a bite that elevates the pizza’s smoky flavors.
As I enjoyed the oven-roasted twist on a classic Margherita pizza, my friends also devoured their selections. The chicken pesto pizza arrived at the table a beauty in green, composed of homemade pesto sauce, mozzarella and herb-roasted chicken. While pesto is traditionally an oil-based sauce, making it feel lighter than a cream-based sauce, its combination with the cheese made for a rather rich topping. However, like my pizza, the cheese did not overwhelm and allowed the flavors of the herbs in both the chicken and the pesto to shine through.
Spicy homemade meatballs topped the third pizza served at our table. Echoing the flavors in the tomato sauce, notes of oregano and red pepper elevated the rich taste of the meatballs, while the garlic puree added sweetness. Once again, it beautifully concluded with the perfect amount of mozzarella. Since most things are better with bacon, the only thing that could have made the pie better was more of the crispy bacon.
In addition to pizza, Matchbox is known for its sliders. Diners can order three, six or nine, and no visit to the restaurant is complete without eating at least one handcrafted angus beef slider. The mini burgers come on a toasted brioche roll with a mountain of crispy onion straws. Gouda, mozzarella or gorgonzola can be melted onto the burgers, but the cheese almost distracts.
Matchbox’s pizzas and sliders might be what it’s best known for, but other dishes are worth trying. The salmon is seared and served on a creamy bed of cheddar grits with bacon-wrapped green beans, and the beef short ribs are braised to accompany wasabi mashed potatoes, fried brussel sprouts and a jus reduction. Even the fish and chips becomes fancy with panko-crusted haddock and Yukon gold potato wedges.
The spacious dining room, comfortable atmosphere and reasonable prices make the food at Matchbox worthy of a taste.