Naples Pizza by Way of Maryland
Former Jean Georges New York chef Tony Conte has his eye on the pie
Tony Conte—chef-owner of Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana in Darnestown, Maryland—has built a reputation for sourcing almost all of his ingredients locally. He’s happy to get in his car and head out to farms in nearby Frederick County to find the freshest produce available.
With the culinary pedigree that includes past stints as executive chef at Washington’s multi-starred Oval Room, and as executive sous chef at the acclaimed Jean Georges in New York, Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana is unexpectedly low-key. Perhaps that’s because Conte’s affinity for Old School cooking methods and traditions run deep: his father and grandparents emigrated from a small town near Naples. Taking an artisanal approach, Conte brings to Maryland its own source for authentic Neopolitan pizza—his fast-casual restaurant has even been granted the designation of Vera Pizza Napoletana [VPN] by the international association that upholds the strict traditions of Naples.
Bringing fine-dining standards to his 39-seat pizzeria, Conte keeps the menu strictly seasonal and based on the local agriculture. A custom-tiled wood-burning oven, handcrafted pottery dishware, and interior surfaces of reclaimed oak and walnut carry Inferno’s craftsmanship beyond the menu. We spoke with the chef about authenticity, farm sourcing, and the secret tomato in his sauce.
World Tomato Society: What makes your pizza different from others in the area?
Tony Conte: We are the only one in the area that is doing Naples-style pizza. When I set out to do this project, we were looking for our own identity of what we thought this pizza would look like. The process is still evolving, but we are aiming for something that is very light, crispy but not hard, and little on the puffy side. To achieve that we don’t use a single flour but a blend of flours from the same mill in Northern Italy.
WTS: Which farms do you work with?
TC: In the past year-and-a-half, we have come across a plethora of different farmers doing dairy, animals, whatever you need. In the summer, there is an orchard about five minutes from the restaurant where we get our cherry tomatoes, Carolina Gold, beefsteak tomatoes, and heirlooms. It’s called Lewis Orchards, in Poolesville.
WTS: Can you reveal where you get your tomatoes?
TC: Ironically, our tomato of choice is not an Italian one; it comes from Chris Zucco’s in Phoenix—the Bianco di Napoli—for the sauce on the pizza.
WTS: What is your secret for making your tomato sauce so delicious?
TC: Nothing secret about it. Its tomatoes milled in salt. That’s all there is too it. Great ingredients produce a great product. The less you do the better. More and more I find this to be truer and truer year in and year out when you get to the source of great things. You have farmers that are growing really great things and working their land—they are all hands on. Same with the orchards as well. Our goal is to be as local as we can.
WTS: If you weren’t making pizza, what else would you do with a tomato?
TC: I’d make a sorbet. Puree tomatoes with water, stabilizer, glucose, and liquid sugar in an ice cream maker from Sur La Table or Williams and Sonoma. You could step it up by adding jalapeño to give it a little heat if it’s on the sweeter side. You could also add basil, mint, verbena, or any number of things. It probably wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a few cherry tomatoes, with a little bit of sugar on them, and dry them in the oven to create a topping, maybe mixed with some corn flakes. We have some great ideas coming, I should write this stuff down!