If you’ve never had the pleasure of eating food cooked by a James Beard Award-nominated chef, chances are you wouldn’t expect your first experience to come from a neighborhood pizza joint in a Gaithersburg strip mall. But what’s happening inside Inferno Pizzeria’s suburban storefront is far from ordinary.
This is Tony Conte’s place, where the 46-year-old former head chef of the multi-starred Oval Room, located near the White House, hand-makes no fewer than 140 certifiably authentic Neapolitan-style pizzas five nights a week, serving them to a steady stream of customers in a laid-back 40-seat space. He then spends an hour after close making the dough, the restaurant’s one-of-a-kind flour included, for the next evening. No refrigeration. No multiple batches. “Neither of those make any sense to me,” says Conte, a self-described perfectionist, even if that means turning customers away if capacity is reached. There’s a reason Inferno’s hours are Wednesday to Sunday, 5 p.m.—“until the dough runs out.”
In 2015, seeking a departure from the fine-dining world, Conte decided to take on this new challenge. It’s part homage to his heritage (his father and grandparents hail from Pontelatone, north of Naples, in Italy), part practicality (he lives with his wife and two children two miles away), and primarily a passion project. (He got his start in the restaurant business in high school, making New York-style pizzas in Hamden, Connecticut.)
We don’t normally review restaurants in Gaithersburg, but all we can say is, make the hour drive southwest and you’ll get it. This year, Conte earned a distinction that all chefs covet—he was nominated for his profession’s highest individual honor—for making mostly $10 to $13 pizzas, no less. Yes, they are that good. The thin, light, crispy-bottomed pie is a true elevation of the pizza form. Marinara, smoked prosciutto and black truffle are among six choices on the menu, and locals know to add organic egg topping to any pizza they order.
On a recent Friday night, our party of two sat at the six-person counter. On Saturdays, this area is used for special tasting parties, and it overlooks the small open-concept kitchen, where Conte takes 45 seconds to build each 11-inch artisanal pizza, and where his assistant fires the pies in a wood-burning tiled oven at about 900 degrees for as long as the nearby large plastic containers still have risen dough in them.
We started with a healthy sampling of flavorful and seasonal, locally sourced appetizers—roasted cauliflower, a beet salad, and burrata—while drinking Brookville IPAs and white wine, and we ended with an equally fantastic dessert. (We’re still talking about the house-made ricotta cheesecake and affogato.)
In between was the main event: My margherita pizza bore a huge, trademark Neapolitan air-bubble blister. The kid in me couldn’t help but poke at it as I eyed a piece of the pie that offered a healthy mix of San Marzano tomatoes, Fior Di Latte mozzarella, olive oil, and basil. With its beautifully crunchy dough and satisfyingly fresh toppings, it begged for another bite, and maybe another order.
“I’ve been known to eat two of them myself,” Conte told me. I’ve been to pizza heaven, and its name is Inferno.
›› Inferno Pizza 12207 Darnestown Rd., Gaithersburg, 301-963-0115. Wed.-Sun. 5 p.m.-9 p.m.; appetizers: $6-13; pizzas: $10-18.